Welcoming the Year of the Rat... with a pandemic?

JANUARY 26 — So another Chinese New Year has rolled in. But this year along with the fireworks, lion dances, bak kwa, pineapple tarts and angpows ― we have a new and far less welcome visitor... the Wuhan virus.

The virus has, so far, infected more than 1,000 people in China killing over 40 so far. 

As millions leave the mainland for vacations and family reunions in other parts of the world, it is certain the virus will spread.

The only questions remaining are how far it will go and how much damage it will wreak.

Of course Singapore which receives a particularly heavy load of mainland China visitors, especially at Chinese New Year, is on the front lines.

There has already been three confirmed cases on the island and it seems certain there will be more.  

If it proves to be as deadly and infectious as SARS, then we have a real problem.

A problem that will shut schools and businesses, plus damage the GDP as investments into the whole region are disrupted.

If it has a higher fatality rate than SARS, then we can only imagine the damage. 

But aside from idle speculation, the question is what should we do and what can we do?

Even if ― as is possible ― it turns out to be relatively benign with limited human to human transmission and few fatalities, there is still the matter of the next epidemic.  

The problem is that the modern world is prone to these outbreaks ― and there isn’t a whole lot we can do.

The absolute mobility many of us take for granted, coupled with increasing population densities and antibiotic resistance means we have all the ingredients for a truly deadly pandemic. 

While we see an increasing focus on man-made climate change I suspect humanity is more likely be wiped out or severely diminished, in the medium term, by a pandemic than relatively slow-moving climate change.

Of course all these things are ultimately linked. We’re just not taking very good care of the planet and therefore we aren’t taking good care of ourselves.  

Livestock around the world is pumped full of antibiotics and raised in unnatural overcrowded conditions creating the perfect breeding ground for viruses.

Eventually these viruses will cross over from cows, chickens and pigs to us.

Our demand for cheap meat (and I’m as guilty as the next person) has led to us creating the conditions for our own destruction. 

When we do face a major pandemic (let’s hope this current outbreak isn’t it) how will we move to contain it? Vaccines take time.

Antibiotics, long our best line of defence, are becoming less and less effective with no major new class of antibiotics introduced for years.

I mean in Singapore we could try to seal our borders ― as an island it might work but the damage  to our economy would be catastrophic.

On an individual level we could try sealing ourselves up in our apartments but again this won’t work forever. Eventually we’ll have to face the guys from Deliveroo.

But really it’s not a laughing matter. We have put in place the conditions for an absolute  disaster.

It is, to an extent, a matter of luck we haven’t faced a serious pandemic yet but one will almost certainly emerge. 

When it does, our governments will need to give real thought to what they will do ― and how far they are willing to go.

Today the more than seven million inhabitants of Wuhan have been effectively quarantined but what about countries where the laws simply don’t allow for the corralling of entire cities? How will our governments and populations respond?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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