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Precautions, not panic in the wake of the coronavirus

University of Toronto research showing 35 to 70 per cent of Canadians could contract the disease notwithstanding, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has yet to spread dramatically in this country.

As of midweek, there were 65 confirmed cases, along with another dozen or two suspected cases. Of those, one person has died; 13 per cent of the cases have involved hospitalization. Some 82 per cent of those made ill by the disease are over the age of 40.

Testing has been limited, however, so there’s a high likelihood of cases that have yet to be identified, along with those who have the virus but not any symptoms.

The Canadian numbers appear to be in line with research that shows 80 per cent of cases in China, the epicenter of the outbreak, are mild.

The number of cases is growing worldwide, with the “pandemic” label just now being bandied about.

What is clear, however, is that much of the world was unprepared for the latest outbreak, though disease epidemics have long been considered among the likeliest of worst-case scenario emergencies. It would seem we’ve learned little from fairly recent examples of the havoc caused by the likes of swine and avian flus, not to mention two other coronaviruses, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

As with COVID-19, both SARS and MERS are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. The “novel” in this version of the coronavirus stems from its new strain, not that it’s the first time we’ve seen such a disease.

Previous zoonotic flu outbreaks have subsided before becoming full-fledged pandemics, but we panicked nonetheless. The same is true today, at least where stocking up on supplies is concerned: we’re buying up masks – despite the fact they’re largely ineffective, improperly used and should be left for those who really need them – and items such as toilet paper and energy drinks, none of which make any sense.

What we’re not doing enough of is taking the same kind of precautions that apply to th seasonal flu: staying home when sick, frequent hand-washing and covering mouths and noses when sneezing/coughing. We’re not shaking hands as often, and some people are a little more leery of large gatherings. The social impacts are understandable, but don’t necessarily fit the scale of the outbreak, which has been relatively mild. If you think you’ve got the flu, or are experiencing flu symptoms, it’s certainly advisable to stay out of circulation, but there’s no call for preemptive hibernation just yet.

That said, fear of what could happen has driven federal and provincial health officials to spring into action, if perhaps a little slowly. While there’s no need to panic, authorities do need to take all the necessary precautions, ready to act if the illness becomes more prevalent.

As with the common flu, the focus is on those most at risk: pregnant women, adults with chronic conditions and people living in remote places. Whereas common flus usually pose larger risks to the elderly and the very young, COVID-19 does appear to have a larger impact on people in the middle range and older.

A don’t-worry-be-happy attitude isn’t appropriate, but if there’s an upside to past outbreaks such as SARS and the swine flu, we’ve seen the reality is far less frightening than what we were able to imagine at the time. That’s not to say organizations from the World Health Organization on down shouldn’t be acting speedily and with all effort, but there’s no reason at this point for the public to panic, only to take precautions.

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