To date, more than 4,500 people have contracted 2019-nCoV, the new coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan, China and has spread to numerous countries around the world. The first death from the severe viral respiratory disease was announced January 11, and of those infected 100 more have died since.
Although 2019-nCoV isn’t the first disease of its kind, the world as we know it in 2020 is not the same as it was in 2002 or 2012, when the previous two coronavirus outbreaks, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), made their mark.
The World Health Organization may not have declared a state of public health emergency just yet, but it’s critical moments like these when the changing nature of twenty first century health systems comes into sharp relief. Technology, geopolitics, socioeconomic conditions—these colliding spheres of influence have always impacted human health, and they will no doubt shape the global response to 2019-nCoV.
SARS, the foremost of the coronavirus epidemics, originated in southern China in November 2002. By the time it was declared contained in July 2003, the number of documented cases exceeded 8,000; the number of fatalities, over 800. Epidemiologists deemed the Chinese horseshoe bat the most likely reservoir of the disease, which was next contracted by the palm civets bought and sold in exotic markets across Guangdong Province. Traders who handled infected civets became the first human hosts of the coronavirus—and from there, it quickly spread person to person throughout China. Although cases of SARS were reported in countries near, like Vietnam and Singapore, and far, like Canada, nearly 90 percent occurred in China and Hong Kong.
The pneumonia like symptoms common to most cases of SARS remained consistent with those of the next lethal coronavirus to emerge: MERS, which was thought to be transmitted from bats to camels to humans. Beginning in Saudi Arabia in fall 2012, the disease infected less people than SARS—about 2,500, to be exact—but claimed a proportionately larger number of lives across the Arabian Peninsula. (The mortality rate of MERS was triple that of SARS.) MERS reached 26 countries, including a notable 2015 outbreak in South Korea that killed dozens, before slowing down indefinitely.
A new case of SARS hasn’t been reported since 2004, and MERS has been on the decline since 2016. Since only time will tell just how viral and lethal the latest coronavirus outbreak can be, most comparisons between SARS, MERS, and today’s 2019-nCoV are purely speculative. What we do know, however, is that the world is more interconnected—and its people more on the move—than ever before.
In 2018, six times as many people flew in and out of China on a daily basis than in 2012—and that’s to say nothing of the co-occurrence of 2019-nCoV with the lunar new year, a time when permanent living situations are suspended and countrywide travel surges stretch the limits of global infrastructure. Assuming the rough and tumble of itinerant travelers can be kept in check, whether infectious disease management is easier or more difficult under increasingly globalized conditions still remains to be seen.
The Chinese government, to be sure, is taking deliberate steps to avoid the mistakes of responses past, such as cooperating with the World Health Organization and deploying biosecurity systems to surveil and apprehend the spread of 2019-nCoV. But it would do everyone some good, no matter their location or their travel plans, to exercise vigilance and practice basic hygiene.
For me, that means taking precautions like avoiding crowds. Washing my hands often with soap. Avoiding face touching, a bad habit that occurs on average a few times each hour and accumulates over the course of a day. Wearing gloves and swiping surfaces with sterile cleaning wipes when taking public transport. Using nasal spray or a bit of petroleum jelly to maintain resistance to infection while traveling. Until trusted health institutions deliver their verdicts on what comes next, we’ll have to rely on small protective measures like these for peace of mind.