The Student
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Would Covid-19 be classified as a pandemic if Europe weren’t the epicentre?

On March 12th, the World Health Organisation sent shockwaves across the globe as they announced that the Covid-19 virus outbreak was officially a pandemic. This classification caused governments and citizens alike to spring into action and start taking serious precautions in an attempt to fight back against the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

The first reported case of Covid-19 occurred in Wuhan, China on 31st December 2019 and for a few weeks, despite ravaging through mainland China, the virus remained relatively contained, and for most of the western world, relatively unimportant. With the UK and Europe still squabbling over Brexit, and the US busy preparing themselves for the 2020 Presidential Electoral Campaigns, Covid-19 remained a dreadful, though distant, situation for the people of China with which we could briefly sympathise as we watched the daily news, but not truly comprehend.

By mid-March, the virus had spread indiscriminately throughout much of the globalised world and the epicentre shifted from China to Europe. For the first time this centurY, developed countries found themselves exposed and unprepared to face an enemy that couldn’t be paid off, negotiated with or manipulated. The fast-paced transmission, the seemingly uncontrollable escalation of the number cases of Covid-19 and the rising death tolls in wealthy countries such as Italy and Spain have provoked widespread global panic for which even the world’s best equipped health systems are unprepared.

However, are these consequences really unprecedented, or have we just not experienced them personally in the developed world? Over half a million people a year die from cholera or malaria, as both diseases are treatable but only for those who have the right medicine and equipment. As the vast majority of these cases derive from African rather than European nations, those afflicted regularly find themselves without access to medical treatment due to their health systems being far more underfunded and overwhelmed than any European system today.

The word ‘pandemic’ carries sinister and grave connotations as previous pandemics have included Spanish Influenza, which was responsible for an estimated death toll which surpassed that of the two world wars combined of around 50 million, and more recently HIV, which has caused around 40 million deaths to date. A pandemic is classified as the unprecedented global outbreak of a disease for which people do not have immunity, yet does the location of the spread of the disease affect whether it is classified as a pandemic, and therefore how seriously it is being taken?

HIV was classified as a pandemic in 1981, after the virus spreading to America and certain European countries skyrocketed global awareness. Whilst it remained widely stigmatised due to its method of transmission and preconceived ideas surrounding the fact that an overwhelming proportion of victims were homosexual, the virus certainly gained attention and caused the World Health Organisation to eventually spring into action by the mid 80s and work to fight the spread of the virus. However, once research confirmed that the spread could be prevented through a variety of methods, all of which were easily accessible to most of the developed world, the spread of the virus dropped in the developed world, alongside the global discourse. Whilst HIV no longer rampages with the ferocity that it once did, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are still struck by HIV-related deaths, partly due to a lack of resources and health care support. Over 38 million people to date have died as a result of contracting HIV and over two thirds of these deaths are people from Sub-Saharan African countries. This example helps to emphasise one underlying question: does the global level of interest and support for a pandemic depend on the location of the virus?

Whilst the severity of the Covid-19 virus should not be underestimated, especially as the consequences of the virus are as yet unknown, in comparison to many other virus’ and diseases, the death toll and infection rate of Covid-19 are relatively low. Scientists estimate that the Covid-19 infection rate (the number of people to which a Covid-19 patient is likely to pass on the virus) is between 2 and 2.5, slightly more than the common flu at between 1 and 2, but far less than other diseases such as SARS, between 2 and 4, and Ebola, between 2 and 5. Furthermore, not only is Covid-19 less contagious, but it is also less deadly, with a far lower fatality rate than any of the aforementioned viruses bar the common flu.

Not only do developing countries such as those found in Sub-Saharan Africa seem to be stigmatised in terms of attracting global attention in terms of virus and disease outbreaks, examples of similar neglect can be seen in South America and the Caribbean, such as with the Zika virus epidemic of 2014. Whilst sympathy and condolences are given freely, with moral and financial support often being given (to a point) from the rest of the world, when a virus especially affects a certain, and often marginalised, group of people it is far easier to ignore and neglect a problem. Because the consequences do not directly affect us, or the solution is readily available to us, as was often the case with Zika, Ebola, HIV and other epidemics, the situation is not classified as critical, just unfortunate.

The significance of the World Health Organisation’s classification of Covid-19 as a pandemic must not be underestimated and will have saved numerous lives by encouraging governments to spring into action and react with the required urgency of a pandemic. Many critics say that governments, particularly ours in the UK, acted too late and risked the lives of many of the most vulnerable in society. However, the measures that have been put in place are unprecedented in comparison to those taken in reaction to other viruses such as HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa. The fatality toll and predicted fatality estimates, whilst shocking and devastating, currently fall far behind those of other pandemics in their peak, many of which are preventable and curable, such as malaria and HIV.

The consequences and long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are evidently unknown and as yet cannot be accurately compared to previous pandemics and epidemics across the globe. However, we can be sure that the impacts will be devastating from an emotional, social, physical and financial point of view of entire nations, and this time we know that developed countries are susceptible too. For a country who couldn’t get through a conversation without saying the word ‘Brexit’, the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly caused a shift in public consciousness in the UK, and has brought into sharp focus the incredible struggles faced by many developing countries. Perhaps amidst the devastation and hardship of this pandemic, there will be a positive impact on Europe and the developed world whose citizens and governments might be better able empathise and support with future pandemics and epidemics across the globe, whether they are personally affected or not.

Image: via commons.wikimedia.org