Pandemic risk rising for coronavirus outbreak

A couple wearing masks for protection from the new coronavirus, attends a mass wedding ceremony of the Unification Church at Cheongshim Peace World Centre in Gapyeong, South Korea, February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Heo Ran

The world may be edging closer to a pandemic as the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak continues to spread far from its point of origin in central China.

A number of towns in northern Italy are on lockdown as more than 130 cases of Covid-19 – and three deaths – have been identified. South Korea has raised its coronavirus alert to the highest level, having recorded more than 600 cases and six deaths, many linked to a religious group.

Iran – where 8 people have died – is also on high alert, amid fears that the virus may have spread to all major cities, and two new countries – Israel and Lebanon – reported new cases according to the latest of the World Health Organisation’s daily situation reports.

So far the largest outbreak outside China occurred on the Diamond Princess cruise liner which was docked in the Japanese port of Yokohama, with over 600 cases and two deaths.

The virus was also linked to another cruise ship in Asia, the Westerdam, which had three Maltese citizens on board. All three were placed on quarantine upon their arrival to Malta, but none have shown any signs of having contracted the disease.

As from next week, all inbound passengers at the Malta International Airport, the cruise liner terminals and catamaran terminals will be screened on arrival.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom-Ghebreyesus (right)

Time to contain outbreak may be running out

China still accounts for the vast majority of cases and deaths, with over 76,000 cases and 2,300 deaths recorded across the country so far, primarily in the region of Hubei, whose capital city Wuhan is the point of origin of the outbreak.

But increasingly, new cases with no links to China are being identified, a trend described as “very worrisome” by WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom-Ghebreyesus. The WHO chief also warned that the window of opportunity to contain the outbreak was narrowing.

One possible reprieve could come with the approaching end of winter in the northern hemisphere, home to the vast majority of the world’s population. There is the possibility that warmer temperatures could limit the spread of the virus – as is the case with seasonal influenza – but it is not yet certain.

You may kiss the mask

In an effort to limit the spread of disease, many affected countries and regions have been cancelling or postponing events.

Festivities and sporting events have been cancelled in northern Italy, and schools and shops have been closed. Around 50,000 residents of 11 towns are under lockdown, with fines imposed on anyone caught leaving or entering the areas.

But the Philippine city of Bacolod took another approach as it prepared for an annual tradition – a mass wedding.

There have been three confirmed cases in the Philippine archipelago, but hundreds of patients are being kept under watch, so the city took all precautions to ensure that no tragedy ensued from what should be a happy event for 220 couples.

Every bride and groom donned surgical masks throughout the ceremony, and were asked to declare their travel history for the previous 14 days.

Similar precautions were also taken by the Unification Church in South Korea, which is well-known for regularly organising mass wedding ceremonies.