The Growing/Spreading Pandemic

The Growing/Spreading Pandemic

The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 156,000 people and left more than 5,800 dead, with thousands of new cases confirmed each day. The death toll in the United States climbed to 57, while infections neared 3,000.

Hospitals across the U.S. are working to expand bed capacity and staffing to keep from becoming overwhelmed as the caseload continues to mount.

“We have not reached our peak,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. “We will see more cases, and we will see more suffering and death.”

Millions of Americans braced for the week ahead with no school for their children for many days to come, no clue how to effectively do their jobs without child care, and a growing sense of dread about how to stay safe and sane amid the relentless spread of the coronavirus.

Tens of millions of students nationwide have been sent home from school amid a wave of closings that include all of Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, Washington state, Florida and Illinois along with big-city districts like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Some schools announced they will close for three weeks, others for up to six.

While the number of known cases in the U.S. appears to be comparatively low as of now, the figures are almost certain to spike very soon, as both testing and exposure increase. While COVID-19 has unquestionably spread further than officially known, it is poised to round the curve and spread widely across the U.S. by the end of April.

To better understand outbreaks like this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consults a network of academics and industry experts who specialize in modeling the spread of contagious diseases. One of those outside groups, the Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-technical Systems at Northeastern University, provided TIME with exclusive access to 100 of the different coronavirus scenarios it has generated in its efforts to support the CDC.

“What we’re seeing now is really just the tip of the iceberg,” says Alessandro Vespignani, the director of the Northeastern lab, who worked alongside colleagues Matteo Chinazzi and Ana Pastore y Piontti on this research. “That’s the problem of not doing extensive testing. Because testing has been limited here, I would be inclined toward the worst case scenarios.”

Away from the headlines: While the main virus outbreaks in recent years included Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), H1N1 influenza pandemic, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, Zika, Nipah virus, cholera, yellow fever and Lassa fever, they are by no means the only contagions. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), between 1980 and 2013, there were 12,012 outbreaks of viral infections that affected 44 million people globally.

Hidden tremors: Just like there are an average of 55 earthquakes a day — though most of them too small to be noticed — similarly, “7,000 new signals of potential outbreaks occur each month, generating 300 follow-ups, 30 investigations and 10 risk assessments,” says the WHO. While most of them die out naturally, some, like the COVID-19, can become a deadly global phenomenon. The problem is compounded by the fact that today, an outbreak can travel from a remote village to any major global city in less than 36 hours, or less than one and half days. With the proportion of people living in urban areas expected to rise from 55% currently to 68% by 2050 — coupled with increasing deforestation — pandemics may be the new normal. In the last 17 years, 31% viral outbreaks, such as the Nipah virus, Zika and Ebola, were linked to deforestation.

Cost of pandemics: According to a World Bank study, only 39% of the economic losses from outbreaks of viral infections are due to the infected individuals — 61% of the economic losses are due to the change in behaviour by healthy people as they seek to avoid the infection. Case in point: The 2015 MERS-coronavirus outbreak in South Korea that cost $8.5 billion while the number of casualties was 38 and the number of quarantined was 17,000. In the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the World Bank estimates that the three countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia collectively lost $2.2 billion in gross GDP. Add the cost of healthcare, employment and food security and the cost rises to $53 billion. Globally, while the direct cost of a flu pandemic is around $80 billion, the indirect cost, which includes the mortality component, can cost $570 billion annually — and this was before COVID-19 struck.

Border controls: The United States has suspended all travel from Europe, excluding Britain and Ireland, for 30 days. India had on Wednesday suspended all travel visas till April 15, except for diplomats, members of UN bodies, or those with employment and project visas. Other nations, too, have introduced restrictions that bar travellers from new clusters of Covid-19 like Italy, Spain and France. Qatar’s temporary ban also applies to travellers from India. China, where the contagion appears to be receding, is introducing entry restrictions to stop re-introduction of infection from abroad.

How bad is it in India? Though India is placed better off than, say, Italy, where over 12,000 have been infected and 800 killed, the number of confirmed cases continues to climb. As of Thursday, 74 were confirmed infected, including 16 Italians and 1 Canadian. Also, the samples of the 76-year-old who died on Wednesday in Karnataka were confirmed positive, marking India’s first fatality from Covid-19.

Now a piece of grave news: Observers have doubted if Iran’s official figure of 10,000 infections and 846 deaths were true, since a holy city visited by thousands — Qom — is the country’s epicentre. Now, satellite images reveal authorities have been digging up large trenches in a cemetery in Qom.

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