COVID-19 Outbreak: Cues for Global Information Scenario

An alternative theory that posits centrality of communication in containing the global pandemic

Do you recollect the last time you felt ever more integrated with & susceptible to a cataclysmic event that transpired at global front?

Some might recall the yester-year ghouls of H1N1, SARS & MERS that followed deviously similar crisis trajectory as the recent COVID-19 outbreak. Here’s how COVID-19 compares to the past viral epidemics before I move on to discuss the linkages of the worldwide pandemic with the prevalent global economic & information order.

SARS, MERS, H1N1, COVID-19 are all contagious, respiratory illnesses that are caused by same family of viruses called “coronavirus”. The coronaviruses are zoonotic pathogens which mean that they originate in variety of animal species, are then transmitted between animals by way of exchange of bodily fluids, secretions and from animals to humans by way of contact with respiratory droplets & consumption of infested animals. While SARS (2002), MERS (2012) and COVID-19 (2019) originated from different species of bats, H1N1 influenza virus that caused the “swine-flu” (2009) got transmitted from the pigs. Different strains of influenza virus are responsible for the seasonal flu that occurs each year, but the disease in itself is now considered preventable with the development, mass availability of the flu vaccine across the world.

COVID-19 seems to spread easily amongst humans, the symptoms tend to be mild and similar to those associated with common flu (fever, cough, shortness of breath). The disease turns fatal in a very short span of days. Treatment of COVID-19 is currently symptomatic in the absence of any known vaccine or antiviral drug.

Apart from their zoonotic pedigree, the other rather conspicuous commonality that links all these epidemics (barring MERS) is its’ origination source which is China. According to WHO & the media reports, the earliest known case of COVID-19 outbreak is linked to the infamous live animal markets in Wuhan, China from where the virus first got transmitted from animals to humans via contact with respiratory droplets.

Progression & Its Multi-dimensional Impact

COVID-19 which was first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan (China), has since spread to about 87 countries & infected more than 90,000 people across the world. Globally, there have been over 3,000 confirmed deaths so far.

The resultant worldwide public health scare has hit the production lines, supply chains, corporate profits across the globe. Major multilateral conferences, trade shows, cultural events and sporting events (including the 2020 Olympic Games) have all been cancelled in wake of the outbreak.

As per The New York Times, school closures have affected roughly 300 million students globally. Hospitality & travel sector have been hit the hardest with people averting flights, other transit modes & dropping travel plans altogether. Major businesses like Amazon, Facebook have reported the first coronavirus cases in their US work forces.

US Congress is looking forward to approve a corpus of $8.3 billion in its fight against the coronavirus. Globally stock markets are witnessing varying degrees of mayhem according to number of local incidences & the assurances by respective governments.

In India, Delhi government ordered temporary closure of all pre-primary, primary schools in the nation’s capital after other states closed their schools, colleges as public officials rallied looking for ways and means to avert fewer cases (29) from turning into a countrywide outbreak.

PM Narendra Modi has postponed his March 13 travel to Brussels, meant for a summit meeting between India and the European Union. China’s Xi Jinping has postponed his first ever visit to Japan in over a decade.

Reasoning Behind its Untamed Spread

As COVID-19 continues to stretch its territorial might across newer geographies, it is pertinent to understand the reasons behind its untamed spread & perspective it offers for global policy framework in an effort to contain its ill-effects on global economy.

Looking at the topology of countries comprising the outbreak list, you’ll find that middle-income to high-income nations feature prominently in the compilation. Such nations have long witnessed a high incidence of travel amongst its citizens across all categories – be it business, leisure, education-related or increasingly on account of significant immersion of local talent pool in global transnational organizations.

Objective of economic prosperity, mutually-rewarding diplomatic relations & trade ties has long fuelled the wave of globalization which in turn has made national borders increasingly porous allowing multi-cultural exchange of people, practices & customs. All this is not without the twin spectres of heightened integration & susceptibility of nations to even a one-off catastrophic event that may happen in one small part of the world. SARS, H1N1 outbreak are past instances of such susceptibility.

Relevance of WHO & Centrality of Communication Protocols

World Health Organization (WHO) has been coordinating disease, health-related matters internationally & administering crisis-time response mechanism in situations involving an epidemic outbreak. What is commendable about this apex multilateral agency is the multifaceted role it plays in deepening the global information & communication order. How? WHO has developed robust framework, stringent protocols that involve continual monitoring of situation on ground zero; transparent reporting of status, fatalities for all stakeholders; lucid, standardized communication based on gravity of prevalent situation; oversees coordinated inter-governmental action & assistance by way of aids, relief work. More importantly, it oversees widespread dissemination of credible information on symptoms, preventive measures and available treatment in easy-to-understand manner across media outlets, which is considered sacrosanct by public broadcasters, governments & citizens alike.

While SARS’ and MERS’ mortality rates are well documented, it may be years before the complete incidence data with regards to COVID-19 is known with certainty. As novel coronavirus transmits from person to person and spread to new geographical locations, it can mutate into more fatal form & deal a heavy blow to nations across the globe. With nations becoming ever more intertwined, lack of timely information and misinformation at such calamitous times translates squarely into huge cost in terms of economic loss & the loss of human lives.

Widespread dissemination of correct information while persistent debunking of misinformation, is our only shot at throttling down the speed of the outbreak till such time we’ve a real shot, a medical anti dote of the novel coronavirus. In-timed, widely dispersed communication alone can mobilize public support towards preventive measures, isolation protocols; help overcome logistical bottlenecks with regards to availability of testing kits, respiratory masks, medical supplies.

It emerges that continued communication alone can ensure increased cohesion amongst all stakeholders in mobilizing medical resources; financial aid; increased inter-governmental cooperation; enhanced accountability towards vulnerable or marginalized sections of society.