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A general view of Jianguo Road in Beijing, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, February 2, 2020. REUTERS
A general view of Jianguo Road in Beijing, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, February 2, 2020. REUTERS

UNDERSTANDABLY, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). Up to yesterday, some 14,000 infections have been confirmed, with 300 deaths.

With pressure mounting, governments are hastening measures to limit their countries’ exposure.

Some countries have started banning travellers from China. Malaysia, for instance, has banned travellers from Hubei province. Others have imposed travel bans, such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Australia, Russia and the United States. The ban, governments say, is to curb the spread of the disease.

But WHO has cautioned against such restrictions and closing of borders. It has urged countries to reconsider. WHO’s line of reasoning — such a restriction “was ineffective in halting transmission” of the virus. Instead, it could accelerate its spread.

Closing off borders and banning arrivals made it difficult for the international community to monitor people’s movements and identify those who have been infected. Health experts concur, and economists warn it could lead to a panicked rush of people across borders; their movements may be virtually untraceable. But is it not logical for countries to impose travel restrictions?

How else to contain the spread? If neither exit nor entry screening works, why not simply stop anyone leaving the countries affected? Governments have a right to be agitated, especially when it concerns the lives of so many. They do not want to take chances.

Yes, 2019-nCoV has mostly been contained in China. And admirably, China has responded swiftly by enforcing a lockdown and a host of measures, such as limiting travel to the region and screening travellers. But the virus is still spreading and new cases are cropping up.

It is reminiscent of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (2002-2003) outbreak which infected 8,098 people globally and killed 800.

This Leader is of the view that the PHEIC declaration should rally global coordination for a more unified response. The concern is understandable, given that the virus is new.

There’s no vaccine for it yet, although researchers are working to develop one. WHO, therefore, cannot dismiss outright travel bans or border closures. This is uncharted territory.

This Leader also calls on the international community to do a review of regulations and protocols after the virus is under control — to prepare for similar future outbreaks.

When a crisis of this sort occurs, countries affected would need to know whether they are doing it right and within the international consensus and globally agreed protocols.

Should countries act in concert to close off borders or enforce travel bans? There is a fine line between irrational fear and the need for utmost caution.

The public too, should play a role — washing hands, covering mouths when coughing, staying at home when they have cold symptoms, and seeing a physician if symptoms follow recent travel to China — as these are all protective measures we can easily follow.

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