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Jonathan Milne: Isolation is not answer to virus

Tuesday February 18, 2020 Written by Published in Editorials
Authorities responding to the coronavirus outbreak in China.  AP 20021617 Authorities responding to the coronavirus outbreak in China. AP 20021617

EDITORIAL: So how close is the COVID-19 coronavirus? With the news of infected sufferers in the Pacific, in Hawai’i and the Philippines, it feels nearer than ever.

I was in Hawai’i for work last week, lunching at the Happy Snack bar at a beachfront park at Waikiki. Children splashed in a pool nearby; tourists strolled through, some with face masks, some without.

Yet in the timeshares apartments almost overlooking the park, just 150 metres away, had been staying a Japanese couple who were subsequently diagnosed with the virus.

I came back through Auckland. There, the very face of the streets of the CBD seems different. In my hotel, which would once have been full of Chinese holidaymakers and business people, there were none to be seen. The same at the airport.

As I arrived in Auckland airport, I saw the speed of authorities’ response to a man who was nauseous and coughing. He was screened and secured in the middle of the airport concourse, as if in some Hollywood thriller, as medics swing into action.

So yes, it feels closer. But what is closer still is the firm response of governments in the region.

In the absence of any vaccine, public health officials have instead taken a risk averse stance at every border. Locals who’ve been to China face two weeks’ quarantine; foreigners aren’t allowed in at all.

Some are questioning the Chinese government’s response to the crisis: was it too slow, did it lack transparency?

Perhaps. But now, China is moving with speed and purpose - and most importantly, it’s working in partnership with the World Health Organization and other governments in the region.

After years of building tensions between China and America in the Pacific, this virus could yet be a circuit-breaker in getting people talking again.

Nations are forced to unite against their common enemy: a rapacious virus that is harder to control than any human-made weapon.

At a household level, the advice remains the same. Cover your mouth when you cough. Wash your hands. And, unless you’re feeling unwell, go to work, go to school.

Because with coronavirus, as with more traditional enemies, if we allow ourselves to become isolated and panicked, then the battle is half-lost.

Quarantine may be part of the answer for those who’ve been exposed to the virus – but looking at the big picture, the strategy must be international and community collaboration – not fearful isolationism.

-       Jonathan Milne

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