New diseases may be biggest threat to humankind

China’s experience with the deadly new coronavirus labeled COVID-19 has “bought the world time” to plan our own strategies against the disease, the head of the World Health Organization commented a few days ago.

Well, yes. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is correct about COVID-19. Chinese officials’ actions have erected something of a firewall against the disease, but it has been only partially successful.

COVID-19 has spread to nearly 30 other countries, including the United States. Only the action of Chinese officials in virtually walling off many cities from the outside world prevented a more widespread outbreak.

By Monday, just five deaths outside China had been blamed on COVID-19. Only 15 cases had been reported in the United States.

But in China, the tragedy has been much, much worse. There, by Monday, about 69,000 cases of COVID-19 had been reported. It had killed 1,665 people.

Only the kind of severe, widespread action possible in a totalitarian country such as China has prevented a much wider, much more deadly epidemic. Tens of millions of Chinese have been quarantined, with travel into and out of their regions nearly banned by the government. We know from news media reports that some people suspected of having been exposed to the virus were taken forcibly from their homes.

Could such action be taken in, say, the United States? It is doubtful.

So the Chinese experience is more than buying time for the rest of the world to cope with COVID-19. It also is a wakeup call regarding emerging diseases — and there are many of them.

What if the very first serious outbreak of COVID-19 had been in another country? The United States? Germany? Japan? Brazil?

Stop and think about that. Emerging diseases may well be the greatest threat to humankind. Are our government and others doing enough about that?


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