This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID-RML via AP

B.C. VIEWS: We can’t ignore the little things, lest they grow into a pandemic

COVID-19 can help us prepare for the major pandemic experts say is still to come

When I first wrote about the coronavirus six weeks ago, there were 900 cases worldwide, and 26 confirmed deaths.

Since then those numbers have grown dramatically. At writing, there are more that 3,000 dead (including nine just south of us in Washington State), and more than 100,000 known cases.

But what’s interesting is not how bad the situation has become, but how much worse a more serious outbreak could be – no small comfort given the chaos this one little virus has created so far.

COVID-19, as it’s been christened, is part of a family of viruses we are all too familiar with.

The common cold is a coronavirus. But so is the more deadly SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus that killed 44 people in Canada in 2002 and the even more lethal MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2014.

In all, there are seven known coronaviruses that affect humans.

COVID-19 is a new addition to this family, so there is much we need to learn about it.

What we know so far is that it is less deadly than SARS or MERS – which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because a smaller ratio of people are dying, but bad because people are often not aware they have symptoms (or dismiss the symptoms as a cold) and continue to infect those around them.

Most of the deaths have occurred in China, where the disease originated.

The risk here remains low, says Health Canada, despite the number of new cases reported daily.

In fact, Canadians are far more likely to die in a car crash this year than be killed by COVID-19.

Still, that hasn’t stopped irrational reactions, like shunning Chinese restaurants, emptying store shelves of surgical masks, or stockpiling toilet paper.

Worldwide, the fallout has been more troubling. Financial markets have fallen, industrial production has slowed, the 2020 Olympic Games are in jeopardy, and the travel industry is in a tailspin. Even the James Bond franchise has been shaken, with release of the latest film deferred until late fall.

There is, of course, legitimate reason for caution.

We should all wash our hands regularly, cover our coughs and stay away from others when we’re sick.

And we all need to understand this epidemic is likely to get worse before it gets better. Health officials are already saying the likelihood of containment is remote.

But panic is never a good response. We need cool heads that can see past the paranoia, xenophobia and political expediency.

Canada is well placed to do that. The country learned much from the SARS outbreak and has implemented a robust and coordinated response through the Public Health Agency of Canada, which was created in its wake.

The response in B.C. has also been impressive, with B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry a model of composure and competence. Her team is working to identify, trace and isolate any new cases in the province.

READ MORE: 6 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., including ‘outbreak’ at care home

READ MORE: Tim Hortons to scrap Roll Up The Rim cups amid COVID-19 fears

Still, there is reason for concern. If there were a major outbreak here, for example, would our already overstressed health care system be able to cope? With patients already housed in hallways, and health care staff at their limit, can our hospitals handle a major influx of new patients?

And those questions are not just for this outbreak. Public health officials have long said that another major pandemic is inevitable.

Fortunately this one, provided the virus does not mutate into a more virulent strain, will be far less deadly than the influenza pandemic of 1918, the polio epidemic of the 1950s, or the many other illnesses that have devastated humankind over generations.

We often see threats on a broad, cinematic scale – earthquakes, climate change, rogue asteroids.

But often it is the little things, like a microscopic virus that jumps from animal to human, that hides the biggest risk.

Greg Knill is a columnist and former editor with Black Press. Email him at greg.knill@blackpress.ca.

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