Government and governance, Science and technology, Education, Health | Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World, Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia

20 February 2020

With coronavirus spreading rapidly, the threat of a pandemic is real. But there are simple steps in hygiene that governments can encourage that could stem the flow of infections, Warwick McKibbin and David Levine write.

The novel coronavirus may become a footnote in history – a disaster narrowly averted. But, it could also become a global pandemic similar to some of the worst in the twentieth century.

Let’s assume that the current coronavirus is as easy to spread and as dangerous as the 1957 Asian flu. Based on the epidemiological estimates of mortality and morbidity rates from that experience, the best estimate, from a 2006 study on pandemics, is that such a virus might kill more than 14 million people and shrink the global economy by more than $500 billion.

These estimates are far higher than the costs were in 1957, because the world is increasingly connected and urban. Preliminary results currently being updated in 2020 suggest even higher numbers.

Of course, there is hope that scientists can rapidly develop a vaccine. Unfortunately, there is much not yet known about this new virus, but scientists do know that the virus mostly spreads when people sneeze or cough, with germs carried when people inhale infected droplets.

The germs also land on surfaces, and people who touch their own mucus or an infected surface then spread the virus on their hands. For most respiratory infections, perhaps half of cases spread from people’s hands.

Fortunately, even without a vaccine, we already know how to slow an epidemic of respiratory infections.

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If everyone coughed or sneezed into their elbow or a tissue – not into the air or on their hands – the germs would not travel very far, and if everyone washed hands with soap before preparing food or eating, that route of transmission would end too.

Thus, an immediately effective response would be for each government to start a crash national program to disseminate information and encourage these safe behaviours.

Most people consider it disgusting if someone does not wash their hands with soap after a bathroom visit. National governments should work to extend this norm. A norm that someone is spreading disgusting bodily fluids and dangerous germs if they do not wash their hands with soap after sneezing and before eating can protect the community.

Public service announcements and school curricula can reinforce these attitudes, and all primary schools should immediately implement routines for hand-washing before meals.

These actions can help make people in all countries dramatically safer. At the same time, no single nation can protect itself from a global pandemic. Unfortunately, many low-income nations lack resources to disseminate these safe behaviors. Rich nations should work together to subsidise the rapid deployment of hygiene interventions around the globe. Any school, hospital or family that adopts these safe behaviors make us all a bit safer.

This epidemic may eventually end, even without these interventions. Even so, increased hand-washing substantially reduces diarrhoea diseases and serious respiratory infections with enormous social and economic benefits, particularly in poor countries.

Thus, policies to increase good hygiene, which were cost-effective before today’s risk of a new pandemic, are clearly more important to reduce the risk of global pandemics. Given clear disruption to the global economy, a small investment in these interventions are the most cost-effective response to the current outbreak. They are also a long term insurance policy against future disease outbreaks that threaten people in all countries.

This piece was first published by the Australian Financial Review.

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