I continue below the timeline I traced verbally in my March 5 commentary “Writer reassured by gov’t responses,” showing the rapidity with which COVID-19 has spread to the Eastern Caribbean from China via Italy, its epicentre in Europe. The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 outside China now exceeds those within it. The timeline of the spread is reflected in the below dates:
- December 2019: An outbreak of new viral pneumonia was identified in Wuhan, China.
- Jan. 9: Medical experts reported that it resembled the coronavirus Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the 21st Century’s first pandemic, which spread from China in 2003, killing more than 750 people in 37 countries.
- Feb. 12: SARS coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was officially dubbed COVID-19.
- Feb. 24: An Italian who flew from Milan to Lagos became sub-Saharan Africa’s first confirmed case.
- Feb. 26: The Virgin Islands turned away a cruise ship carrying some passengers who had embarked direct from Italy.
- Feb. 27: The Beacon reported on a government warning advising against travel to affected areas in the Far East and northern Italy.
March 1: The first case was confirmed in the Caribbean: a 62-year-old Italian who had arrived in the Dominican Republic on Feb. 22.
March 5: All three commentaries in the Beacon discussed COVID-19, from different angles.
March 10: The Italian government locked the whole country down to contain the disease.
March 12: The World Health Organisation declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic.
March 13: The first case was confirmed in the United States VI, reportedly on St. Croix.
Spanish flu, the 20th Century’s first pandemic, spread throughout the world more slowly, by railway and steamship. Its first recorded case was on March 11, 1918, at Fort Riley in Kansas, in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, followed by similar outbreaks of severe influenza at camps in six other states and on Navy ships at east coast ports. It may have originated in pigs.
By May 1918, US soldiers had carried the virus across the ocean to France, where it struck both Allied forces and Central powers, and they took it home again after the war ended in November 1918.
The flu swept through the Caribbean from October 1918 to March 1919, leaving about 100,000 deaths, with Jamaica, Belize and Guyana the worst hit. Puerto Rico also suffered greatly, but the British Eastern Caribbean colonies, including the VI, escaped relatively lightly.
Some patients succumbed to complete respiratory failure within hours. All told, anywhere from 21 million and 100 million people are thought to have died from it. The US lost 675,000 people, more casualties than World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. However, the virus disappeared before drug companies could even isolate it.
Like other viruses, the influenza virus mutates constantly, and new ones strike every year. Drug companies can usually deal with them and make an equivalent vaccine to counteract them, but every 10 to 40 years a global flu pandemic emerges that the human body doesn’t recognise and is defenceless against. It spreads faster than scientists can isolate, produce and distribute a vaccine, as happened in 1918.
COVID-19 is believed to have been transmitted to humans in a congested meat market in Wuhan, China, possibly from illegally sold bush meat (such as wild animals like pangolins). Previous epidemics also originated from animals, but factory farming has been responsible for some modern outbreaks of disease. This should encourage us to promote locally produced food.
A new study has found that COVID-19 remained active on cardboard for up to a day, so could be carried on parcel deliveries; survives in droplets in the air for at least three hours; and survives on metal and plastic surfaces for up to three days. Therefore, transmission could be allowed via inanimate objects like buses and hospital equipment.
I commended the government for its swift response to the professional advice of the medical officer of health, but his message is being undermined by pseudo-scientific advice on social media, including a bizarre notion that COVID-19 can be cured with a hairdryer. Even if that treatment coincided with recovery from the symptoms, sufferers might still carry the virus.
The author of a PAHO article on Spanish flu wrote in 2003, following the emergence of SARS, that researchers expected another flu pandemic soon. She remarked that someone unknowingly harbouring a disease could bring it from one country to another, passing it on before showing any symptoms themselves.
However, a prominent virologist and expert on influenza was confident that modern technology would enable drug companies to produce a new vaccine very quickly. But SARS was caused by a new, non-influenza virus, and suppressed by quarantine and hygiene. He admitted an influenza would travel too fast to be contained by those procedures alone.
The proportion of sufferers dying from COVID-19 is still comparatively low, and highest in those aged above 80, who tend to be more susceptible to pulmonary infections, and people with pre-existing illnesses. They are mainly succumbing to a form of pneumonia, which invades immune systems weakened by fighting the virus.
However, some scientists claim to have discovered two distinct strains of COVID-19: a more virulent, potentially deadly, one; and a milder form that may immunise survivors against its recurrence. Meanwhile, a senior British medical official has warned it may return each year. The BVI Health Services Authority may want to consider following the USVI Department of Health by mounting an annual campaign promoting immunisation against the latest form of flu.
The death rate of Spanish flu 100 years ago was much higher, and targeted the young and healthy. It often struck so quickly that it overwhelmed its victims’ immune systems.
The world has suffered many pandemics in the years since — at least three serious flu outbreaks among them — but no pandemic has been as deadly, nor as far-reaching. It spurred the development of public health systems across the developed world.
Before September 2017 we had become complaisant for years about our chances of being hit by an environmental catastrophe, and we must be thankful for so few deaths. We are worse off now in many ways than then, but now have another reason for upholding our territorial motto — vigilate, everyone.