• Wednesday, Aug 05, 2020
  • Last Update : 01:35 am

Life in China in the time of the coronavirus

  • Published at 02:12 am February 18th, 2020
Coronavirus
Photo: BIGSTOCK

What living in China during the coronavirus epidemic is like

The nightmare of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) infestation has not been forgotten, despite it happening 18 years ago. However, China is fighting against another new threat from respiratory illness caused by the Novel Coronavirus 2019 (nCov-2019). 

As of February 15, there have been a total of 66,577 confirmed cases only in China and 525 infected cases in other countries. Including China, 26 countries have reported nCov infected patients globally which has urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a global emergency. 

It has spread to countries such as China, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Russian, UK, Italy, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, India, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, the US, Vietnam, and Angola. This single-stranded positive-sense RNA having ~30kb (approx) genome size can infect birds, animals, and humans and, surprisingly, can transfer from one species to another.

Wuhan, a provincial capital in China, has shuttered the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as it is assumed to be the starting point for the outbreak. In the wet markets, live and dead animals like dogs, chickens, pigs, snakes, civets, and many more remain in constant close contact with people. This makes a virus quick to switch from animal to human. A bat is assumed to be the natural reservoir of the nCov-2019. 

According to Chinese health authorities, the virus can transmit mainly through air droplets, but touching can also spread the virus. It is a highly contagious pathogen of bio-safety level 4 like Ebola whereas well-known HIV, Zika, and Dengue is level 2. Coronavirus diseases are more likely to become serious when the host is elderly and to people with underlying health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, and previous cases of respiratory diseases.

Many experts believed the virus was not as severe as the SARS which killed nearly 800 people in 2002-03, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has killed more than 700 people since 2012. However, the number of total infected cases has already exceeded for nCov. The study revealed that the spike (S) protein of this new virus only binds on human cells weakly to the ACE2 receptor, whereas the human SARS showed strong affinity to the ACE receptor. These findings suggest that the new virus does not spread easily among humans, and should potentially not cause very serious human infection.

Professor Rolf Hilgenfeld from the University of Luebeck in Germany, who was involved in the fight against SARS in China during 2003, said these RNA viruses are self-limiting. This means most infected people formed antibodies to the virus after a certain time, even though they did not fall ill. Then they are immune against the infection and such outbreaks typically end after a couple of months by themselves.

Julian Druce, Head of the Virus Identification Laboratory at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues announced that after isolating the virus from the first person in the country to be diagnosed with 2019-nCoV infection, they would have been able to culture the virus cell in the laboratory. Working with the cultured virus could allow researchers to develop better treatments and diagnostics by detecting 2019-nCoV-specific antibodies.

Zhang Linqi, head of the research team and professor of the Tsinghua University’s School of Medicine, said that it will be much easier to develop a vaccine against the virus than finding an HIV vaccine. HIV varies greatly, but the novel coronavirus does not. However, most infected people can recover quickly, suggesting that the human body can produce a strong immune response to infection with the virus, said Zhang, also a leading HIV research scientist.

However, the present outbreak reflects that the nature of this virus is more severe than expected. 

As a foreign resident in China, this is a scary situation for us, experiencing such an epidemic for the first time in life. Intensive protection has already been taken in the whole of Beijing as it is the capital and a city of over 21 million people and strictly following the instructions given by the Chinese government.

Beijing municipality declared the highest level of public health emergency on January 24, in response to the outbreak of pneumonia caused by the coronavirus. They discourage people to go to crowded places or public gatherings, encourage wearing medical masks, and staying at home. They are also to be notified immediately if anyone has visited seriously infected areas or had contact with those coming (or returning) from severely infected areas, like Wuhan. 

More than a hundred fever clinics and 20 dedicated pneumonia hospitals at the municipal and district levels are ready to give continuous service and treatment -- free of cost. At present, I am working in a research laboratory as a PhD fellow in the Institute of Plant Protection of Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and living in Beijing since 2018. In our institute, all the entrances are restricted and temperature scanners are installed to check every person during entrance. All the outsiders are restricted from entering the campus. Still, the fresh market is open inside the campus and supply is accordingly available.

“Having a child of six months old, this epidemic situation is a matter of worry for us. Passing alarming and tense days where we are receiving updates, rules, and instructions every 3-4 hours, it is hard to decide whether it will be good to return to my country or not. It is important for us to not panic and  avoid any misinformation and fake news. 

Though the Chinese government is taking every possible and efficient step to handle this outbreak, we are still afraid as this virus is spreading rapidly all over China and also, day-by-day, the number of infected people are increasing. Now, what we need are your prayers so that China and other countries overcome this situation in the earliest possible time.” This was shared by Mamiya Binte Ahsan, a PhD graduate from CAAS and residing in the campus along with her family. 

Md Saif Uddin is living in Qingdao City of Shandong Province, China -- the city is about 1,072km away from the epicentre of the virus, also shared his personal experience with me: “As my experience from last year, I saw that the city had become full of people from different parts of China to explore the beauty of this city during the new lunar year. 

But this year, the city became a ghost town due to the outbreak of the Wuhan virus; there are no tourists in the city. My university is Ocean University of China. From January 22, I have been almost confined in my room as the university circulated a notice not to go out unless there was an emergency. In our university, due to winter vacation, despite most of the international students living in their own countries, there is still a large number of students living on campus. 

The international office of the university is regularly looking after these students and giving health directions to them to keep them safe. And in the student dormitory, the authorities have provided thermometers to check the body temperature of each student every day. The authorities also keep record of the travel history of students.”

Md Mostofa Uddin Helal, a fellow senior Bangladesh citizen who is also a PhD Fellow at Oil Crops Research Institute of CAAS in Wuhan said that, after the outbreak of nCoV-2019 in Wuhan, the transportation systems, including the airport, railway station, metro, long service bus, and city public bus are locked down for the whole city to reduce the spreading of this virus. 

As per the report, as of February 15, there have been 1457 deaths. Helal added that most of the shopping malls and super shops have been closed. Just a few, like Walmart, Zhongbei, and other such warehouses are open for the people -- trying their level best to serve fresh food. The food inspection team of PRC is checking the quality and food availability every day. The officials of his institute have tried their level best to take care of their health and provide mental support as well. 

He also mentioned that the Embassy of Bangladesh in Beijing has showed the highest level of diplomacy with the Chinese Hubei Provincial local government to evacuate all of the Bangladeshi students from Wuhan. Although, due to technical difficulties to his passport, he could not fly back to Dhaka, he is especially thankful to the Bangladesh government and our embassy in Beijing for their whole-hearted support and endless cooperation.

361 Bangladeshi citizens have returned back to Dhaka and are being sheltered at the Ashkona Hajj Camp for safety and observation. Now the question is: How safe is the Ashkona Hajj Camp to handle such a contagious disease? We have contacted over telephone with a student among them and, according to him, the authorities arranged a common room where nearly 55 people are residing, which seems to be unsafe to avoid the spread of the virus among themselves.

At an unprecedented speed, scientists are starting experiments, revealing the secrets of the pathogen, and it is really amazing that the scientific community is sharing their data almost in real time. Most of the research data is now openly shared and available online. They don’t care about egos and just care about a solution for mankind. 

SARS, MRS, Ebola, Avian flu, Nipah and so on are on the list of epidemics in global history. So, it is clear that the epidemic can happen anywhere and anytime. Coronavirus is just an example from where we can learn many things and prepare for the future.

When a disease breaks out, behavioural changes in response to the outbreak will alter the infectious agent’s progression. 

I hope China will win the victory over the coronavirus soon. In this situation, the best solution is solidarity and love -- to act locally but think globally.

Pallab Bhattacharjee is a Research assistant and PhD scholar at State Key Laboratory for Biology of Plant Diseases and Insect Pests, Institute of plant protection, CAAS, Beijing, China.

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