(Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

This morning the World Health Organisation announced that countries should be “in a phase of preparedness” for a coronavirus pandemic.

As panic spreads, here’s what you need to know: the virus has spread to nearly 80,000 people in 37 countries. While the vast majority of these cases are still in China (around 77,000), there have been worrying outbreaks in many other countries. In particular, there are new focal points in Iran, Italy and South Korea.

Iran

Iran was the second major hotspot for the outbreak after China. This week there was a queasy symbolism in deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi testing positive to the virus after appearing visibly unwell on Iranian television on Monday.

Iran has reported 95 cases (15 fatal) of the virus, but many observers believe the real figure is likely to be higher.

Worryingly, with the constant circulation of Muslim pilgrims and itinerant workers across Middle Eastern borders, cases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates — plus one in Canada — have all been traced to Iran.

An outbreak in the region could be disastrous, with so many neighbouring countries’ health infrastructure shattered by years of war or civil unrest.

South Korea

South Korea has set its coronavirus alert at the highest level, and has by far the most cases outside of China — within a week, confirmed cases jumped from a few dozen to more than 900.

The spike came as a shock, given the country’s infrastructure and preparation. But in case things didn’t feel “end of days” enough for you, there’s also a Christian cult at the centre of things.

The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has identified a 61-year-old member of fringe Christian group Shincheonji Church as being at the heart of the outbreak. The female patient, known as “Patient 31”, initially refused to be transferred to a hospital to be tested and had attended several church gatherings before testing positive.

Shincheonji Church believes its founder, Lee Man-Hee, is the second coming of Christ. Lee has told his followers the virus is the devil’s work, and a test of faith. At their services in the south-eastern city of Daegu, members likely infected one another and then fanned out around the country, apparently undetected.

Italy

Italy’s cases of coronavirus recently shot up by 45% to more than 300 and the death toll rose to 11, after four more elderly victims succumbed. Towns in northern regions such as Lombardy have been placed in lockdown.

However it appears that the virus is billowing out from Italy to neighbouring countries, with cases reported in Switzerland, Croatia and Austria.

Austria is stopping suspected cases at the border and has placed an alpine hotel in the town of Innsbruck under lock down, after an Italian receptionist contracted the virus.

Australia’s plan

Australia’s “COVID-19 plan” sets out responses for three differing levels of severity — from “low” which would resemble a bad flu season to “high” which is Spanish flu levels.

Professor Nigel McMillan, director in Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Griffith University told the Nine papers that, while there would be a strain on health services if a pandemic did reach Australia, “we don’t wish to induce panic food or petrol stockpiling … when for 95% of the population, this will be a mild cold”.

On the other side of the spectrum, US shock jock Rush Limbaugh recently declared that the coronavirus is “being weaponised” by Chinese communists to “bring down” US president Donald Trump.

“I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus…. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks,” he said before elaborating. “It probably is a ChiCom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponised.”

Given that right-wing talking points spread through Australia with an ease coronavirus can only dream of, we can expect to hear something similar from Malcolm Roberts on the Senate floor soon.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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