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.

BC ViewsCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Maple Ridge HandyDART driver worried about safety with COVID-19

Union says operators need more personal protective equipment

Ridge Meadows RCMP release year end review video

List detachment’s successes throughout 2019

Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows issue fire bans

Cities say poor air quality from smoke could further exacerbate current COVID-19 climate

VIDEO: RCMP bring 7 p.m. parade to front doors of Ridge Meadows Hospital

Cruisers with lights and sirens blaring give boost to those working within

WEATHER: Mainly cloudy with a chance of showers

Temperatures to reach a high of 11 C

B.C. records five new COVID-19 deaths, ‘zero chance’ life will return to normal in April

Province continue to have a recovery rate of about 50 per cent

World COVID-19 update: NATO suspicious of Russian military drills; Cruise ships ordered to stay at sea

Comprehensive update of coronavirus news from around the world for Wednesday, April 1

John Horgan extends B.C.’s state of emergency for COVID-19

Premier urges everyone to follow Dr. Bonnie Henry’s advice

B.C.’s first community COVID-19 death was dentist ‘dedicated’ to health: lawyer

Vincent was 64 when he died on March 22 after attending the Pacific Dental Conference

UPDATE: 6.5-magnitude earthquake in Idaho shakes B.C. Interior

An earthquake was reportedly felt just before 5 p.m. throughout the Okanagan

Two inmates at prison housing Robert Pickton test positive for COVID-19

Correctional Service of Canada did not release any details on the identities of the inmates

BC heart surgery patient rarely leaves home

James Jepson is especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus

BC SPCA launches matching campaign to help vulnerable animals after big donations

Two BC SPCA donors have offered up to $65,000 in matching donations

Quarantined B.C. mom say pandemic has put special-needs families in ‘crisis mode’

Surrey’s Christine Williams shares family’s challenges, strengths

Most Read