Prague WHO chief: The worst aspect of the coronavirus? The panic surrounding it

Srdan Matic, photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

The World Health Organisation has declared the coronavirus a global emergency and cases of the infection, which originated in China, have been discovered in a number of European states. What are the chances of the coronavirus appearing in the Czech Republic? And what should other countries be doing to help the Chinese? I discussed those questions and more with Dr. Srdan Matic, head of the WHO’s office in the Czech Republic.

Srdan Matic, photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek
What’s the worst aspect of the coronavirus? Why is it such a threat?

“I would say that the worst aspect of the coronavirus, globally, is the panic that has been created around it.

“There is absolutely no doubt that this is a very serious outbreak.

“But we have to be aware that the outbreak is still mainly limited to China.

“China identified the first cases very early and notified the WHO, and also the rest of the world through the WHO, immediately.

“It has also undertaken some very draconian public health measures of quarantining entire cities and regions – as soon as possible.

“There is a bit of a spill-over to the rest of the world, and we see individual cases or small clusters in a number of countries in Asia, and also in Europe and North America.

“But I would say that while the risk in China remains extremely high, in the rest of the world the risk of spread is high but it’s not dramatic.

“And I think partially also through misinformation and speculation that appears particularly on social media people have started to panic without good reason.”

Do you have any understanding for those people who are panicking, who are buying facemasks and so on? Do you get why they’re scared?

“Sure. I think we should not disqualify people’s fears.

“Fear is based on the unknown and being scared of something new.

People wear protective face masks in Hong Kong, February 3, 2020, photo: ČTK/AP/Vincent Yu
“This is certainly a serious disease. It has lower mortality, or a lower number of extreme cases, than in some previous outbreaks, like SARS or MERS.

“Obviously it is also spreading in a different pattern.

“So, yes, I think we have to recognise that people have a reason to be afraid.

“But at the same time people should not dismiss the measures that have been taken by the public health authorities.”

The Czech government has refused to send medical materials to China. Are any EU countries sending materials to China? And does it even make sense to do so, given the size of the Chinese population?

“I am not aware if and which countries are sending supplies.

“But solidarity, and international solidarity in particular, is a very important aspect of the response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“We should understand that China is a huge country with a very large population.

“In the past 10 to 15 years – due to previous outbreaks and public health emergency situations – they have developed a very robust public health system and have upscaled everything from laboratory capacity to clinical capacity to deal with it.

“But this really pushes the country to the brink.

“As of this morning, we already had tens of thousands of confirmed cases in China and there have been at least 170,000 people who have been monitored individually because they were in contact with people who were infected.

“So that requires an enormous amount of material and people and even a large country like China needs support.

“I think that any country that has the capacity should provide support financially, should provide support through sending staff or through providing supplies.”

We are talking at around 11:30 on Monday and as far as I know there have still been no confirmed cases here in the Czech Republic. Is it only a question of time before the coronavirus comes here, or could it pass the Czech Republic by?

“You’re calling for speculation, in a way.

Photo: ČTK/Ondřej Deml
“I think it’s possible no case will ever appear in the Czech Republic.

“But also we should not be surprised if a case does appear.

“But I think the Czech Republic is well-prepared and has all the proper capacities to diagnose, treat and manage any person that may come to the Czech Republic infected with coronavirus.

“And it also knows how and has the capacity to undertake the proper public health measures.

“So I would not be afraid of the importation of a case of coronavirus into the Czech Republic.”