Countries around the world are closing borders and putting citizens under lockdown in a bid to contain the new coronavirus outbreak, labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO’s declaration has increased pressure on governments to ramp up their response, sparking emergency action plans and upending life around the globe.
Here’s what you need to know about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19:
How contagious is it?
According to WHO, the new coronavirus so far has an average R0 (contagion metric) between 2 and 2.5, which means a person infected with COVID-19 can pass it on to more than two people.
It makes the virus more contagious than a seasonal flu (R0 at 1.3), which can be transmitted on average to 1 person.
COVID-19 is also less contagious than H1N1, the R0 of which stood between 1.2 and 1.6, and Ebola with the transmission rate from 1.6 to 2.
But it is less contagious than SARS that was passed on to up to four people or MERS which had a transmission rate between 2.5 and 7.2 in some places.
The likelihood of one person getting someone else sick depends on a lot of different factors that can be tough to estimate, and that can vary based on circumstances.
Those can include: the way it gets transmitted (through the air or in bodily fluids); whether a pathogen is contagious during its incubation period; how long that incubation period lasts; and how many people the average patient has contact with.
How to protect yourself
Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap; cover your face with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing, and then throw the tissue in a waste bin; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; clean surfaces and objects you touch often; seek medical attention if you have symptoms; and avoid direct contact with live animals in affected areas.
Scientists doubt the effectiveness of face masks in protecting a healthy person from airborne viruses, saying they are more useful in keeping an infected person from affecting others.
Because masks are loose and permeable, they cannot completely prevent what is in the air from passing in.
An increasing number of countries has advised people to self-quarantine for at least two weeks while also implementing a series of sweeping social distancing measures, including banning public gatherings and shutting down schools.
Social distancing to ‘flatten the curve’
It is essential to maintain social distancing – including staying at least 1.8 metres (six feet) away from anyone around you.
The aim of social distancing is to slow the spread of the virus, giving global health systems more time to care for patients who need help, which is also known as “flattening the curve”.
Social distancing is most effective when the infection can be transmitted via droplet contact (coughing or sneezing), which is the case with the coronavirus.
Cancellations of public events that draw large crowds, such as sports events or music festivals, are an essential part of social distancing, but avoiding smaller gatherings is equally important, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Social distancing techniques that allow you to avoid crowds or crowded spaces are working from home instead of at the office, closing schools or switching to online classes, and visiting loved ones via electronic devices instead of in person.
Symptoms to look for and who is most at risk
According to the WHO, the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, fatigue and a dry cough. Some patients may experience aches and pains, nasal congestion, a runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea.
Current estimates of the incubation period – the amount of time between infection and the onset of symptoms – range from one to 14 days. Most infected people show symptoms within five to six days.
However, infected patients can also be asymptomatic, not displaying symptoms despite having the virus in their system.
The elderly and those with underlying medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness.
Read more on what the coronavirus does to your body if you catch it here.
Can hot weather stop coronavirus?
A dramatic surge in coronavirus infections in Southeast Asia in recent days has increased doubts over a theory that warmer weather could stem the spread of the virus, health experts say.
Relatively low numbers of new infections in many Southeast Asian countries had been cited as possible evidence that hotter weather was suppressing the virus, giving hope to Europe and the United States as they head into spring.
But countries from Indonesia to Thailand to Malaysia and the Philippines have recorded their highest rate of infections in recent days as testing has ramped up, in a sign seasonal factors may only play a limited role in coronavirus’ spread.
“The temperature theory doesn’t really hold up given what’s happening right now in much of Southeast Asia,” said Tikki Pangestu, a professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “People in Europe hope warm weather will kill the virus. I doubt this will be the reality.”
The spike in cases in many Southeast Asian countries has been dramatic in recent days, leading governments to take drastic action to stem the tide.
“At best, warm weather might influence the spread but it will not see the end of it,” said Dale Fisher, chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the World Health Organization.
“What is important is how effectively countries are isolating cases, removing people from communities. That’s the biggest factor, not the weather.”
What to do if you think you caught the virus
A dedicated hotline has been set up in several countries for people who suspect they have been infected.
People in the country are asked to contact the hotline before going to a hospital, to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus in an unprepared healthcare facility or on the way there.
Individuals are required to contact specialised help as soon as they suspect they are ill, and to limit contact with others as much as possible.
To date, there is no vaccine and no medicine for COVID-19. While some traditional or home remedies can provide comfort and alleviate symptoms of the disease, there is no proof that existing medicine can prevent or cure it, according to the WHO.
How to prepare for self-quarantine or lockdown
At least 14 days are recommended for a self-quarantine, while the duration of a lockdown depends on the decision of a local government.
Given the likelihood that more and more people around the world will be house-bound, preparing one’s home for that eventuality is an increasing concern.
Among the things being stocked are:
Non-perishable foods, including shelf-stable beverages, sauces, pasta, pulses, rice, cereal, crackers, and dry goods, including tea, sugar, and coffee.
Basic medical supplies, including over-the-counter medications to alleviate possible symptoms – which, in mild cases, have a lot in common with the symptoms of the common cold. Medicines for fever, congestion, and cough are recommended. It is also important to keep a one-month supply of prescription medication on hand as well in case getting to a pharmacy for a refill becomes difficult.
Cleaning and hygiene supplies needed would include soaps for handwashing, bathing, laundry, and cleaning, as well as disinfectants to keep surfaces clean.
Also important is preparing some activities that can be undertaken within the home, whether a list of books to read or an entertainment or exercise subscription that can be used without going out.
The WHO has acknowledged the crisis is causing the public increased levels of anxiety.
In recently published guidance, it advises people who are feeling stressed to avoid reading, watching and listening to news excessively.
Avoid anti-inflammatory drugs
France’s Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Twitter on Saturday for pain relief it was better to take paracetamol because over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs may worsen the coronavirus.
“The taking of anti-inflammatories [ibuprofen, cortisone] could be a factor in aggravating the infection. In case of fever, take paracetamol. If you are already taking anti-inflammatory drugs, ask your doctor’s advice,” said Veran.
Patients should choose paracetamol, also known known in the United States by the generic name acetaminophen and commonly by the brand name Tylenol, because “it will reduce the fever without counter-attacking the inflammation”, the health ministry added.
Anti-inflammatory drugs are known to be a risk for those with infectious illnesses because they tend to diminish the response of the body’s immune system.
Germany warns against ‘coronavirus parties’
A senior German government medical adviser has urged people to refrain from holding “corona parties” amid a shutdown of bars and clubs to curb the spread of the virus.
Lars Schaade of the Robert Koch Institute, the German government’s disease control institute, said Monday that as measures are taken to encourage social distancing “it’s not sensible, instead of going to a club, to invite people to big parties at home.”
“I say this because there are apparently already so-called corona parties when the clubs are closed,” he told reporters in Berlin. “Please don’t do that.”
There have been more than 4,800 cases of infections with the new coronavirus in Germany, and 12 deaths so far.
Myths and misinformation
There is a lot of information being shared widely regarding how people can avoid catching the virus. Below are some of the myths floating around that are not supported by scientific evidence that people should not panic over:
Do not panic if you live in a mosquito-infested region. According to the World Health Organization, there is no evidence or information showing COVID-19 could be transmitted by mosquitoes.
Spraying alcohol or chlorine
Alcohol and chlorine can be used to disinfect surfaces. Do not panic if you have neither. Once the virus has entered your body, spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill it. In fact, spraying alcohol or chlorine can be harmful.
Snow and cold weather
There is no evidence showing that cold weather can kill the new coronavirus. COVID-19 can be transmitted in all areas, including areas with hot and humid weather.
Keep calm if you do not like eating garlic. Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. But, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus, according to WHO.
There is no scientific evidence that supports consuming large volumes of water can help individuals flush out the virus.
Antibiotics work only on bacteria. They do not work against viruses. The coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, is a virus and, therefore, antibiotics should not be used as a means of prevention or treatment.
To date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus.