Wuhan Coronavirus: Flashback to SARS? Lessons Learned

With the new coronavirus threat breaking out beyond China’s borders, many nations, among them Canada, the US, France, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and several others, are in action mode: setting up health-screening measures for incoming Chinese travellers; evacuating their own vulnerable personnel from Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic; and activating their own medical systems to keep potential infections isolated.

Travel Canada has advised China-bound travellers to “Exercise a high degree of caution” while anywhere in China, but to “Avoid all travel” to Hubei Province including the cities of Wuhan, Huanggang, and Ezhou—an area encompassing more than 58 million residents. NOTE: Travel into these areas after the government has issued these advisories could invalidate your travel insurance benefits. Make sure you check out your policy. For the most up-to-date warning levels, consult Travel Canada here.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued a Level 3 warning to “Reconsider travel” to China, and a Level 4—”Do not travel”—to Hubei Province. See the Department of State’s website for the most recent warning levels.

The Chinese authorities themselves are quarantining Wuhan and imposing strict limits on travel through other parts of the country. They have shut down travel to parts of the Great Wall and closed down Shanghai’s Disneyland indefinitely.

As of January 27, Chinese health authorities have reported more than 100 deaths and over 4,500 cases of confirmed infections by the coronavirus, but these numbers are expected to be quickly eclipsed as more areas and more hospitals report their results.

To date, two cases of infection have been confirmed in Canada, but more than a dozen individuals are being monitored. In the US, five cases have been positively confirmed.

These are preliminary figures, and as we can recall from the SARS epidemic of 2002 and 2003—which hit Metro Toronto with brutal force—even a handful of cases can bring large cities to their knees.

In 2002–2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) overwhelmed Toronto’s hospitals with its tally of over 440 confirmed SARS patients and ultimately 44 deaths. As if to add insult to injury, many of the infections were transmitted in hospitals by health care workers and through staff-to-patient contact.

Since that time, however, lessons have been well learned. And the fact that Canada and the US have so far remained largely unscathed by the Wuhan virus may be directly attributable to actions taken to prevent another SARS epidemic.

In the meantime, the shadow of the Wuhan virus is expected to have a huge effect on international travel over the next few months, both into China and to global travel markets dependent on the burgeoning Chinese middle class.

For the next several months at least—maybe longer—if you’re travelling internationally you should remain extra vigilant for travel advisories, particularly health-related warnings. And not only to China. Remember that in April 2003, during the height of the SARS epidemic, the World Health Organization advised international travellers to reconsider “all but essential travel” to “Beijing, Shanxi Province (China), and Toronto,” as travellers to those areas might become infected with the SARS virus and export the disease to another country. It lifted the advisory shortly after, when Toronto hospitals reported a cessation of transmissions.

Canadians should to stay connected to Travel Canada’s advisories, while Americans can consult the Department of State’s advisories. You can get both of these connected to your smartphones with Travel Canada’s Travel Smart app or the US Department of State’s Smart Traveler app.

Preferably, check in on both. And if you’re travelling to Asia, check in with the Aussies. You can find the government of Australia’s travel warnings here.

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