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Coronavirus: What is a global health emergency and how could it affect you?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency after the deaths of 170 people in China and the spread of the disease across the globe.

The decision came in the WHO’s third meeting to discuss the crisis, after it previously declined to take such a step.

What is a global health emergency?

Officially called a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), it is defined as “an extraordinary event” that poses a public health risk through the international spread of disease which could require an international response.

Image: A worker in a protective suit disinfects the Dongxinzhuang village in Shandong province

It suggests a situation that is “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected” which may need an immediate response.


It is considered a call to action and a “last resort” measure.

How many global health emergencies have there been?

Since 2009, there have been five:

The 2009 swine flu pandemicThe 2014 polio declarationThe 2014 outbreak of ebola in West AfricaThe 2015-16 Zika virus epidemicThe Kivu ebola epidemic as of July 2019

Any new subtype of human influenza is automatically declared a global health emergency – such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), smallpox, and wild type poliomyelitis.

How far has the coronavirus spread?

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Why has it taken so long for coronavirus to be declared one?

The virus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS which killed nearly 800 people across the world in 2002-2003.

But after several meetings over the past week, the WHO had stopped short of declaring a global emergency.

Its declaration could now trigger containment and information-sharing guidelines and may disappoint Beijing, which has expressed confidence in defeating the virus.

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Trade and travel restrictions are also possible, meaning holidaymakers might have their plans affected in some parts of the world.

Experts say it could also affect the Chinese economy.

“The fear is that they (the WHO) might raise the alarm bells… so people are taking money off the table,” said Chris Weston, from Melbourne brokerage Pepperstone.

Image: People in Hong Kong have formed enormous queues for protective masks Image: Shoppers in Hong Kong wear masks as the government shut down parts of the border

What happens next?

The declaration will trigger recommendations to all countries aimed at preventing or reducing the spread of the virus, while avoiding unnecessary interference with trade and travel.

The WHO said its greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, who may not be able to contain it.

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“We are all in this together and we can only stop it together,” said the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Didier Houssin, chairman of the emergency committee, said it would hold countries to account over extra measures they may take.

Although the organisation has no legal authority, it can ask governments to provide scientific justification for any trade or travel restrictions.

Is this like SARS?

Unlike SARS, which also originated in China, it is believed the new virus can spread during the incubation period of one to 14 days – possibly before an infected person shows symptoms.

So far, the new coronavirus does not appear to be as deadly SARS, but there have been more cases overall.

Where has it spread so far?

The vast majority of nearly 8,000 cases so far identified have been in China, mostly in and around the city of Wuhan.

Image: Air Asia flight attendants arrived in Kuala Lumpur wearing face masks Image: People line up outside a drugstore to buy masks in Shanghai

Other countries with confirmed cases include the UK, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, the UAE, the US and Vietnam.

The WHO is looking closely at cases of person-to-person transmission outside Wuhan, which would suggest that the virus has the potential to spread further.

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What are authorities doing?

Around 60 million people are under lockdown in China’s Hubei province – of which Wuhan is the capital.

Wuhan’s local transport networks – including bus, subway and ferries – were suspended from 10am on 23 January, and airport and train stations closed.

Chinese authorities also imposed lockdown measures on 10 cities in a bid to contain the outbreak, including Huanggang, Ezhou, Chibi and Zhijiang.

A number of foreign governments – including the UK – have begun flying their citizens out of Wuhan and advised against non-essential travel to China.


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