Opinion: Many countries have done a great job on COVID-19. But one really worries me

By Siouxsie Wiles for The Spinoff

We will soon see what happens when this coronavirus meets a woefully underprepared national response, writes microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.

OPINION: In just a couple of months, COVID-19 has gone from the hypothetical scenario that infectious diseases experts have been warning the world might happen to a global reality that is giving financial markets the shivers.

As I write this, more than 85,000 people have been confirmed to have had the new coronavirus responsible, currently called SARS-CoV-2. Deaths will soon exceed 3000. On Friday afternoon, New Zealand became one of a list of countries that now numbers more than 40 that have confirmed they are treating someone with COVID-19. As with most of those territories, New Zealand is in what our Ministry of Health is calling the "Keep it out" phase of our Pandemic Plan.

The majority of countries are in this phase, treating people with COVID-19 that have travelled from known hotspots. In New Zealand as in these other countries, there is a focus on identifying any people who have been in close contact with someone with the virus, and ensuring they are put into isolation and tested. The goal is to stop anyone else in the country from contracting the virus. It's not unusual to have a few secondary cases in people who have been in close contact with the original case. But as soon as everyone is identified and isolated, and the people caring for them take all the necessary precautions, the virus is stopped in its tracks.

China, where the virus originated, has for the most part done what appears for now to be an incredible job of responding to the outbreak. They have gone to unprecedented lengths to stop the virus from spreading and it looks as though their efforts are paying off.

Worryingly though, there are now a few countries around the world in which there are people with COVID-19 that aren't linked to known hotspots and where it looks like the virus has started to spread out in the community. How this outbreak plays out on the global scale in the months to come is going to depend on whether they are able to get this transmission under control.

While most of the world is looking at how the situation is developing in the Middle East, Italy, and South Korea, one of the countries I'm most concerned about at the moment is the US. They've just announced several cases in California, Oregon, and Washington State with no history of travel or known contact with another case.

We are soon going to see what happens when this coronavirus meets a woefully underprepared national response in a country that for all intents and purposes despises socialised healthcare. It's not going to be pretty. And it could put us all in danger.

Back in 2018, President Trump's administration basically axed the executive branch team responsible for coordinating a pandemic response and did not replace it. Now he's put the vice-president, Mike Pence, in charge of the Coronavirus Taskforce. The first thing Pence seems to have done is in effect gag all the experts who have been speaking out about COVID-19. He then jetted off to Florida to do some fundraising. And not for his task force.

The vice-president doesn't have a great track record in the area of public health. When governor of Indiana, he oversaw the fastest HIV outbreak in the country's history, with his combination of budget cuts to healthcare and social services, and belief that the state shouldn't hand out "drug paraphernalia". At the time, public health officials were pleading with him to make clean needle exchanges available to try to reduce transmission of the HIV virus.

This, combined with the fact that so many Americans don't have access to affordable healthcare and paid sick leave, leaves me wondering how on earth they can stop COVID-19 going viral, so to speak. Case in point, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (a former drug company executive and pharmaceutical lobbyist) has said there is no guarantee any vaccine developed would be affordable to everyone who needs it. Hell, they haven't even managed to properly sort out country-wide testing for the SARS-CoV-2 virus yet, despite the World Health Organization making all the protocols freely available.

Meanwhile, Trump is telling his fanbase that this is all just a Democrat "hoax".

This does not bode well.

The Spinoff