More than 75,700 cases of coronavirus have been recorded worldwide and over 2,000 of those patients have died. However, health agencies warn that the numbers may not reflect the complete total as some countries have not been forthcoming with their data.
Earlier this week, World Health Organization (WHO) leaders called for greater collaboration and transparency in an effort to prevent COVID-19 from becoming a global pandemic, especially for countries with an already fragile health care system. Withholding information could alienate citizens from receiving the critical medical help they need.
North Korea, for example, does not have a strong health care system but continues to deny that the virus has reached its borders, despite the fact that 99 percent of the cases have occurred in neighboring China.
“I would worry about countries that have single party or autocratic governments since they have a lower level of objective scrutiny from the media, including the traditional (institutionally reported) media and (bottom-up reported) social media,” Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, told Fox News. “The reporting of widespread healthcare-related scares reduces faith in the government, which could make any autocratic state nervous about the political repercussions; these are also states that survive by maintaining control over the narratives about the state of the human condition, the economy, etc.”
That said, Chakravorti recommended treating information coming out China, which had for weeks maintained that the case count remained at 41 and had not spread outside Wuhan, with skepticism. He said the size of the outbreak, as well as the amount of government control in the country, is playing a role in how we receive information pertaining to the outbreak, which he believes is coming from models as opposed to “rigorous primary data collection.”
“Besides China itself, there are other countries in the region that do not meet the external scrutiny conditions and are run in an autocratic manner,” he said. “They are among the most likely to not share accurate information. I would count North Korea, Myanmar, and even the Philippines in this category.”
To stay ahead of the virus, Chakravorti recommends countries follow WHO protocols, including screening newly arrived visitors and quarantining those found to be at risk. He also said the Chinese local and federal authorities should work in collaboration with global health care professionals to investigate the outbreak and stop it from spreading further. Last week, a team of WHO experts arrived in China to help investigate the outbreak after the effort was initially met with resistance.
“All it takes is for a country that has plenty of contact with the outside world and doesn’t have strong quarantine procedures and enforcement disciplines in place to become a weak link in the global system of disease transmission,” Chakravorti said.
He cited a recent incident involving cruise ship passengers in Cambodia who were allowed to disembark without following the recommended coronavirus protocols as an example of global risk. At least one of the passengers tested positive for the virus, which could have created “a pathway of transmission that could eventually spread beyond Cambodia and blow up into a larger global crisis,” he said.
“The best precedent to learn from is how the world dealt with SARS, a coronavirus that had origins similar to COVID-19,” he said. “In fact, many of the processes that have been put into motion – albeit with some delays and initial mismanagement – have been derived from this earlier experience."
The most important takeaways from that outbreak, he said, include common-sense measures such as keeping adequate medical supplies, shutting down potential sources, collecting data, sharing information and working to stop misinformation from spreading.
"At an international level, it is important to acknowledge the global footprint of the disease and the potential pathways of spread and noting the tipping point beyond which it is declared a global health emergency," Charavorti said. "And then, of course, there is a recognition that scientific work has to occur with collaborators across the world racing to develop a vaccine."