A new kind of coronavirus discovered late last year in central China has now spread with ruthless speed to every continent on earth except Antarctica. It has killed tens of thousands, disrupted daily life in ways that would have seemed unthinkable at the start of the new year, and now poses a dire threat to the health of the world economy. The World Health Organisation says the coronavirus pandemic is the "defining global health crisis of our time", capable of revealing the best and worst in humanity. On April 22, the WHO's director-general said the virus "will be with us for a long time", pointing to the early stages of outbreaks in some countries, and an uptick of cases in others.
This comprehensive guide to the coronavirus pandemic has all the important information you need to protect yourself, your family and your community. Use the links below to navigate. (Click here to see our special coronavirus coverage page)
Let's get started.
First things first. "Coronavirus" isn't the name of the pathogen that's been sickening and killing people around the world these past few months.
Coronaviruses are actually a big family of viruses, named for the crown-like effect created by spikes on their surface -- these are actually proteins that help them invade human cells. Some coronaviruses, in fact, cause the common cold.
What we're dealing with right now is a new, or novel coronavirus. It has a name: SARS-CoV-2. (Pronounce the first two parts like words: "saars" and "kawv".)
Don't confuse SARS-CoV-2 with the coronavirus that caused the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 -- they're related, but not the same.
Click on the photographs below to get a closer look.
So, what is Covid-19, then?
That's the name of the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus. Short for coronavirus disease 2019, it was first detected when a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases emerged in China's Wuhan city late last year. (Pronounce Covid-19 like a word, too: "ko-vid-nineteen".)
Now, how does the new coronavirus spread? What symptoms does it produce? What can you do to reduce infection risk?
Find out in the next section.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the new coronavirus mostly spreads through respiratory droplets leaving an infected person's mouth or nose when he (or she) coughs, breathes out or even talks -- and when these are either inhaled or ingested by a healthy individual, or transferred by hand from a contaminated surface to his eyes, nose, or mouth.
There's evidence that the coronavirus can hold out for a long time on surfaces: A recent US study showed it can survive for up to four hours on copper, a day on cardboard and two or three days on plastic and stainless steel. It also survives in aerosols -- droplets suspended in the air -- for as long as three hours.
There are also indications that people carrying the virus but without symptoms -- known as asymptomatic individuals -- can give it to other people, according to the WHO.
There's no vaccine or specific anti-viral treatment for the coronavirus yet, only supportive care. But the race to develop a vaccine is intensifying, with one group of researchers at Oxford University hoping to develop a million doses by September.
How can you protect yourself?
Here's a list of precautionary measures based on information provided by the World Health Organisation, the Indian government, and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
MORE ON PRECAUTIONS
1. In early April, the Indian government said homemade face covers were recommended for healthy individuals. Click here for more information.
What are the symptoms of a Covid-19 infection? Here's what the World Health Organisation says. (Read the full WHO Q&A here.)
What are the most common symptoms?
"The most common symptoms of Covid-19 are fever, dry cough, and tiredness. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, sore throat or diarrhea. These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but only have very mild symptoms."
Does everyone who's infected become very sick?
"Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing hospital treatment. Around 1 out of every 5 people who gets Covid-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing."
Are there some groups at greater risk for serious illness?
"Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart and lung problems, diabetes, or cancer , are at higher risk of developing serious illness. However anyone can catch Covid-19 and become seriously ill. Even people with very mild symptoms of Covid-19 can transmit the virus. People of all ages who experience fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention."
When should you seek help?
"If you have minor symptoms, such as a slight cough or a mild fever, there is generally no need to seek medical care. Stay at home, self-isolate and monitor your symptoms. Follow national guidance on self-isolation. However, if you live in an area with malaria or dengue fever it is important that you do not ignore symptoms of fever."
"Seek immediate medical care if you have difficulty breathing or pain/pressure in the chest. If possible, call your health care provider in advance, so he/she can direct you to the right health facility."
Are you in India? Read this: India's coronavirus helpline number is +91-11-23978046 (the toll-free helpline is 1075), and the dedicated e-mail ID is firstname.lastname@example.org. The government is encouraging citizens to download and use a contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu. (Learn more here.)
The global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is in the tens of thousands, and continues to rise. But what is the mortality rate? In other words, what percentage of patients succumb to Covid-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus)?
For now, we can't tell for sure -- recent estimates have ranged from below 1% to up to 4%, far lower than the figures for two previous epidemics caused by coronaviruses, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
As we've said earlier, the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions are more at risk for serious disease. In February, a Chinese study of 44,672 confirmed cases in Mainland China reported an overall death rate of 2.3%. But the figure was 14.8% for for people older than 80, and only 0.2% for ages 10 through 39.
Most people with Covid-19 get better without special treatment -- approximately 80%, according to the World Health Organisation.
But that's not an excuse to not report symptoms. If you show signs of a Covid-19 infection, have travelled to a country where the disease has been spreading or think you've been in contact with a suspected or confirmed patient, PLEASE seek help.
Since the pandemic reached India, there have been alarming reports of high-risk behaviour, such as suspected Covid-19 patients leaving hospitals without clearance. We don't need to stress how dangerous this is -- please cooperate with medical and government authorities.
If you're in India, perhaps you're asking yourself why authorities have locked down the country for weeks. In fact, even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the shutdown on March 24, restaurants and malls were being ordered shut, exams were postponed, and employees who could were being asked to work from home.
[UPDATE: India has since begun diluting its lockdown measures in an attempt to partially reopen the economy.]
This kind of collective effort at social distancing -- combined with hand and respiratory hygiene practices that reduce the risk of transmission (JUMP TO SECTION), and public health measures like testing and contact tracing -- is crucial in the fight against coronavirus pandemic.
We need to "flatten the curve" of infections. It's pretty simple. Imagine a graph that plots the rise and fall of coronavirus cases over time. What you don't want is a steep peak in a very short amount of time -- one that could overburden the healthcare system.
So it's better if the curve is more staggered, but flatter. That can happen when a community adopts aggressive containment strategies, including social distancing.
Together, we can flatten the curve by practicing social distancing, staying home when sick, and washing hands often. This will reduce the strain on our hospitals and emergency rooms, and literally save the lives of our most vulnerable residents. #COVID19 #NovelCoronavirus pic.twitter.com/6Yzvg3DONvLA Public Health (@lapublichealth) March 15, 2020
Before you move on, a note on lockdowns: they are part of the toolkit, but they aren't enough.
Hear it from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation: "Asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems."
"But on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics."
So what else is needed? Here are six actions recommended by the WHO.
- Expand, train, deploy healthcare and public health workforce
- Implement system to find all suspected cases at community level
- Increase production, capacity, availability of testing
- Identify, adapt, equip facilities for isolation and treatment
- Create plan and process for quarantining contacts
- Refocus whole of government on coronavirus fight
India is currently fighting a growing outbreak of the new coronavirus, so it's natural for the public to be concerned. But panicking isn't the solution. In fact, it can be dangerous: stockpiling essentials and hoarding masks or sanitiser, for example, creates shortages for others.
But you should follow precautions (JUMP TO SECTION) that help prevent the spread of the virus. That includes simple measures like cleaning your hands regularly with soap and water -- or sanitiser -- and not touching your face. Social distancing is the buzzword these days, and for good reason: reducing your proximity to other people -- by standing at least a metre away if you're face-to-face, and re-organising your life to keep yourself at home as much as possible -- helps enormously.
At a time like this, it's important that you keep yourself informed. The World Health Organisation's dedicated page on the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, is an excellent resource. Also bookmark India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, whose homepage now lists the latest stats on cases, deaths and recoveries - plus helplines and the latest advisories. Follow them on Twitter at (@WHO) and (@MoHFW_INDIA). Indian nationals who are currently abroad should track the Ministry of External Affairs at (@MEAIndia), as well as the local embassy or high commission. Find the one closest to you here.
Scan the news for updates from national, state and local authorities. IndiaToday.in publishes daily live blogs on the coronavirus pandemic and has a dedicated coronavirus page -- you will find links to both on our home page.
So, in short: don't panic, take steps to protect yourself and your community, and keep bringing yourself up to speed.
Stay safe. Take care.
India began emerging from the world's longest coronavirus lockdown in early June. But despite ordering its population of 1.3 billion indoors for over two months, it has watched cases rise steadily — for example, it added more than 10,000 on June 12 in an unprecedented single-day spike. The world’s largest democracy is now among the five worst-affected nations, and is, in the view of one senior opposition leader, "firmly on its way to winning the wrong race”. The ruling BJP, on its part, has defended its government’s "bold and timely" decisions to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus despite facing criticism on several fronts. These include the harrowing plight of stranded migrant workers leaving cities for their hometowns — several have died: from the heat and from exhaustion, in road and train accidents, and on special trains launched to help them travel — and a financial stimulus effort seen by a top global ratings agency as insufficient to buoy real GDP growth rates to "around 8 per cent, which had seemed within reach just a few years ago”.
Despite the rise in caseload, the medical research body ICMR continues to insist India hasn't reached the community transmission stage, a view that has no shortage of skeptics. Community spread describes the advanced stage of an outbreak where the pathogen is rampant, and new patients are no longer able to pinpoint the source of their infection. The health minister of Delhi, one of India’s worst hit territories, admitted on June 10 that there was "transmission in the community”, but added that only the central government could make a declaration about community spread.
There are mixed views on India’s decision to gradually open its economy, which was already in the grip of a slowdown before the pandemic struck with devastating force. A top business leader recently pointed to the need to save both lives and livelihoods — news of layoffs abounds — as she voiced support for easing restrictions, while also underscoring the importance of keeping the mortality rate low. But in early June, several worrying signs remained: the uptick in cases continued, hospital beds were in short supply and the test positivity rate was higher than the threshold considered by the WHO to be appropriate justification for relaxing social distancing measures.
Where does India go from here? We’ll have to wait and watch.
How freely is the coronavirus spreading in India? Is it only infecting people in close contact with patients who caught it while travelling abroad? Or is it already fanning out into the community and stealthily sickening people who can't tell where or from whom they got it?
If you've been wondering what the ongoing debate on transmission stages is about -- well, this is the essence of it.
There are four transmission stages. In Stage 1, infections are limited to arrivals from countries where the virus has been spreading -- say, China or Italy. In Stage 2, known as local transmission, people contract the virus from patients "importing" it, so it's still possible to pinpoint the sources of infection. This changes in Stage 3, known as community transmission: the pathogen now spreads so freely in the population that patients can no longer trace their infections to a place they visited or another person who has the virus. And in Stage 4, the caseload and death toll swell to such an extent that there appears to be no end in sight to the outbreak. (Click here for a NewsMo video on the four transmission stages.)
So, at what stage is India's outbreak?
An ICMR study on Severe Acute Respiratory Illness (SARI) patients tested for the coronavirus disease showed that 40 out of 102 people found to be carrying the virus "did not report any history of contact or international travel", pointing to community spread.
In early April, the director of AIIMS (Delhi), Dr Randeep Guleria, said most of India was at Stage 2 but also appealed for vigilance, pointing to "localised community spread" in "a few pockets". The government said his views were "not in variance" with its own stand.
It said India was "between Stage 2 and 3".
In early May, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said India had so far been able to avoid community transmission of the virus. On June 11, the ICMR maintained that India hadn't yet reached Stage 3, a position viewed by some with skepticism. For example, a former AIIMS director, Dr MC Misra, says community spread began -- albeit in a small way -- back in March.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the public to observe a voluntary "janata curfew" on March 22, he invited them to clap, ring bells or beat utensils at 5 pm to laud professionals working to provide essential services. Soon, messages on social media were claiming the coordinated applause and percussion would cause the coronavirus to lose its "potency" -- bogus, obviously.
Fake news on the current pandemic is rife. India Today TV fact-checkers have exposed fake cures and false advisories on eating bakery items, shaving facial hair, or using a 10-second breath hold as a way to test for infections. In February, the World Health Organisation said it was fighting not just the virus, but also "trolls and conspiracy theorists who push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response".
One particularly explosive claim that's been refuted by researchers is the idea that the coronavirus is a Chinese bio-weapon -- the basis for a U.S. lawsuit seeking $20 trillion in damages from China, a figure greater than its GDP.
As the pandemic progresses, we need to make sure we're consuming and sharing authentic information on the virus. The World Health Organisation's coronavirus page and the Indian health ministry's website are good sources. Click here for more resources, including links to news content from India Today.