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Amid coronavirus alarm, politicians defy health experts’ warnings

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The coronavirus pandemic is expected to get worse before it gets better, a global health expert warned, stressing the best way individuals can limit the spread is to strictly observe social distancing – the practice of avoiding close contact with other people. Swee Kheng Khor, a doctor who studies global health…

Amid coronavirus alarm, politicians defy health experts’ warnings

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The coronavirus pandemic is expected to get worse before it gets better, a global health expert warned, stressing the best way individuals can limit the spread is to strictly observe social distancing – the practice of avoiding close contact with other people.
Swee Kheng Khor, a doctor who studies global health policies at the University of Oxford, made the assessment even as some of the world’s political leaders continue to defy his advice while imposing the same restrictions in their countries.
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“At the moment, vaccines are at least 12 to 18 months away, and there is no cure for coronavirus,” said Dr Khor, who has extensive experience in disaster relief.
“Treatment is only supportive and may require intensive care in a minority of patients. Therefore, without a vaccine or effective treatment, social distancing to prevent coronavirus is the best way to fight it.”

As part of the health guidelines on social distancing, mass gatherings – from rallies and concerts to religious events – are to be avoided, and individuals are advised to maintain at least one metre (three feet) distance from others.
But even if the science behind social distancing is strong, governments “find it difficult to impose” the practice, because it goes against the “instinct of humans” and it carries with it political and economic costs, noted Dr Khor, who is also a senior fellow on health policies at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
Handshakes and selfies
The disease, which originated in China, has continued to spread around the world, with infections confirmed in at least 165 countries. As of Thursday, the death toll is nearing 9,000, while infections were about 220,000. Some 84,000 victims have recovered, mostly in China.
The health emergency has left many political leaders grappling for the most effective response, while others remain dismissive of the global threat.

Supporters of Brazilian President Bolsonaro take part in a protest on Sunday in Sao Paulo near a public sign that reads ‘COVID-19 – Avoid crowds’ [File: Nelson Almeida/AFP]

On Sunday, March 15, outrage erupted in Brazil after President Jair Bolsonaro bolted out of his own reported quarantine to greet supporters, shaking hands and taking photos with them in the capital, Brasilia. This, despite earlier warnings that he might have been exposed to the coronavirus through his communications secretary, Fabio Wajngarten, who had tested positive.
Bolsonaro, who claimed to have tested negative for the virus, earlier encouraged supporters to take to the streets against the country’s Congress and Supreme Court – ignoring warnings from health authorities about large gatherings and recommendations on social distancing. He called the coronavirus threat a “fantasy”.
He also downplayed the revelation on Wajngarten’s health condition, while his son fiercely pushed back against reports from Fox News and several Brazilian media that the president himself was infected.
Trump ‘not concerned’
Wajngarten accompanied Bolsonaro during his meeting with US President Donald Trump in Florida in the first week of March. At least 14 people from Bolsonaro’s US entourage later tested positive for the coronavirus, according to reports.
On Friday, March 13, Trump brushed off speculation about the risk of being exposed to the disease, after his meeting with Bolsonaro and other Brazilian officials.

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As he shook hands with outgoing Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar during their meeting at the White House, Trump said he was “not concerned” after meeting Wajngarten, who in one photo was shown standing next to the American president and vice president.
Later that same day at the Rose Garden, Trump addressed the country and declared a national emergency to combat the virus – a reversal from earlier statements in which he said it will “miraculously” go away “when it gets a little warmer” in April.
After his speech, the US president was seen patting the back of Vice President Mike Pence and brushing his right hand with the hand of Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as both reached for the microphone set up for the news conference.
The next day, as cases of infections and deaths continued to climb in the US, Trump wrote on social media, “SOCIAL DISTANCING!”
As of Thursday, March 19, the number of infections in the US surpassed 8,300, with at least 150 deaths.

President Trump shakes hands before dinner with his Brazilian counterpart Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida earlier this month [File: Alex Brandon/AP]

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