Countries around the world are closing borders and putting citizens under lockdown in a bid to contain the rapid spread of the new coronavirus outbreak, labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO’s declaration has increased pressure on governments to ramp up their response, sparking emergency action plans and upending life around the globe.
Here’s what you need to know about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19:
How to protect yourself
Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap; cover your face with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing, and then throw the tissue in a waste bin; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; clean surfaces and objects you touch often; seek medical attention if you have symptoms; and avoid direct contact with live animals in affected areas.
Scientists doubt the effectiveness of face masks in protecting a healthy person from airborne viruses, saying they are more useful in keeping an infected person from affecting others.
Because masks are loose and permeable, they cannot completely prevent what is in the air from passing in.
An increasing number of countries has advised people to self-quarantine for at least two weeks while also implementing a series of sweeping social distancing measures, including banning public gatherings and shutting down schools.
But as the number of cases grows, so do the myths surrounding the new coronavirus. Here and here, we clear up some of the rumours and misconceptions around the outbreak.
Social distancing to ‘flatten the curve’
It is essential to maintain social distancing – including staying at least 1.8 metres (six feet) away from anyone who may be coughing or sneezing near you.
The aim of social distancing is to slow down the spread of the virus, giving the global health systems more time to care for patients who need help, which is also known as “flattening the curve”.
Social distancing is most effective when the infection can be transmitted via droplet contact (coughing or sneezing), which is the case with the coronavirus.
Cancellations of public events that draw large crowds, such as sports events or music festivals, are an essential part of social distancing, but avoiding smaller gatherings is equally important, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Other examples of social distancing that allow you to avoid crowds or crowded spaces are working from home instead of at the office, closing schools or switching to online classes, and visiting loved ones via electronic devices instead of in person.
Symptoms to look for and who is most at risk
According to the WHO, the most common symptoms are fever, fatigue and a dry cough. Some patients may experience aches and pains, nasal congestion, a runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea.
Current estimates of the incubation period – the amount of time between infection and the onset of symptoms – range from one to 14 days. Most infected people show symptoms within five to six days.
However, infected patients can also be asymptomatic, not displaying symptoms despite having the virus in their system.
The elderly, and those with underlying medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness.
Can hot weather stop coronavirus?
A dramatic surge in coronavirus infections in Southeast Asia in recent days has increased doubts over a theory that warmer weather could stem the spread of the virus, health experts say.
Relatively low cases of infections in many Southeast Asian countries had been cited as possible evidence that hotter weather was suppressing the virus, giving hope to Europe and the United States as they head into spring.
But countries from Indonesia to Thailand to Malaysia and the Philippines have recorded their highest rate of infections in recent days as testing has ramped up, in a sign seasonal factors may only play a limited role in coronavirus’ spread.
“The temperature theory doesn’t really hold up given what’s happening right now in much of Southeast Asia,” said Tikki Pangestu, a professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “People in Europe hope warm weather will kill the virus. I doubt this will be the reality.”
The spike of cases in many Southeast Asian countries has been dramatic in recent days, leading governments to take drastic action to stem the tide.
“At best, warm weather might influence the spread but it will not see the end of it,” said Dale Fisher, chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the World Health Organization.
“What is important is how effectively countries are isolating cases, removing people from communities. That’s the biggest factor, not the weather.”
What to do if you think you caught the virus
A dedicated hotline has been set up in several countries for people who suspect they have been infected.
People in the country are asked to contact the hotline before going to a hospital, to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus in an unprepared healthcare facility or on the way there.
Individuals are required to contact specialised help as soon as they suspect they are ill, and to limit contact with others as much as possible.
To date, there is no vaccine and no medicine for COVID-19. While some traditional or home remedies can provide comfort and alleviate symptoms of the disease, there is no proof that existing medicine can prevent or cure it, according to the WHO.