Opinion | UI must take swift action to combat coronavirus

By Andrew Prozorovsky, Senior Columnist

The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, a pandemic as cases continue to augment around the world. 

The coronavirus is worse than H1N1, SARS, Zika and especially the common flu. It has been likened to the Spanish Flu of 1918, a pandemic that killed an estimated 50–100 million people (2–5% of the world’s population). While medical technology has greatly improved in the last century, so has transportation and communication technology, which has permitted this highly-contagious disease to spread rapidly.

The gears of society have begun to grind to a halt. Political rallies, festivals, concerts, live audiences, conferences, travel plans and parades have been canceled over coronavirus fears. Even sports leagues have suspended their seasons. Study abroad programs have been halted, and Peace Corps assignments placed on hiatuses. The stock market realized the worst drop since the 2008 financial crisis.

Governments, particularly authoritarian regimes, have capitalized on the crisis to consolidate power. The Chinese government infamously punished whistleblowers that tried to alarm the world about the actual scope of the coronavirus spread in China and other governments have used the coronavirus to justify enforced curfews and border control.

Despite efforts to downplay fears by the Trump administration, health officials have conversely maintained that the spread of coronavirus around the United States will get much worse before it gets better. As a result, countless universities around the country have set strict quarantine requirements for returning from spring break and announced a transition from live classes to online.

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Contingency plans are key. Even The Daily Illini is preparing a contingency plan for its staff to minimize human-to-human contact. Rumor has it the University predicts the disease might reach Champaign-Urbana by April, and if this is to be believed, it is imperative the administration make clear their contingency plan to the spooked student body.

The University has not specifically mentioned online classes, a popular alternative for other universities, but professors have disclosed they will be required to take an online workshop over the break, a hint the University may be headed down that path. The most the University has reported is that it is currently evaluating a variety of responses in the event the coronavirus appears on campus.

In a Massmail sent to the student body March 10, the administration urged students to proceed under the assumption in-person classes will be suspended and to bring all academic materials home during spring break. It also reiterated its self-quarantine policy for students and the process for being readmitted to campus for students visiting high-risk areas, designated by State Department travel advisories.

The University administration, as well as the C-U Public Health District, needs to be more proactive with a solution rather than reactive. Should the hyper-contagious pathogen appear on campus, it is not just classes that the University is responsible for. Campus RSOs have addressed the virus with their members and the suspension of operations in accordance with University policy, meaning they look to the administration to advise them. 

Furthermore, it is currently unclear how an overwhelmed McKinley might allocate its resources during an outbreak. Nearby stores, such as Walgreens and Walmart, are running low on hand sanitizer and toilet paper as students stampede to stock up.

On the UIUC subreddit, students have expressed concern about the unamended spring break housing protocol, forcing students to pay to stay or leave campus. Students who live in afflicted areas will have nowhere to go if they do not want to have to self-quarantine before returning to campus. Perhaps the disgruntled Redditors are right. These special circumstances warrant an exception for students who need to be allowed to stay over break.

The University has an incredibly diverse student body, with attendees from every corner of the world. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which this widespread diffusion of students followed by a concentrated return does not result in the contagion being brought here.

In order to protect against the coronavirus, practice peak hygiene. Wash hands often and thoroughly, wear a mask if you are sneezing or coughing and avoid unnecessary contact with others, especially those over 30, who are at risk of death from the illness.

The University appears to be preparing for an inevitable coronavirus appearance, albeit slowly. The State of Illinois has confirmed 32 cases of coronavirus according to state officials on March 13, with no definitive signs of slowing down. To quell a frightened constituency, the University needs to prove it has a decisive plan of action in the same fashion other universities have. 

The coronavirus presents a real threat and a particularly real disruption to the University’s operation, and it’s time for action.

Andrew is a sophomore in LAS.

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Editor’s note: It was originally written that the state of Illinois has 19 confirmed cases, when it had 32 at time of publication. The Daily Illini regrets this error.