The Current

Infectious disease specialist warns of 'overkill' when cancelling events over coronavirus fears

Fears around the spread of coronavirus are shutting down public gatherings and events around the world. Is the caution justified?

Not 'practical or sustainable to hole ourselves up in our basements,' doctor says

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy questions the "reasonability" of cancelling some major public events in response to coronavirus. 2:14

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The COVID-19 outbreak has prompted officials to cancel big events and public gatherings around the world, but one infectious diseases specialist worries widespread shutdowns could do unintended harm. 

"[It] worries me that we're going to see a serious hit to our global economy," said Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network.

"And it worries me about the social and the mental health unrest that may evolve from this — again, from people isolating themselves and being more fearful," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"We want people to be concerned, we just don't want them to be panic-stricken to the point that they don't really know how to cope with this in a positive manner."

In Canada at the weekend, organizers announced the cancellation of the Arctic Winter Games, which were due to take place later this month in Whitehorse, Yukon. Athletes who had trained for the biennial event told CBC News that losing their chance to compete was "devastating."

A look at what risks are taken into consideration when deciding where a mass gathering, like a conference, is cancelled. 1:59

Irish officials cancelled St. Patrick's Day parades scheduled to take place across the country next week, as did organizers of the parade in Boston. Soccer authorities said Monday that at least four major matches — in France, Germany and Spain — would take place with no fans.

Sharkawy said it's logical to cancel events that pose a risk of "rapid transmission of the virus."

"When we're talking about scales of thousands of people, it makes very good sense from a public health perspective to cancel events," he told Galloway.

But he wondered "if we're going to see the possibility of movie theatres closing — are we going to see every sporting event being played in front of nobody?"

"I do wonder if it is a bit overkill at this point in time."

Sharkawy suggested events could assessed on an individual basis, along guidelines issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada

I don't think it's practical or sustainable to hole ourselves up in our basements, with an endless supply of toilet paper and canned tuna.- Dr. Abdu Sharkawy

That includes considering the number of people attending the event, as well as whether they're in a higher-risk age group; whether it's indoor, outdoor; the handwashing facilities available at the venue; and whether entry and exit could be staggered "so that you don't have swarms of people entering and exiting the facility at the same time?"

"These are questions that I think need to be answered, and maybe we need to go through a trial period where we see what works and what doesn't."

'Live your life'

Sharkawy said he wasn't trying to trivialize the virus in any way, but that "we have to recognize that 80 per cent or more of people that are afflicted by this are not going to be very sick, they're not likely to to die."

"If it can be a message where we can develop a very good sense of hand hygiene and break the chain of transmission, we'll protect that vulnerable segment of 20 per cent that will be more likely to succumb to this infection and its complications," he said.

He said his advice is to "live your life."

CBC News Network's John Northcott spoke with Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network . His viral Facebook post urges people to demonstrate reason when reacting to news about COVID-19. 5:21

"I don't think it's practical or sustainable to hole ourselves up in our basements, with an endless supply of toilet paper and canned tuna," he told Galloway.

"We will get through this, but we all have to be of the same mindset," he said. 

"We need to create a system of solidarity and a system of respect and a system of patience, not one of stigma and fear."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal, Alison Masemann and Matt Meuse.

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