The pneumonia-causing coronavirus in China has generated almost worldwide alarm. Yet it would be an overreaction to speculate whether this could be a new pandemic which will sweep the globe, as Spanish flu once did. Yet again, the world can scarcely afford to discount its dangers though the information that is now available is far too little to draw firm conclusions, even by the medical fraternity.

Coronavirus is said to be a new affliction; a prognosis must await further research. There were six casualties and 300 afflictions till Wednesday morning; the number could rise by the time this comment appears in print. First reported in Wuhan in China last month, the potentially mortal affliction was initially greeted with indifference, embedded in ignorance. The response of the people in general, even China’s health authorities, has now oscillated towards fear, when not panic, almost overwhelming.

On Monday, officials confirmed that there was human-to-human transmission. Which explains the sharp rise in the sale of face masks. Cases have even been reported in Thailand, Japan and the Philippines; the confirmed patients are those who had recently been to China. It is a measure of the gravity of the situation that the World Health Organization has convened an emergency meeting. The nationwide anxiety in China has been fuelled by two other factors. First, hundreds of people will travel home to China this weekend to celebrate the lunar year with their families.

The other factor is China’s handling of the major outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003. Grim memories of Sars still rankle. It bears recall that officials had covered up the problem for months till an intrepid doctor exposed its scale, and thus discharged his professional duty. Medical experts believe that some of the 800 deaths worldwide might have been averted had China provided more information and at the right time.

Neither coronavirus nor Sars can lend scope for a conscious dumbing down by the government in Beijing. China still tightly controls news and social media, suppressing information it considers damaging. Imperial College London has, however, estimated that a far higher number of people than reported ~ around 1,700 ~ may be affected. Of course, patients are being tested in hospitals; reports suggest that some patients are not seeking medical treatment.

Yet in comparison to 2003, Beijing has responded far more swiftly and offered much more information. President Xi Jinping has stressed the need for the outbreak to be dealt with and the Chinese political body responsible for law and order has warned officials that those who hide or delay reporting cases “will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity”. In the immediate perspective, attention ought to be riveted to the sick and the dying. There is concern at the highest level, unlike the negligent nonchalance towards public health in certain parts of South Asia.