Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that are known to infect both humans and animals, and in humans cause respiratory illness that ranges from common colds to much more serious infections. The most well-known case of a coronavirus epidemic was Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), which, after first being detected in southern China in 2002, went on to affect 26 countries and resulted in more than 8,000 cases and 774 deaths. The number of people infected with Covid-19 has now well surpassed those hit with Sars.

While the cause of the current outbreak was initially unknown, on January 7 Chinese health authorities identified that it was caused by to a strain of coronavirus that hadn’t been encountered in humans before. Five days later the Chinese government shared the genetic sequence of the virus so that other countries could develop their own diagnostic kits. That virus is now called Sars-CoV-2.

Although symptoms of coronaviruses are often mild – the most common symptoms are a fever and dry cough – in some cases, they lead to more serious respiratory tract illness including pneumonia and bronchitis. These can be particularly dangerous in older patients, or people who have existing health conditions, and this appears to be the case with Covid-19. On February 5, Chinese health officials reported that two-thirds of the people who have died from Covid-19 were men, more than 80 per cent were over 60 years old and they typically had pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

WHO (World Health Organisation) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that the window of opportunity to contain Covid-19 is “narrowing”. Recent outbreaks in Italy and Iran, which so far have no clear link to China, pose a significant challenge to health authorities trying to stop the spread of the virus.

After initially delaying the decision, on March 11, the WHO declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. The agency cited the rapid growth of cases outside of China and the global spread of the disease as reasons behind the designation. In January, it also declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” – the highest category of warning for an infectious disease outbreak.

Since 2009 there have only been five declarations of international public health emergencies: the swine flu pandemic in 2009, a polio outbreak in 2014, the Western Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Zika virus outbreak in 2015 and another Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2019.

The government has told Britons not to “panic buy” amid coronavirus fears, but many are doing the opposite.

Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, an expert in consumer and behavioural science at the University College London, said that because toilet paper has a longer shelf-life than many food items, is prominently featured in aisles and is big in size, we are psychologically drawn to purchasing it in times of crisis.

Around the UK, shoppers are emptying shelves as fears grow over the spread of coronavirus. Items including toilet paper, hand sanitiser, pasta and tinned foods are among the items that have been in short supply.

How did it all start?

What started as an epidemic mainly limited to China has now become a truly global pandemic. Outside of China, there have been over 1,610.490 cases and 99,656 deaths, according to the John Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard, which collates information from national and international health authorities. The disease has been detected in at least 185 countries and territories, with Italy, Iran and Spain experiencing the most widespread outbreaks outside of China.

In the UK, there have been 74,605 confirmed cases and 8,974 deaths as of April 11.

The Chinese government responded to the initial outbreak by placing Wuhan and nearby cities under a de-facto quarantine encompassing roughly 50 million people in Hubei province. In Italy, which is experiencing the largest outbreak outside of China, the government took the unprecedented step of extending a lockdown to the entire country, shutting cinemas, theatres, gyms, discos and pubs and banning funerals and weddings.

In the UK, the government has advised people to avoid all unnecessary social interaction or travel and directed households in which one person falls ill with coronavirus symptoms to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Nearly 600 homeless people in England and Wales died in 2017, an increase of 24 per cent over the previous five years, government figures have revealed. Rising from 475 in 2014 to 597 in 2017, deaths among the homeless increased annually – barring a slight drop in 2013 – according to figures released by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Between April and June 2019, 68,170 households were initially assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness. Of those, 32,220 households were deemed to be homeless – an increase of 23% on the same time period over the last two years.

The forces which affect homelessness are complex and often interactive in nature. Social forces such as addictions, family breakdown, and mental illness are compounded by structural forces such as lack of available low-cost housing, poor economic conditions, and insufficient mental health services.

An estimated 320,000 people are homeless in the UK, according to the latest research by charity “Shelter”. This equates to one in every 201 Brits and was an increase of four per cent on the previous year’s (2019) number.  The rise of 13,000, or 4%, on last year’s figures, shows that an equivalent of 36 new people become homeless every day in Britain. These people’s essential rights to access clean air, water, food, clothing, healthcare and shelter are systematically deprived in Britain.

Hundreds of homeless people in London are being housed in hotels to self-isolate to provide them with “vital protection” from the coronavirus, the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced. But I have been walking across London every single day and night over the past 5 weeks, and still, I have seen and pictured people sleeping in the streets, without clean air, food, clothing, water, healthcare and shelter.

Three hundred rooms have been made available in two hotels for the next 12 weeks, the mayor’s office said in a March 21st statement. But are there only 300 people homeless in London, a city with an estimated 8 million residents?

Another report by Shelter estimated that on any given night in 2019, more than 280,000 people in England were homeless (mostly people living in temporary accommodation arranged by their council). More than 60% of these people (170,068) were in London alone, where 1 in every 52 people are homeless.

Crisis, a charity for homeless people in Britain, called for restrictions on housing benefit to be lifted, which it said would allow councils to rehouse some migrants whose immigration status leaves them unable to access public funds.

The charity is also calling for an end to policies which it says perpetuate homelessness such as “right to rent” checks by private landlords.

“The government’s insistence that everyone sleeping rough should be housed by the weekend is a landmark moment – and the right thing to do,” said the charity’s chief executive, John Sparkes, but so far there are people still in the streets.

Homeless people are at particular risk of contracting the coronavirus with the systems that care for them poorly equipped to handle a major outbreak. Vigilant hygiene can prevent transmission, health experts say, but that is likely to be a challenge for people living without homes.

update: Monday April, 20, 2020

The initial results of a survey by the UCL Collaborative Centre for Inclusion Health reveal the coronavirus death rate of homeless people living in London’s hostels is 25 times higher than the general adult population. It found that 38% of hostels in the capital had suspected Covid-19 cases, with 41% of sick residents sharing bathrooms with other residents and 35% of affected hostels still using communal dining rooms. At least 17 residents have been admitted to hospital with more serve symptoms since March.

Modelling by UCL indicates this grave situation could worsen unless the government scales up testing and removes infected residents from shared hostels to special facilities. The model, set to be released next week, predicts up to 12,000 hospital admissions and 900 deaths of homeless people in England over the next three to four months if no action is taken.