The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has changed the world.
We are baffled, perplexed, disconcerted, confused. We never lived through a situation like we are living now. The closest it gets (for me) are the polio epidemics of 1949, 1950, 1951, 1953. Yes, year after year because epidemics (and pandemics) don’t disappear “miraculously”, although sometimes it sort of looks like it (more about this later).
Although this pandemic had been predicted by so many epidemiologists and scientists, it still found us unprepared. This is shocking but not unexpected. Perhaps it’s human nature that if something it’s not happening now, we tend to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
Nature does not wait for us to prepare: a pandemic arrived and here we are.
You can read about what is going on in books and even watch it in a movie, Contagion. When we watched Contagion in 2011 maybe we had that feeling of relief that we get when we watch a disaster movie and we know that we are safe, because it’s just a movie. When we watch Contagion now, the feeling is of recognition, fear and anger.
When I read “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance”, I was worried, because I knew that Laurie Garrett was right, and another plague would come, sooner or later. Because I understand the science involved, I knew that a new scary RNA patchwork of a virus had to come again, sometime, just as it came before.
How to prepare for the next few months
There is a way to prepare ourselves for these difficult times. We can read about the village of Eyam in Derbyshire (I visited it with my family) amd get inspired by human altruism. We can read novels that remind us that the sky can actually fall on humanity and change its course, but humanity survives. Books can make our memories longer. There are no living witnesses to the flu pandemic of 1918 among us, but we can read about the flu pandemic of 1918 and how it infected about 500 million people worldwide, about one third of the world’s population, and killed 20 to 50 million victims, including some 700,000 Americans.
Calling the virus SARS-CoV-2 (rather than treating it like it has a nationality) reminds us that there is scientific knowledge about the virus, that we are not flying blind like the world did in 1918. Also, we are not in the middle of a world war (World War I, the war to end all wars). Governments may have failed to do their job and allowed us get to to this moment without enough hospital beds, masks, ventilators and other safety protection. But we can count on our health workers and scientists to do their jobs and that is good.
We know that it will take many months and that the cost will be enormous both in terms of lives and resources. But we will get there, to scientifically proven therapies and effective vaccines.
Why are we baffled? Because we have never been in this situation before, because we don’t know what is going to happen and because we feel unprotected (and we are).
What are the bright and not so bright points?
We are not in 1918. It is because of the intensity and speed of international travel that the virus spread so quickly. Some governments are still opaque and misleading and use propaganda to confuse the people instead of being straight and do what’s best.
But the rest is for the better.
Children seem to be OK. There are some theories about why but they have not been proven yet.
We have the science. Within weeks of the first cases, all scientists in the world had access to the RNA sequence of the virus, allowing scientists to start preparing virus detection assays, looking for old antivirals that may be effective in treating the sick and modifying them chemically to make them even more effective
Scientists started immediately to working on developing a vaccine. Thousands of scientists in dozens of countries are working right now on developing a vaccine.
And, just as important, epidemiologists know what to do, how to gain time while the scientists work on treatment and vaccines.
Prevent people from spreading and catching the virus by improving hygiene and social distancing, slowing down the spread of the virus. We know that social distancing and quarantine can “flatten the curve” (this already started happening in Italy, where the curve of infection, today, does not look exponential any longer) and even stop the contagion.
Remember, however, that if infection declines as the weather changes, it is very likely to come back in the Fall. Only the vaccine, or a huge change in the infectivity and lethality of the virus, can restore normalcy.
Let’s look at the bright side
It’s never a good time for a virus to come into our lives, but we are so much better off than in 1918! Although the economic and social effects of this pandemic are awful, the loss of life will not be what it could have been (2.2 millions lives lost just in the USA?). And, who knows, maybe we will be lucky and the virus will mutate in a way that will make it less infectious and less lethal. After all, mutate is what RNA virus do. Let’s hope we are lucky and the mutations turn it into a virus that makes people sniffle for a few days and spares the lungs.
In the meantime, while we hope for good luck, let’s wash hands, get some distance between us and possible carriers (they may not have any symptoms!), stay at home and stay healthy.
What we don’t know can hurt us
Until scientists learn more about the virus and the illness it causes, we have to be extra careful. Don’t assume anything. Viral infection may give us long term immunity. It may protect us from re-infection. But we don’t know that yet.
Take disinfecting wipes with you when entering a public space and use them to wipe down surfaces that are frequently touched (doorknobs, elevator buttons, etc.). If disinfecting wipes are not available, use a disinfecting spray bottle with paper towels. Avoid unnecessary travel. Stay at home.
I know that not touching your face is hard. I wash my hands a lot and try to avoid touching my face to decrease the chances of getting virus into my eyes. nose or mouth.
Take care of your hands. Broken skin is not a good barrier for bacteria or virus.
Laurie Garrett (1994) Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 768 pp