For the past month or so, I’ve been watching the events surrounding the spread of the coronavirus with a combination of horror, disbelief, and optimism.
The feeling horror, of course, is due to both the short-term and long-term devastation that the virus is causing, both in terms of people becoming ill and/or dying as well as disruptions in the economy, the restriction of civil rights, and an increase in political stability.
The disbelief mainly stems from the fact that seemingly no one, not the World Health Organization, not the European Union, and not any other government or international body seems to have had a comprehensive contingency plan in place for handling a pandemic like this one.
The optimism stems from both humanity’s innate resilience as well as seeing multiple signs that a lot of the most harmful aspects of globalism, capitalism, and governmental corruption are now beginning to be sloughed off.
Ring Around a Rosey
By now, we all know that there is no such thing as “the” coronavirus.
Instead, we are dealing with a new (or “novel”) type of coronavirus, a brand-new strain of the coronavirus family. Called by many names, “the” coronavirus is Covid-19 (officially SARS-CoV-2), which is related to SARS (officially SARS-CoV-1), MERS (officially MERS-CoV), HKU1, NL63, OC43, and 229E.
If you haven’t heard of some of those listed above, that’s okay. HKU1, NL63, OC43, and 229E produce such mild symptoms (and no fatalities) that few people who are not virologists or public health experts have ever heard of them.
The reason why all of these are called “corona” viruses is that, under a microscope, they look like a round ring with a hollow center. The Latin word “corona” simply means “crown.” In a parallel universe, they might all be known as ring viruses.
That being said, for the rest of this article, I’ll simply use the term “coronavirus” to refer to the brand-new virus aka Covid-19 aka SARS-CoV-2.
Where Did the Coronavirus Come From?
It’s natural that people have been asking just where this new coronavirus has come from.
At the moment, it is suspected that it started in Wuhan in Hubei Province, China. Certainly, that’s where it was first identified.
Currently, however, the legendary Patient Zero (or the first person to serve as a host to the virus) has not been identified despite intensive efforts by the Chinese government. But even assuming that Patient Zero is, one day, identified as a person living in China, that does not mean that the coronavirus comes “from China.”
That’s an important distinction to make, not just because of possible racist or xenophobic fallout, but because identifying the GPS coordinates of the first person sickened with the disease is useless information.
What matters most is the cause or source of the disease.
There’s been a lot of speculation about whether the coronavirus was a naturally occurring mutation of existing coronaviruses or whether it was somehow engineered artificially in a laboratory.
Thanks to the hard work of scientists, we now know for sure that it is definitely not manmade. The new coronavirus is 100% an evolutionary adaption of existing coronaviruses.
At the moment, it partially matches known samples previously taken from both bat coronaviruses as well as pangolin (a kind of armored anteater) coronaviruses. However, no exact match has been found as of yet.
Future testing will determine whether the coronavirus emerged “full-fledged” from an animal and was then transferred to a human being (who then transferred it to everyone else) or whether a slightly different coronavirus was spread to a human, evolved inside that human to its current form, and then spread from there.
The difference is extremely important.
If there are thousands of animal carriers of the coronavirus out there (known in medical terms as a “reservoir”) then the possibility of new, future waves of human infections from this coronavirus are likely. But if the coronavirus only achieved its current form inside Patient Zero, then once it is eradicated, it will not return.
Bats, as most people know, are flying mammals. But few people realize just how many bats there are in the world.
Long before global travel, bats were the only land animals to have inhabited every continent and every island in the world. Bats are endemic (native) to even the most remote oceanic islands as well as all tropical and temperate zones in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Bats are mammals (meaning they produce live young which are suckled with milk), making them related to other mammals (including humans). There are some 1,200 different bat species in the world ranging from tiny “microbats” (yes, that’s the scientific term) to giant “megabats” (again, a real term).
Approximately 20% or one-fifth of all mammals on this planet are bats.
Bats are social creatures, meaning that they usually live in large groups. This makes bat-to-bat diseases a regular occurrence, including rabies (a virus, but not a coronavirus) and coronaviruses.
Because all bats can fly and because bats exist in every country, island, and territory where people live (except for the high Arctic), there is plenty of overlap between the two, meaning that bat-to-human (as well as human-to-bat) disease transmission is not just possible but commonplace.
Mind you, it is extremely important to remember that bats are not the “enemy” of humankind. Bats serve important roles in the ecosystem, including pollinating plants, dispersing plant seeds, and consuming (eating) vast amounts of insects, including those that are harmful to human beings (like mosquitos that carry some of the deadliest diseases known to science).
What is important to understand here is that a) bats are extremely numerous b) bats are similar enough to us that we can sometimes share diseases and c) destroying or disturbing the territory where bats live is a really good way for them to increase contact with human beings and, thus, pass on diseases.
I don’t know about you, but I just did a check of my browser history and found 1,682 articles in my history that mention the word “coronavirus.” That is a lot.
Is that amount of coverage really merited? Well, yes and no.
News organizations always cover the stories that are of interest, whether that’s coming from a profit motive (more clicks) or because it’s what people want to hear about (public/state media).
That being said, human beings suffer from a number of heuristics. And this, in a sense, means that nearly all the information in those 1,682 articles is “fake.”
I don’t mean that in the traditional sense of “fake” as in “a fabrication” or “a lie.” I mean it in the sense that it is highly misleading.
For example, if you hear that, in Country X there were 5,000 reported cases and 250 fatalities, this is undoubtedly factually true. But the information is misleading because it is provided out of context.
For example, how many people died in road accidents during the same period? How many people were diagnosed with cancer in that same period? Et cetera, et cetera.
Without that all-important context, the data on coronavirus infections/deaths/etc is both useless and dangerous.
It is useless because it looms much larger in the mirror than it actually probably is (i.e. we’re all focused on coronavirus deaths instead of what might be an epidemic of car crashes that’s far deadlier).
And it’s dangerous because magnifying all the fear and paranoia onto one thing (coronavirus) leads to secondary detrimental effects such as panicking, profiteering, xenophobia, looting, and buying too much food and hygiene products from stores.
Furthermore, just hearing about “the coronavirus” non-stop, 24 hours a day, is adding to the stress levels of millions of people. And stress is a contributing factor to weakening the immune system, and a weakened immune system makes people more susceptible to diseases, including respiratory infections caused by things like the coronavirus.
Besides censoring (and sometimes shuttering) websites and other channels on social media platforms that spread outright “fake news,” I have yet to see a single government successfully take control of the narrative surrounding this coronavirus.
What I mean by that is not some dystopian, authoritarian lockdown on the media but rather a cohesive effort by governments to set up and provide clear, regularly updated information on the coronavirus.
At the moment, this means that people are forced to rely on a hodgepodge of social media shares, websites, group chats, and personal conversations in order to get educated on what the coronavirus is, what can be done to stop/ameliorate its spread, and what the government is doing/can do about it.
In a much better-prepared world, governments would have immediately set up a single, specialized website (with attending social media channels) to provide this information. And offline methods such as billboards, flyers, and telephone hotlines would have been set up in order to relay this information to the public.
Lastly, but definitely not least, governments around the world have been hampered by varying levels of public distrust. If you’ve lied, been corrupt, or have otherwise mismanaged the governance of your country for decades, then it is perfectly reasonable that a given percentage of your citizenry is not going to trust you when you impose restrictions on their civil liberties in the name of managing a public health crisis.
The point person in every country or territory should have been a medical doctor or public health expert, non-political in nature, who holds a daily press conference. However, I am unaware of any country or territory which has done that.
And because there is no authoritative and trusted health experts “at the helm” of the dissemination of information about this disease, we are all being inundated by inaccurate, misleading, and/or maliciously fake stories.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do you know the difference between the symptoms of the coronavirus and the flu?
- Do you know the difference between the symptoms of the coronavirus and the “common” cold?
- Do you know what things can boost/weaken your immune system?
- Do you know what other diseases (currently in existence) are caused by viruses?
- What does a coronavirus test actually “test” for?
- Do you know why washing your hands is effective at stopping the coronavirus?
- Do you know how coronavirus actually causes death in the people that it’s killed?
- Do you know what types of surfaces (metal, glass, ceramic, etc) that the coronavirus can survive on, and for how long?
If you don’t know the answer to one or more of the above, it’s okay. You are far from alone.
Governments and public health authorities have done a truly abysmal job of educating people on these basic elements of infectious disease control.
As far as I am concerned, that is positively criminal.
Why Is Coronavirus So Dangerous?
Some people might even ask – is it even dangerous at all?
Diseases are measured by something called the “case fatality rate” or CFR. This is a simple ratio of dividing the number of total cases by the total number of deaths.
But it can take years or even decades to determine a disease’s CFR. But whether the coronavirus has a CFR of 2% (i.e. 2% of the people who get it will die) or 20% is actually pretty irrelevant at the moment.
Of course, none of us wants to get a disease that’s going to kill us. But there’s no such thing as a disease that is 100% fatal. Even the worst killers in history (like Ebola) do not have a 100% fatality rate. Conversely, even the least harmful diseases can weaken our immune system and make us susceptible to being killed by other diseases or infections.
What matters far more important than the CFR is the overall effect on society, particularly the medial system. And that’s where we are seeing this coronavirus become truly dangerous.
The simple fact is:
- Some people will get the coronavirus and their own immune system will defeat it.
- Some people will get the coronavirus, their own immune system will defeat it, but they will pass it onto somebody else who will succumb to it.
- Some people will get the coronavirus and survive thanks to medical intervention.
- Some people will get the coronavirus and die because of a lack of medical attention.
- Some people will get the coronavirus and die even with medical attention.
Obviously, for people who get it and defeat it (on their own) without passing it onto anyone else, the coronavirus isn’t dangerous at all.
The real danger to society from this coronavirus comes from a combination of a) people who have the virus (whether they know it or not) passing the sickness on to others and b) sick people overwhelming the health care system to the point that lifesaving medical care cannot be provided to those who would have survived had they been able to receive medical care.
Social Distancing and Self-Quarantine
All the stuff about staying home as much as possible, avoiding large crowds, using an elbow bump instead of a handshake/kiss for greeting people, and staying at least two meters (USA: six feet) away from others is precisely to avoid spreading the disease.
I think that, more or less, has been accurately conveyed to the majority of people. But it still bears mentioning because not everyone understands it as of yet.
After all, we’ve all seen images of politicians and other leaders who continue to ignore these precautions.
Overwhelming the Medical System
The actual lethality or CFR of coronavirus is not going to be precisely known for several years. But what we do know for certain is that overwhelming the medical system with enormous numbers of people all seeking care at the same time is leading to unnecessary death and suffering.
In hard-hit places like Iran and Italy (and more countries to come in the near future), what is happening is that a) hospitals run out of beds and b) there is a shortage of critical equipment like mechanical ventilators.
The lack of beds means that sick people cannot be separated from healthy people and that they are not in a controlled, convenient place to receive medical care from doctors.
The lack of mechanical ventilators means that some people who could otherwise be saved will not be saved, simply because the necessary equipment was not available.
At the moment, the deadliest effect of the coronavirus is that it makes some infected people unable to breathe. Using a mechanical respirator (literally, an artificial breathing device) can keep some of those people alive long enough for other therapeutic means to restore their ability to breathe on their own.
If coronavirus was 100% treatable and curable by existing medical treatment (at the moment, we don’t think this is true) then some people are dying unnecessarily right now precisely because of a lack of ventilators and/or beds.
That means that yes, the coronavirus is definitely deadly, in part because the sheer number of infected people is overwhelming (or will overwhelm) the health care system’s ability to treat them.
As I mentioned earlier, context is all-important when it comes to understanding diseases and possible causes of death.
For example, if we look at the World Health Organization‘s website for the “Top 10 causes of death” in 2016, we see that respiratory infections was number four.
Obviously, this was long before the existence of the new coronavirus.
Between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (#3 on the list) and respiratory diseases, things that attack our lungs are a major, major cause of death. That’s in every country, rich or poor, around the world. And it is something that we rarely take as seriously as we should.
There are plenty of causes for respiratory diseases, including smoking cigarettes, viruses (coronaviruses and others) and air pollution. And it’s that last one that merits more discussion.
According to the WHO, approximately seven million people die every year from air pollution.
That’s quite a shocking statistic, I think. The WHO classifies air pollution as a “major threat.” And the WHO specifically states that air pollution increases mortality (death rates) from things like respiratory infections.
Approximately 90% of the people in the world live in places where air pollution exceeds the recommended safe levels.
Iran, Italy, and Wuhan
Although data is still emerging, one of the most interesting things about the coronavirus is that it seems to be virtually non-lethal to young children (age 9 and under).
In contrast, other respiratory diseases like the flu tend to follow a “U-shape” curve where the elderly and the very young are most susceptible. So why are children seemingly immune to the new coronavirus?
No one knows, and anything said at this point is pure speculation. But one possible theory that is emerging is that coronavirus deaths seem to be especially concentrated in places where there is a high level of air pollution.
The city of Wuhan and Hebei Province, where the first coronavirus cases were discovered, has some of the worst air pollution in China. From The World Bank (June 2019):
In the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, home to 110 million people, Hebei contributes the most to air pollution, responsible for 70% of PM 2.5 emissions, an air pollutant that poses the greatest health risk. The province has the highest annual average concentrations of PM 2.5.
Hebei’s air pollution challenges are the result of a large concentration of highly polluting industries and vehicles, coupled with a large agricultural sector. For example, Hebei is the largest iron and steel producer in China, accounting for about one-quarter of the national output, and an important producer of cement and flat glass.
And what about Italy, particularly northern Italy where the highest concentration of coronavirus cases has been recorded?
From The Local (February 2019):
It is only the end of February, but air pollution in Milan has already exceeded the legal limit for 2019, and the Po Valley swims in a soupy smog.
“I can really feel when there’s smog, I suffer all winter long,” 45-year old Milan local Fabio Cigognini told AFP, describing the asthma-like symptoms which plague him during the cold months.
“We breathe in poison, but no one tells us anything,” he said.
Northern Italy’s air pollution levels regularly exceed EU acceptable limits.
And what about Iran? From the Tehran Times (December 2019):
Over the past six days, polluted air in the country sent 13,931 people to hospitals and medical centers due to heart and respiratory problems, Mojtaba Khaledi, Emergency Medical Services Organization spokesman has said.
Polluted air also resulted in the closure of schools and universities for five days.
All three of these areas clearly suffer from extremely bad air pollution, something well-known by science to cause respiratory disease and death.
Overwhelmed Healthcare Systems
Clearly, some healthcare systems are being overwhelmed or are projected to be overwhelmed due to the large number of coronavirus patients.
But what were Italy’s, China’s, and Iran’s healthcare systems like before the coronavirus?
In January 2018 (🇮🇹), the Italian paper Corriere Della Sera reported that Milan’s hospitals were on the verge of collapse due to a record number of respiratory infection patients.
In September 2018, the New York Times reported massive problems in China’s medical system:
An economic boom over the past three decades has transformed China from a poor farming nation to the world’s second-largest economy. The cradle-to-grave system of socialized medicine has improved life expectancy and lowered maternal mortality rates.
But the system cannot adequately support China’s population of more than one billion people.
China has one general practitioner for every 6,666 people, compared with the international standard of one for every 1,500 to 2,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.
Instead of going to a doctor’s office or a community clinic, people rush to the hospitals to see specialists, even for fevers and headaches. This winter, flu-stricken patients camped out overnight with blankets in the corridors of several Beijing hospitals, according to state media.
Iran, of course, has been under witheringly harsh sanctions for years, and its medical system has suffered tremendously.
In October 2019, Human Rights Watch issued a 47-page report entitled “US Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health” that listed, in grim detail, all the ways that Iranians were dying and suffering unnecessarily because of draconian restrictions on importing medicine and medical equipment.
Therefore, it seems pretty clear that the absolute worst hotspots for coronavirus have been in places with a) horrific air quality and b) a weakened, overwhelmed health care system.
While this is absolutely terrible for people living in places like Italy and Iran, it does provide a spark of hope that there are additional ways to reduce the lethality of the coronavirus.
For instance, in many countries where social gatherings and other restrictions have been banned, air quality has dramatically improved precisely because there are fewer vehicles on the street.
And this lends hope to the fact that other, as of yet spared locations may be proactively benefiting by decreasing air pollution before the coronavirus can spread further.
Test, Test, Test!
Last, but definitely not least, is the subject of testing for the coronavirus.
The head of the WHO said it himself: “Our key message is: test, test, test.”
Without testing, there is no way to know who has the disease and who doesn’t. After all, some people who have been tested and confirmed to have the disease were showing no symptoms at the time (and never developed them). And some people who are showing all the symptoms of coronavirus might actually be suffering from a different disease, but we’ll never know if they don’t get tested.
I simply find it unfathomable that more testing is not being done. Furthermore, few people seem to even understand how a test works or what is involved. Therefore, let’s do some basic education together.
To begin with, coronavirus tests don’t involve taking blood, saliva, or other liquids from the body and then analyzing them under a microscope.
Instead, coronavirus tests usually involve using a sterile cotton swab that is placed in the throat (or sometimes the nose). It is painless and takes about five seconds to collect the sample. Literally any medical department in the world could gather these samples with the equipment that they already have on hand.
But the reason why more testing isn’t being done is because of what is required to analyze the swabs, which can only be done in a laboratory under very careful (and sterile) conditions.
Swabs are usually not tested individually but in batches (groups) using a process called reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which is a kind of DNA test. The swabs are placed in a PCR machine which then analyzes the genetic components found in the swab and then compares them to the known coronavirus code.
Unfortunately, even the most advanced PCR machines take about six hours to perform this test. The reason why it takes six hours or more is that the material has to be “amplified” (grown to a far larger volume) before it can be properly analyzed.
The test doesn’t actually examine the whole coronavirus (or other viruses captured in the samples) but what’s known as the ACE-2 or “hook” component of the virus. This is the unique part of the coronavirus that allows it to work on people. If Covid-19 had a different “hook,” it wouldn’t be able to infect human beings.
Not every country and region has a laboratory or enough laboratories to perform enough tests for the population, but it is clear that increasing testing capability is the key to combating this disease.
By testing, you know who is actually infected, as opposed to inferring it by symptoms or their travel history, and we can then isolate and treat those people.
Without enough testing, you have to ask millions of healthy people to quarantine themselves, and some asymptomatic people are going to be on the front line somewhere (a prison guard, a doctor, a police officer, etc) and continue to infect others unknowingly.
Currently, doctors in Australia are working on a way to speed up the testing process to get a result in 15 minutes.
But the tradeoff for this speed will be a reduction in accuracy, which comes with its own problems (like declaring infected people to be disease-free, etc). Instead of analyzing the DNA of samples like the PCR test, the quick test just looks for antibodies that indicate that your immune system has come into contact with the coronavirus.
At some point in the far future, there will be a vaccine. But the effectiveness of that, whether or not it will be needed at that point, and how to get a sometimes wary segment of the population to accept it is something that will be handled later.
At the moment, there is no vaccine.
The only way to survive the coronavirus, should you get it, is boost or let your existing immune system defeat it naturally.
In the meantime, antiviral drugs and/or mechanical respirators might be needed to keep you alive long enough for your immune system to finish the job.
It’s Not Over Until It’s Over
We will make it through this, one way or another.