Still waiting

This, then, is how the world ends: not with a bang but with a virus.

I said I would write something about viruses in general. Well, why not? Everyone else is doing it. And in keeping with the infinite monkey theory I have just as much chance of getting it right. Or having it read. Actually a pretty good chance of the former, but not so much the latter.

As little background as possible: viruses are a weird “pseudo-lifeform” that don’t fit the rules. They propagate in host cells, mutate easily, and are really difficult to kill. While active they cause the host to initiate an immune response to get rid of them producing all those unpleasant symptoms we call illness.

The bad news: that would be the “difficult to kill” bit. Immune systems eventually manage it, usually. But if you’re already in trouble physically … well this is where most of the deaths from COVID-19 have been occurring, and it’s no surprise.

The good news: this new one isn’t really any worse than others, it just looks like it. The media hyperbole and misinformation makes it sound like the new Black Death, but that wiped out half of Europe. Really the death rate of infected individuals now is staying around 3%, which is what we’d expect under the circumstances. Of course if you know one of them or are one of them there is zero comfort in that fact.

The bad news: it’s not easy to prevent the spread. Literally inhaling the same air as an infected person means you have been exposed and could develop the disease. The longer you are exposed or the more intense the exposure (an infected person’s cough will have a higher density of the virus than regular exhaling) the greater the risk.

The good news: just because you’re exposed doesn’t mean you’re going to get it, or even that it will be any worse for you than ordinary flu.

The bad news: it hangs around on surfaces and wiping them down with disinfectant/alcohol won’t kill it.

The good news: wiping the surfaces (and washing your hands) can physically remove the virus. So yes wash your hands, but don’t obsess about needing sanitizer, okay?

Now to get into the more complex aspects of virology, what you need to know is that the damn things can go dormant but remain viable and survive some really severe conditions like the frigid cold and vacuum of space. A certain celebrity moron has stated that once the weather warms up to 80° Fahrenheit COVID-19 will no longer be a problem. This is not so. If the weather warmed up to 800° Fahrenheit we wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore, but it would be small compensation for the buildings burning and cars melting and everything else being dead as well. Viruses do not kill off easily.

On the other hand it is true that weather changes affect viral transmission, and the reasons why are somewhat paradoxical (meaning scientists still argue about it). For example the germs like warm, moist air but not cold, dry air – but the majority of viral infections occur when the weather is cold and dry. Hmm. Why is this? It’s mainly because that inhospitable ambient state is an irritant to our respiratory tract which makes it more susceptible to infection. There is also some claim that the social conditions of Winter – more people huddled together in relatively closed locations – increases the likelihood of spread. A further fact is that viruses have a life cycle like anything else, and generally flourish at certain times of year but remain latent at others – sort of like plants blooming in the Spring. But no one knows yet exactly how COVID-19 will respond to these changes.

Will masks help? Only if they are worn by infected people; they aren’t very effective at stopping you breathing the germs in, only at exhaling them. I guess most people don’t understand that the main reason for “hospital garb” is not to stop the staff from catching diseases from the patients, but to stop the patients from catching diseases from the staff. It is easier to isolate a known infected individual than to apply prophylactic measures to everyone who might catch the virus. Amazingly this novel coronavirus seems to be pretty hard to catch; we’d really expect the infection rates to be much higher with the known proximity factors. I guess it doesn’t ‘travel well’.

There have been a lot of ill-informed commentaries on the COVID-19 virus, ranging from the absurdity of it being “created on purpose” or “weaponized” (it’s a lousy one if they did) to blaming it on the Chinese just because it originated there (hey, notice how it doesn’t care about ethnicity or religion or geographical borders?) to the outrageous and immoral scamming going on with fake ‘cures’ and ‘preventatives’ (or claims of being health authorities) and on to the ridiculous and yet harmful human reactions of hoarding things that won’t really do any good for having them in mass quantity.

Even investors have fallen for this farce, dumping stocks due to fears of global economic collapse despite the fact it is A). not really doing that much damage (except by proxy) and B). inevitably a short-term event. The ironic thing here is that the world will go back to doing business as usual once this episode has passed, not having learned a single lesson from it. This despite the fact we’ve had similar outbreaks in the not-too-distant past which should have prepared us, but we failed to learn the lessons then as well.

People are acting as though this is some air-born pathogen sweeping across the world and devastating the population. This is not the case in any respect, especially not the deadly results part. Remember there are over 7 billion people on this planet now, and we’re going crazy over what is a statistically insignificant infection rate, never mind the fatality rate. Also understand that world travel is rampant and fast these days, so in fact the spread has been amazingly small. The so-called Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 killed off 50 million people in a world of about 2 billion, and there was no air travel in those days as planes had only just been invented. To relate, COVID-19 would have to kill off 175 million people to be the equivalent, and that is unlikely given the improvements in medical care since the early 20th century.

The pattern of the disease’s progress is exactly what we’d expect to see, with the initial outbreak in China being the most deadly. This is followed by individual travelers taking it to other destinations such as Iran, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and yes Canada. Once there we see another ‘blossoming’ of it spreading out from a central location. It is at this point we expect to see a decrease in fatalities, but ultimately this in influenced by quality of care factors in the affected locales.

In opposition, there are people saying that the quarantine procedures being used are “unethical and ineffective”, which shows they know nothing about which they speak. Limiting contact between known or suspected infectious people and others is a sure-fire way of reducing the risk of spread, and from that point alone is therefor ethical. As Dickens said: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” Eventually a vaccine will be produced, although who should get it will remain debatable for some time. I imagine initially it will be one of those “travelers’ vaccines” rather than a common inoculation.

If there is any great risk imperiling us it is not the disease itself, but our society’s inability to cope with the circumstances. I have been waiting days to find out if I really am infected or not, and the symptoms have all but vanished meaning when (or if, knowing the efficacy of our system here) the results come back they will be of moot value. Meanwhile as the cases do mount up (so far no deaths in our country, and less than 50 infections) our government is just getting around to coming up with a committee to deal with it. That’s not how you manage an emergency. The quicker you take action on a potential threat like this the greater the chances of success against it. Controlling the panic in the populace, reassuring them that everything will be alright, would be a lot easier if they had a handle on the situation from the beginning instead of rushing about making contradictory claims and generally presenting an image of utter confusion and idiocy among those who are in charge of handling said situation.

Our provincial government announced one day that there was little risk of it infecting here, and two days later reported the first case. This in a place that regularly has lots of travel to and from China, where the outbreak was first detected. Since then the in-province cases have risen to 27 (really not many for a population of 4.6 million) and the government is just now trying to organize to combat it? If this really were a significant health threat such as some form of biological warfare we’d all be as good as dead by now.

As I said, ultimately this will be our undoing – not the disease itself.