The spread of the coronavirus reflects our inter-connectivity, starkly highlighting our intertwined destiny and common humanity. We are not just individuals living among other individuals acting in our own self-interest. We are connected by a power greater than ourselves.
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It’s all coronavirus all the time right now. Since Commune is focused both on well-being and community, I think it’s appropriate for us to devote resources to both inform and discuss some of the implications of this global pandemic.
I have also found that there is a lot of misinformation which can stoke additional panic and hysteria. I am watching messages and memes go viral (pardon the poor pun) that are spreading dubious facts and creating more chaos, so I feel some civic responsibility to use this platform to provide solid information that can quell the uncertainty and fear that many people are feeling.
Like many of you, I have personally run the gamut of emotions from initial head in the sand to midnight panic. But now that I have been more closely following the science, I am understanding the risks better and, while I am alert, I am not so anxious.
My mantra has been: Stay centered. Follow the science. Don’t succumb to fear. Spread information, not the virus.
Before I jump in, just a disclaimer. I am not a medical professional or biologist. And the situation is very liquid. I am recording this on March 14 and I suspect we will see a lot of change over the next couple of weeks or even days. By all accounts, the situation will likely get considerably worse over the coming weeks.
The coronavirus pandemic has many different dimensions to it from public health and personal behavior to politics and social welfare. So, I am devoting this episode to covering a wide swath of these subjects.
There’s a lot we know and a lot we don’t know. In this episode, I’ll be outlining some basic facts on the pathogen, the symptoms, what we should do both individually and collectively, basic network theory, the political dimensions of the pandemic and some general commentary on what the societal implications may be.
Ok, so I want to start with some of the basic facts, and this may seem redundant to many folks, but I think it’s important to develop some general fluency around the topic as knowledge can often assuage fear.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. There are Coronaviruses circulating regularly all the time. This novel Coronavirus is the 5th seasonal virus and causes the disease COVID-19. It started in late 2019 and early 2020 in the Chinese city of Wuhan as a cluster of pneumonia cases with an unknown cause. It has been traced to animal markets in Wuhan.
Signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia and can be fatal. There is no current vaccine for the disease. The earliest estimates for the production and distribution of a vaccine is 12 months. There are some anti-viral clinical trials underway. Estimates for anti-virals range from 3 – 6 months.
Currently, the data suggests that 80% of the cases are mild which may be contributing to the spread, since reproduction agents for the virus may be asymptomatic. So, you could be hanging out with people that seems completely healthy, but who are actually carrying the disease.
Children do not appear to be contracting the disease at the rates of other cohort groups. This may be attributable to the fact that children are subject to other coronaviruses and get colds throughout the flu season and there may be some cross-immunity. We don’t know that yet. But children may be vectors for the disease without having major symptoms.
This is the sneaky nature of this virus. It is spreading quietly between people who do not appear ill. But this also gives us a good amount of control as I will explain later.
The pathogen seems only moderately fatal which in some odd way creates more potential community transmission as if mortality rates were high, the virus would kill its host before he or she had a chance to transmit it.
How do you get it? How is the disease spread?
This is a Respiratory virus. It is generally spread through fluid emitted by coughs & sneezes. So, someone who is carrying the virus doesn’t cover their mouth when they sneeze and droplets spread out over a 4 to 6-foot radius. These droplets can land on you or on surfaces that you touch. We can then infect ourselves with those germs by touching our face and the virus takes up residence in our mucous membranes which lead to an infection.
This does not seem like a particularly hearty virus and it will become benign on surfaces within 4 – 20 hours. It can be deactivated by regular household cleaners.
There does not appear to be any airborne spread. In other words, the virus doesn’t linger in the air. So, if you get in an elevator that was previously occupied by an infected agent, you are not going to contract the virus through breathing the air. Though you could get it by touching a surface that that infected person touched or coughed on.
There have been a lot of comparisons to the flu. This season approximately 31M Americans have gotten the flu and there will be about 30,000 - 35,000 fatalities. The biggest recent flu season was 2018 when 80,000 Americans died. The flu has a fatality rate of .1%. There have been a wide range of mortality rates associated with COVID-19 largely because there are so many undiagnosed cases that make the math impossible. Low fatality rate estimates are about .6% and high estimates are closer to 3%. This puts COVID-19 at between 6 and 30 times more lethal than the flu. There are avian viruses that have 50 – 60% fatality rates but have never been transmitted human to human.
The other metric to look at is the reproductive rate. Disease experts estimate that each COVID-19 sufferer infects between two to 3 others. That's a reproduction rate up to twice as high as seasonal flu, which typically infects 1.3 new people for each patient. This is well below doomsday, species annihilating airborne transmitted flus.
Who is at risk? There are some clear susceptible cohort groups including:
What do you do? Here are the personal behaviors that you can engage in to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.
The other key behavioral shifts relate to our civic responsibility as well as our own personal health. As citizens with a social responsibility to each other, we need to engage in behavioral shifts that prioritize our communal well-being. This specifically relates to social distancing.
The reason for this is based in network theory. Every single one of us is a potential reproductive agent for this pathogen. As I mentioned, this virus is deceptive in that it can often be non-symptomatic so you can think that you’re just hanging out with healthy people. However, someone may unknowingly be carrying the disease and by interacting with them you may become an agent for community spread.
Engaging in this kind of social distancing flattens the epidemiological spread by disrupting the network. It’s not just the you reduce the chances of contracting the disease yourself, you also remove yourself as a contagion. As I previously noted, for every person that gets infected, he or she infects 3 more people. For those Gen X’ers listening, you may remember the old head and shoulders commercial, she told 2 friends and they told 2 friends and they told 2 friends. The spread becomes exponential. This virus exists only to propagate in the most Darwinian fashion. We must break the replication chain.
By flattening the spread, we take stress off our medical infrastructure which may inevitably be pushed to the brink. Also, a note, please refrain from any uncritical medical procedures. We only have 2.8 beds per thousand people in the United States and we’re going to need them and the staff to treat the severely afflicted.
Ironically, right now, community is best served by not being too communal.
Hopefully, this basic information, while possibly redundant, reduces some uncertainty and by extension fear, which is the next thing I would like to address.
It is important to be informed and vigilant but not fearful. Fear not only leads to anxiety but it also leads to rash behavior that can inevitably be even more destructive than the epidemic itself. We can’t slip into societal chaos where resources get horded and people turn against each other.
To this point, I highly advise you to not get your information from politicians or biased 24-hour cable news, get it from scientists and reputable scientific sources such as the CDC, the Johns Hopkins website and newsletter, and the World Health Organization.
As of today, the political leadership in the United States on this issue has been largely absent and misguided. This is not an effort to turn the pandemic into a political football or malign the president. However, it is important to acknowledge the political context that we are in because it can impact public behavior.
The first response from the president on Coronavirus was the typical display of ignorant chest-thumping machismo. Instead of using the month of February to produce testing kits, coordinate with international allies, build additional healthcare infrastructure, this administration glibly dismissed the pandemic altogether.
Then, last Wednesday, the president gave a nationwide address that was a crystallization of the administration’s incompetence, replete with numerous incorrect policy statements and lack of coordination with allies and aviation officials. The next morning throngs of people flocked to airports across Europe, during a pandemic. And there was a cessation of trading on the stock exchange floor to stem the biggest market crash of the millennium.
The president is both a well-documented germaphobe and a xenophobe, and he has combined these two lovable qualities to characterize the virus as a “foreign” threat. He has consistently framed coronavirus as an immigration issue instead of a public health issue. He did not once address the most basic notion of public testing in his address last Wednesday.
Currently, in South Korea, where they seemed to have considerably flattened the spread, officials are testing 20,000 people per day. I believe there is drive-thru testing. Here, in the United States, through a comination of bureaucracy and incompetence, there have been 15,000 total tests administered at the time of this recording.
Again, my intention is not to bash the president here. It’s to simply provide some political context to the pandemic. It is in times of crisis when we need the government most. We have seen China force quarantine or, more accurately, cordon sanitaire on hundreds of millions of people and they have significantly curtailed the spread of the virus. The measures have been Draconian, but, by all accounts, they are working.
We live in a liberal democracy and not under an authoritarian regime. We do not want our civil liberties trampled on or our privacy rights taken away. This is why civic engagement is so important. In the absence of leadership, it is incumbent on all of us to fully embrace our civic responsibilities.
In a curious way, this time is reminding me of 9/11. I lived in New York and ran a business 2 blocks north of the world trade center. In the months after the tragedy, there was a collective grief that expressed itself all over the country but specifically in New York City. Strangers on the sidewalk or in the subway hugging and high-fiving, engaging in random acts of kindness. 9/11, as tragic as it was, seemed to, for a time, elicit our better angels.
Our current situation is obviously different in many respects. The crisis is not as abrupt. The viral spread is more insidious. That being said, I am witnessing a shift in human behavior. There seems to be a reprioritization happening that I hope can bring out the best in us.
In a way, the spread of Corona literally reflects our inter-connectivity. This pandemic starkly outlines our intertwined destiny and reminds us of our common humanity. We are not just individuals living amongst other individuals acting in our own self-interest. We are connected by a power greater than ourselves.
Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, the current realization of our shared humanity prohibits us from hugging random folks on the street. The efforts we must engage in for the sake of our communal well-being must take place, ironically, largely in private.
The coronavirus is apolitical. It doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. There is an opportunity here to transcend the individualism that has led to an atomized, fractured and polarized society. In our collective hands, we have tremendous power to stop the spread of this pathogen and forge a new story of connection instead of separation. If we can get through this together, it may bring us together.
Ok. That’s it for today’s show. I hope some of this information was helpful and relieved some anxiety around coronavirus. Obviously, we’ll all be watching this closely. If you have any thoughts feel free to email me at [email protected]
For now, stay centered. Follow the science. Don’t succumb to fear. And spread knowledge, not the virus.