On the Coronavirus

On the Coronavirus

It seems fitting to be writing about the coronavirus after having gone to a concert on Monday, perhaps the last to be permitted for a while in my county.

The opening song at this concert was the title-song of the album: “fear inoculum,” which happens to nicely summarize my attitude on the state of things with this latest epidemic.

I do not mean to be petty about the dangers of COVID-19. Although the symptoms and mortality-rate are comparable to the flu, the rate of transmission seems to be much greater, and an otherwise comparable disease which spreads to an incomparable number can have disproportionate results. Further, we don’t fully understand what the nature of this disease is. So far, much of what we know is superficial.

But from what we do know, it seems safe to say that the greatest danger of this illness is not the illness itself, but the fear and response to it. Many have worried about economic ramifications, which are perhaps already being felt. But at a more personal, physiological level, the fear alone can become an immune-compromising source of stress. Given the flu-like nature of COVID-19, this anxiety and stress become a little self-defeating if one hopes to avoid becoming sick.

Many have pointed out similarities in responses between Corona and SARS, bird-flu, swine-flu, Ebola, and many other epidemic scares over the past decade. To be fair, we are already passed the infection numbers of those previous illnesses, and have reached this point on a much shorter time-line. It would not be good to dismiss an actual danger just because people cried wolf three or four too many times in the past.

But what are the experts suggesting we — as individuals –do in response to this outbreak?

Wash your hands. Don’t sneeze on people. Don’t touch your face a lot. Stay home if you’re sick. Avoid crowded areas.

Aside from the last point, these are all common bits of flu-season wisdom, if not even more general expectations of first-world decency. These normal precautions will not only help reduce the risk of spreading the disease, but will also help you survive and recover in the event that you do contract it. Almost everyone who has been dying from the corona virus has had other complicating health issues.

To keep perspective, it is worth remembering that as of January, there have already been 15 million cases of the regular flu in the 2019-2020 season, including 8,200 deaths. That’s just in the United States.

It is good that regional quarantines and travel bans have been implemented. Aside from reducing the spread of the disease, I think there has been too much migration and travel over the past several decades anyhow. The so-called “advancement” in health over the last several centuries has really just been a return to the levels of health humans ordinarily enjoyed prior to urban life in cities, which has historically been the greatest impediment to good health. A little bit more isolation, less international connection, and less “finding oneself” everywhere but your actual home town and country is good for a plethora of reasons, disease prevention being only one.

But these broader measures aside, there is very little to actually be done about this corona virus, beyond the ordinary measures one would take to avert a flu. And should one contract the virus, it is not significantly worse than the flu anyhow. So the next best thing one could do would be to stop worrying about it. The stress and anxiety that follows from keeping a constant, wary eye on the latest news isn’t just unhelpful; it is actively unhelpful when a healthy immune system is the best defense against the virus. Worrying about the disease — and following “current events” generally — is not good for your immune system. It isn’t really good for you in general.

As Paul Atreides said, fear is the mind-killer… and in a very real sense, a killer of the more physical kind. It is the real pandemic, more so perhaps than the latest exotic disease. Fear eats away sleep and perverts our diets. It divides our attention and corrupts our judgment. It unbalances our chemistry and corrodes our relationships. Fear is the greater contagion.

Not all fear I am referring to here is specific to the virus, which just happens to be today’s spectacle. If you were a Democrat in 2016, then Trump was very probably a great source of anxiety and fear. And what came of it? He was repeatedly and sometimes unfavorably compared with Hitler: where are the concentration camps? Where is the promised apocalypse? Where are the bodies and the resurging white supremacists? So far as I can tell, the Alt Right died under Trump’s presidency. The same point can be made of Republicans and their fear of “communists!!” on the Democratic side.

It’s not that there is no legitimacy whatsoever to the concerns people have relating to current affairs. But if we engage in politics to improve our own lives, then our anxiety and fear is almost always self-defeating. The news stories, more so than their objects, are the real viral epidemic, one which has been going on since long before January of 2020.

And if we are engaging in politics and following current events for some reason other than to improve our own lives, that in itself is a motivation worth exploring… and perhaps worth excising.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. The death rate is not comparable to influenza. The death rate is 0.2% as per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The global death rate for COVID-19 is approx 3.73% (4,955 known deaths / 132,758 known infections). The U.S. death rate for COVID-19 is approx 2.85% (36 known deaths / 1,264 known cases). That data is as per the World Health Organization daily reports. Of course, the infection/death rates will change as testing becomes more widespread, but this is the best information that we have at the current time.

    1. You are of course correct… but as someone who worked in proximity to hanta virus for a few years (a mortality rate of roughly 50%), the difference between 0.4% and 4% is actually negligible, despite technically being an order of magnitude (not as negligible as the difference between 0.04% and 0.4%, but still small). Further, as you said, we don’t actually know the extent of infection, whereas death rates are more measured, possibly further decreasing the fatality rate. Finally, we don’t know how much of the cause of death has to do with logistical overload of the medical infrastructure, rather than the actual effects of the virus: assuming we had an ordinary flu but without a vaccine and which spread ten times faster and more surreptitiously, we might expect to see similar increases in mortality not on account of the lethality of the disease, but due to the medical response being overwhelmed.

      This also doesn’t take into account the fact that this virus is purported to be fairly swiftly mutating, which actually is likely to reduce it’s lethality rate over time because since less-lethal viruses actually transmit faster and more persistently than those which kill their hosts.

  2. Good point about the virus losing impotence if it kills all its hosts, but I wonder can we apply that to the animal host as well as the human?
    Regarding politics, I have been innately drawn to it from an early age, as has my son, (although not the other children), and my father before me. It seems genetic!

  3. RE application of the mortality point, I’m not sure. I imagine that a lethal virus would suffer less from its own lethality if it’s target were a mouse with a lifespan of 3 years than it would if it’s target were a whale with a lifespan of 100. I’m not an epidemiologist, but the logic of mortality seems to favor illnesses which are not lethal (good for us) and take a long time to show symptoms (bad for us). Coronavirus seems to have both of these qualities.

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