Let’s talk about Coronavirus: a plea for rationality

I wasn’t planning to comment on the COVID-19 situation, because I feel it’s better left to the experts, but the time has come anyway.

Obviously I don’t need to introduce this topic to you, right? The entire world is nervously awaiting the very mention of coronavirus news nowadays and the conspiracy theories are spreading faster than the virus itself. Well, I’m an engineer, not a doctor, so I choose to believe the science and what the experts are telling us.

Things we know

Unfortunately, since COVID-19 is a new virus from the family of corona viruses, such as SARS and MERS, the experts don’t know everything yet. However, here’s a couple of rock solid facts they do know:

  • WASHING YOUR HANDS HELPS PREVENT THE SPREAD OF ANY DISEASE, INCLUDING COVID-19! I really can’t stress this enough, so wash your hands for all that’s good and holy! Washing your hands should be an act of common hygiene, but apparently some people still need to be taught the very basics of hygiene /rant over.
  • Although they are not 100% sure how it spreads, it is safe to assume that close contact with an infected person is not a good thing, so keeping a safe social distance is another tried and trusted way to limit any disease outbreaks. Same as not unnecessarily touching your face.
  • MASS PANIC DOESN’T REALLY BENEFIT ANYONE: it’s bad for business and the economy, it’s bad for governments, because it can often destabilise entire regimes if the people revolt (although the right amount of panic can make them stronger), and it’s bad for the common people, because we always get the short end of the bargain. So, panicking won’t help anyone and spreading panic is not some elaborate purpose behind the outbreak either, unless you believe the virus was somehow released by anarchist chaos worshipers.

Speaking of the origin or the agenda behind the coronavirus outbreak, which has been the topic of too many alternative theories, I ask you this: does it really matter? The coronavirus is here, it’s real and it’s here to stay. How we deal with it and what we learn from it is what’s important now. Would I be surprised if it turned out that the virus was the result of some elaborate failed plot to destabilise the Chinese economy? No. Do I believe that’s the case? Also no. Stranger things have happened on our blue marble and the depth of both human stupidity and ingenuity is immeasurable.

Coronavirus – a danger?

Now we come to the crux of the issue: is the COVID-19 coronavirus actually as dangerous as the media hysteria suggests? I say yes and no. From the currently available data it appears that it is particularly dangerous to the elderly and people with compromised immune system, which constitute the high risk group. While even the most ordinary flu can be deadly for the ageing population, the COVID-19 appears to be difficult even for otherwise healthy elders, while most everyone else seems to get away with the milder version.

So yes, it is exceptionally dangerous for the chronic patients and the elderly, and considerably annoying and potentially dangerous for anyone else who develops complications or doesn’t have the benefit of a functioning national healthcare system. And no, it is not the next plague and most people seem to survive it relatively fine, but it should not be taken lightly (think bad pneumonia, not bad flu) and it does take time. Therefore, panic is not justified, but caution is and should be at the forefront of your mind. Here’s some simple information and some more technical medical information.

The real danger of the current coronavirus outbreak lies in its ability to spread fast in somewhat unexpected ways, through a longer-than-usual asymptomatic incubation period and by surviving for a long time outside the hosts, i.e. staying alive on surfaces etc.. That’s why lots of healthcare professionals are getting sick and when they’re sick, they can’t care for other patients who might be experiencing the severe version of the COVID-19 infection, which means those people can die. The actual death toll is not even close to that of the seasonal flu or hunger, but it is worrying nonetheless. You can check the most credible current world numbers here.

Why should you be so cautious then, if it likely won’t kill you and it’s “not such a big deal”? Well, there’s such a thing as solidarity. By following the recommended measures you are ensuring that you aren’t carelessly passing on the virus to someone who might actually die from it, particularly to the elderly. Additionally, by trying to avoid infection, you are not putting an extra strain on your national healthcare system, which is currently overwhelmed by severe cases requiring intensive care in many countries. In short, you are enabling those who really need help to get that help. I can’t put it simpler than that. It’s a question of morality, similar to the question of vaccines, where the collectively built herd immunity helps protect those who can’t get vaccinated for health reasons and eradicate diseases entirely, but let’s leave that debate for another time.

Whatever you do, don’t panic

On a related note, the most significant danger of this coronavirus outbreak is not the virus itself, but we, the people, instead. The slightest instance of panic reduces us right back into our primal self, which only cares about itself and its tribe – eat or be eaten. The toilet paper shortage in Australia and the global shortage of ineffective surgical face masks and disinfectants are prime examples of such behaviour. Instead of buying what they need for themselves and their family, people are stocking up like the viral outbreak will last for years, with no regard for others or the circumstances and no rational thought whatsoever. Since our current economical system demands quite a lot of stock availability for common goods, there would likely be enough for everyone, if some people wouldn’t stock up like it’s the apocalypse (it’s not!).

In my home country, Slovenia, kids with cancer were left with no face masks days before we even had our first case, because people panic bought the whole stock. Those kids actually need the masks to protect themselves at all times from all diseases, because their immune systems are suppressed to fight cancer, while the rest of us really don’t, because the masks pretty much can’t stop COVID-19 anyway. Similarly, the healthcare staff need those masks to protect vulnerable patients – a surgeon is not wearing a mask because they are afraid the person on the table will infect them with something, they’re wearing it to protect the patient whose insides they’re hacking on from their breath and the microbes it carries (which is also why they have to scrub in and why you should really wash your hands 🙂 ). The mask issue is not about being lied to that the masks will not protect you, while they actually protect the healthcare people instead, it’s about solidarity, again (such a pesky concept, isn’t it?).

Additionally, even if the masks would protect you, isn’t it more prudent to give them to the healthcare staff first? They actually know how to help you in case of emergency, which they can’t do if they get sick. But that would of course require rational thought beyond the basic survival instinct. I get it, no one wants to get sick and it’s scary, but sometimes we all need to put on our grown up pants and suck it up, if it means that people won’t die because there are healthcare professionals available to help them. And of course, this question is not hypothetical at all: there’s also the N95 respirator mask shortage, which is affecting infectious disease researchers, the very people who are uniquely qualified to help us get through this outbreak as fast and as safely as possible. We’re quite literally hurting our chances by giving into our primal survival instincts and panicking + most people aren’t even using their precious masks correctly, to make the matter even worse.

And, speaking of worse and dire, the current situation in Italy, Europe’s most infected country, has a lot to teach us about panic. People fleeing the quarantined zones just before quarantine, disregarding procedures, disobeying official measures and generally not taking the virus threat seriously enough by completely ignoring recommendations, are largely to blame for their massive surge of cases. Again, I know no one wants to be stuck in quarantine and get sick, but what happened in Italy should be a lesson to us all, that preventive measures can only work if everyone cooperates and that they are there for a reason, because the alternative is much, much worse. Although their government measures are nothing short of draconian, China appears to have successfully slowed down the spread of COVID-19 for now, and I believe it was only successful because the people cooperated. Unfortunately it really doesn’t matter if it was by choice or by duress, because the end result is the same, but most Western countries can no longer force their citizens into anything, which makes it all the more vital that we all cooperate if we’re planning to avoid an Italian situation at home.

Stupidity, the essential part of every crisis

I suppose I really shouldn’t be surprised that COVID-19 is bringing out the worst in people, because crisis situations always do. I also shouldn’t be surprised that it has shown just how collectively stupid we’ve grown in the recent years. While we are inclined to look for reasons and meaning behind every crisis we can’t explain, we’re really pushing the boundary of stupidity at this point. In the ancient times, lightning was seen as the wrath of the gods, while today we know it’s related to electrical discharge in the atmosphere, which no one is currently disputing, right? Although we are hard wired to feel threatened by things we don’t understand and feel infinitely more secure when we have an explanation, it almost feels like we’re starting to understand so little that we feel threatened by what we do understand. In other words, it’s starting to feel like we’ll start disputing the cause of lightning soon, just because the explanation we’re told is too simple and too understandable, so it has to be suspicious somehow. We love to forget however, that it’s only understandable because of our basic education and common knowledge.

Information on any topic is freely available today in relatively understandable form (Aldous Huxley is high-fiving himself and crying in his grave) and we humans are very good at spotting connections. However, just because something seems connected, it doesn’t make it true. Correlation does not imply causation. Now please, repeat after me: an apparent correlation doesn’t actually imply correlation, let alone causation. Unfortunately that’s exactly what all conspiracy theories rely on – the more elaborate the better, simply because we love stories and no one likes to feel stupid. When you don’t understand something, is it easier to accept a simple, obvious explanation, or a harder, elaborate one? For some reason, we are inclined to perceive the harder solution as the correct one, because we like to think that it must be something that we haven’t thought of and because we often doubt our ability to understand science.

We tend to perceive science as something specialised and difficult, as a mythical set of rules which explain the very foundations of the universe, and that belief is unfortunately perpetuated and even encouraged by many researchers. However, I promise you, that someone who can’t explain a concept, no matter how difficult, in such a way that you will understand it, doesn’t really understand it himself.

A plea for rationality

Unfortunately, the simple solution is quite often the correct one, and the COVID-19 coronavirus is just that – a coronavirus. It’s 99.9% likely not alien DNA or 5G network induced self-replicating RNA hidden in Chinese flu vaccines (yes, I’m not kidding, this is an actual theory, but I won’t link it, because I refuse to perpetuate something like this and feel sorry for even mentioning it). So at this point, I urge you to trust what the experts are saying and follow the recommended guidelines. By all means, don’t just blindly follow them and educate yourself (here’s my second post with a list of relevant scientific literature about COVID-19), but do so from credible sources and with rationality. We can’t all be experts in everything and at some point we just need to believe in whatever someone, or multiple someones who dedicated their lives to studying something, are telling us about that something and trust that it’s true.

If you embrace rational thought, you’re also embracing a heftier wallet – you won’t find yourself spending money on face masks, which don’t work, magical coronavirus cures, which don’t exist, or natural etheric oil disinfectant recipes and insane prevention methods. Just wash your hands, eat some extra vitamins, stay calm, think rationally and take care of yourself and others (if you’re feeling really crazy, you could also help the local elderly by getting their shopping for them to help them avoid the virus). Above all, be kind to others: they are going through the same crisis as you and not everyone who coughs or sneezes is an active carrier of coronavirus (and if they are, they didn’t choose to be one).

Bonus: should you travel during the coronavirus outbreak?

I’ve seen lots of travel bloggers posting hacks for travelling during the coronavirus outbreak. Travelling, particularly to and from the affected countries is, in my opinion, highly irresponsible right now and I’m strongly against booking new trips to those areas until the crisis is over. By taking advantage of cheaper prices and the desperation of local tourism businesses, you are potentially contributing to the spread of the disease and endangering high risk people and hospitality workers, just because you want to go for a holiday. You also represent a potential extra strain on the healthcare system of the country you are visiting, as you could get sick and might need help.

On a less judgemental note, I understand that some trips planned well in advance can be hard to cancel and that your life doesn’t just stop because of a crisis. So I say, go for it if you booked it before all this and have no other option, just be extra careful and respect whatever measures the local authorities are enforcing, even if they’re interfering with your trip. Also, don’t be afraid of booking new trips in a couple months time! The current data shows that the outbreak is already slowing down in China, which indicates that it will likely blow over in a few months everywhere else too (if we all work together of course). By booking ahead you will be helping tourism and hospitality workers regain at least a portion of their lost income, as those industries suffered the worst due to the situation and some people were left with literally no income.

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