Unpopular Opinion: Stop Freaking Out About COVID-19

Disclaimer: contains foul language and sarcasm. All but facts, read with a grain of salt.

In my second semester of calculus, my math teacher gave us weekly prompts for introspective thinking about math. Yeah, I know, I was perplexed, too. In the first week, the question was, “Why are you in this class and what do you hope to get out of it by the end of the semester?” So, I said, “Being a pre-med student and anticipating a career in medicine, I don’t see the relevance between functions and incomprehensible equations and medical practice, and I am in this class only because it is a requirement for my major.” I’m not sure whether I was the only baffled person, but the following week, Melanie assigned us a semester-long project in which we needed to derive a formula for the spread of a disease, and at the end of the semester, we all ended up presenting our findings and posters at a math and science symposium. Wow! Mind – blown! See, now that the world is in shambles due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wonder how much of those derivations and equations were of any use to anyone, because once a virus is unleashed, it will spread probably faster than any of us (besides math wizzes) can figure out what a derivative actually means. 

While I do think that the spread of the virus that the world has been hit with and its consequential disease is reason for serious concern, I also think that the world as a whole is reacting rather emotionally to the circumstances at hand. So, let’s infuse some rationality into existence and let’s talk about some facts. 

THE VIRUS – CORONAVIRUS, OR AS I LIKE TO CALL IT, CORONA-FEAR-US

I first learned about coronaviruses in microbiology a few years ago. The world learned about them in 2002, when it suffered from a SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome caused by SARS-CoV) outbreak, but in 2002, I was far too young and too isolated in primitive Poland (remember, we had just graduated to color TV and McDonalds not even 2 decades ago) to care. The truth about coronaviruses is that they’re all around us. The common cold, the disease that affects the upper respiratory system, is probably more prevalent than a high school diploma and while there are hundreds of different viruses (families and strains) that contribute to the disease, it is noteworthy to assess that 10-15% of common cold cases are related to coronaviruses. Throughout lifetime, we accumulate immunity against cold viruses, which would explain why the elderly usually suffer from colds less frequently. They may have developed herd immunity – causing colds to disappear among them – but only until a new virus is introduced that ravages through this particular population like a plow truck through a blizzard – relentlessly. 

So, what’s so different about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19? 

There are 7 known coronaviruses in the family of Coronaviridae that cause human disease and SARS-CoV-2, responsible for COVID-19, is the most recently identified strain. There are ongoing studies on etiology, causes, clinical manifestation and diagnosis, prevention and control of the virus, as not much is yet known about the strain. What we do know is that it came from an animal, most likely a bat, from which it infected another animal that in turn infected a human. The virus then acquired appropriate spike proteins (think of them as those colored flags you see placed in grass around town, with each color corresponding to a different utility specialist responding, like gas and oil to yellow or sewer and drain to green. They’re simply markers for appropriate response, much like those surface proteins are there for particular host cell receptors) to attach to and penetrate through the host cells and altered the host’s genetic material by introducing its own into replication. Though viruses can mutate, sometimes rather quickly, posing a challenge to finding a proper therapeutic remedy, SARS-CoV-2 seems to be mutating slower than the influenza (flu) virus and because it resembles SARS-CoV, scientists have some basis to go off of. Also, compared to SARS (2002) and MERS (MERS-CoV virus responsible for an outbreak in the Middle East in 2012), COVID-19 appears to spread more easily though it seems to have a lower fatality rate. That rate would be driven even lower if we had the resources available to test everyone for SARS-CoV-2,

The biggest difference between the 2002 SARS and COVID-19 outbreaks is the amount of elapsed time between the first reported infection and an announcement to the authorities at the World Health Organization (WHO). The SARS outbreak went on for 3 months before WHO was notified, and it went on for additional 2 months before the pathogen was isolated and sequenced. On the contrary, WHO learned about the first case of COVID-19 and isolated and sequenced the pathogen in a span of about 1 month. Now, those who ignored the aforementioned statement might say that the quick response of WHO and world leaders to contain the virus is what prevented a higher death toll, but when you look at statistics (or simple math), again, COVID-19 is more pervasive yet less deadly. High rates of infection and death in Italy (also Spain and France) can be explained by lack of action of Italian authorities to lock down public places and events until the outbreak was already advanced (and we all know that Italians are social creatures) and the fact that about a quarter of Italy’s population is over the age of 65 (population at risk) but Italians share close ties with their elderly. Most of the victims who succumbed to COVID-19 were in advanced age or had some pre-existing conditions (another group at risk), mainly heart disease, which makes sense because their immune systems were already under enough stress unable to fight off the infection. While it is heartbreaking that so many people are dying, we need to look at the data indicating who is dying, who is at most risk, and keep brainstorming what we can do to protect them while not letting the world go to shit at the same time.

So why is the world collapsing?

EMOTIONAL PANDEMIC 

Coronavirus is invisible to the naked eye, it is difficult to protect against, it can be fatal, it spreads in droplets, and the authorities don’t have control of the situation. Though most people who contract the virus will battle the pneumonia and/or other symptoms and survive, the reaction to the WHO’s pronounced pandemic has been misplaced and driven to a state of panic and anxiety. This emotional response is valid in that SARS-CoV-2 and its disease, COVID-19, are a novel threat and uncertainty causes us to react with fear. We don’t seem to react to the flu the same way despite an estimated 1 billion of worldwide cases from which 291,000 to 646,000 die (in comparison to about 350,000 cases diagnosed with COVID-19 from which about 15,000 died). While mortality rate of the flu is in fact lower than that of COVID-19’s, we’ve simply become complacent with the flu’s existence in our lives and feel that targeting this particular virus, despite its destructive effect on the population, is a less emergent matter.

Fear is a basic emotion that we develop in response to people, situations, or things early in our lifespan, as early as 9 months. Over time, with exposure, those fearful responses diminish, remain, or exacerbate. Exacerbation can be alarming, especially in today’s world when our culture is plugged in 24/7 to newscasts, to social media, and to others in our environment who pass along information without bothering to actually verify it. This can be dangerous because fear can spread faster than the infection itself and as a society, we let others dictate our reactions and behaviors which can have dangerous consequences of feeling paranoid, hopeless, and even depressed. Consider Franklin D Roosevelt’s words and realize that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

While our channels of communication can serve good purpose, we need to be wary of what information and what tone is undertaken in the sharing. Our interpretation, attitude, and behavior towards an issue is the final result, so it is our responsibility to filter information appropriately. The media in democratic countries with freedom of speech and press will not do that (regardless of their right- or left-leaning tendencies), and nowadays there is not a shortage of biased portals spreading misinformed headlines meant to stir up emotions within us, especially when frightening language is used. I won’t be the first to declare that media has been exaggerating this pandemic. It is a possibility that we are reacting to a threat that is not even real. But it could be real, too, right? Because when someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, thanks to our outlets, we find out about it at the speed of light, instilling even more fear and anxiety. 

Do we really not have anything else to report on? Are we that boring of a society that we need to spread paranoia among each other? How about instead of reporting the numbers of COVID-19 infections or fatalities, we start reporting and listening to how many survive the infection or how to combat stress associated with the pandemic in order to prevent succumbing to it? I get it, telling someone how to wash their hands and to avoid touching their face isn’t sexy (especially when people expect more profound announcements from authorities), but guess what – hand hygiene is part of preventive medicine, so how about you go wash your hands now. How about the media suggest what to do with all the free time to those who complain of their inability to deal with it, because it seems that our society has lost its mind. And this is by no means targeted at those who will experience financial hardship in the months to come due to loss of their income. This is for all those who are in stable financial positions but on temporary leave or instructed to work from home. 

I think the worst in my social circle have been part-time fitness instructors complaining of gym closures. Like, chill the fuck out Karen! It’s only been a few days and it’ll be just a matter of time before all of this stabilizes and you get back into the studio. In the meantime, drink some matcha green tea, read an inspirational quote on Instagram, put on your big girl panties and lululemons, get down to your basement or go outside, and work out like all others without a gym membership do, because guess what, I know it may be hard to believe, but it’s totally possible to work out outside of a fitness facility (and trust me when I say that teaching group fitness has been about more than just a workout for me. It has been my saving grace through my mom’s terminal illness and recent death, so suck it up. But hey, maybe all of that has made me an ignorant prick and an insensitive asshole and I no longer know how to react to chaos. I guess filter your information?).

If you’re not a fitness freak, maybe use this time to actually get to know your significant other or your kids. Maybe learn a new language or skill, like playing the guitar. Maybe use this time to work on your unfinished basement. Maybe take the time to read a book or paint. Maybe walk dogs for those who may be immunocompromised and at risk of contracting the virus. Maybe pick up their groceries, so that they can avoid any potential exposure to the pathogen. Do whatever you normally complain that you don’t have the time to do. Just please don’t complain about bullshit. 

We are so used to our privilege that we can’t imagine a life without it. And I’ll be the first to admit, I just visited the Middle East and was so grateful to be coming back to my world and its associated freedoms. But, amidst all the panic, it seems that we’ve forgotten how to function without the things that, surely can contribute to meeting our needs, aren’t even basic necessities. We don’t always get what we want and to believe that is a childish expectation, so let’s get rid of the child logic and emotionally driven behaviors. A big part of maturity is controlling our emotions and deciding when and how to behave, so I think as a collective, we need to bring rational decision-making into the game. 

DEPRESSION – ECONOMIC AND EMOTIONAL 

Though the COVID-19 outbreak is a temporary shock, it has already caused a significant economic disruption and it might have an enormous and chronic impact on economic growth. Yet, for whatever reason, the media does not report on what to do to protect oneself from an economic downturn that we all might suffer in the near future, or on ways to recover from it. With millions out of work and businesses shattered, much like during the Great Recession of the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, low- and middle-income families will be greatly affected (if not already). The enthusiastic low unemployment rate we were proud of for the past few years might now be a thing of the past, as unemployment as well as poverty might increase. 

Due to the sickness and mortality, or maybe even fear-induced behaviors, the labor force will be reduced. With that, tax revenue will diminish and with increased health care expenditure, all sectors of the economy face disruption, whether it be agriculture, services, or manufacturing. With the supply chain affected negatively, this may, in turn, cause shortages of available goods, and those goods that will be accessible might come with an increased price tag, further bringing economic stress for households, private firms, and even the government. This reduction in supply and demand will also have adverse effects on other aspects of our financial and psychosocial functioning, for example, I postulate restaurants and airlines will undergo volume loss and decreased revenue due to avoidance behaviors.

There now have been numerous studies conclusive in findings that financial stress negatively affects mental health and overall wellbeing. Among those with any debt – credit card balances, medical bills, unpaid utilities, or student loans – depression, anxiety, and psychotic disorders are the most common illnesses experienced. In addition, mental health problems sometimes lead to other issues, including substance abuse, and in most extreme cases, suicide. Poor mental health also puts one at risk of developing a chronic physical condition, and vice versa. While I think there might be a surge in gym memberships in the post-pandemic time, many will succumb to mental and physical health problems eliminating them from the effective part of the workforce. I don’t know what the solution here is, we could brainstorm, but all I know is that all of these elements – the physical, mental, and financial – are intertwined and need to work synergistically for a healthy balance and beneficial contribution to the economy. But hey, maybe we could stop panicking and shift our energy into constructive solutions to the pandemic. Maybe we’re capable of that much good.

P.S. I still don’t understand the toilet paper thing… 

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

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