The What, How and Why of Coronavirus

By now, you all have heard of the infamous virus that has brought life to a halt throughout the world. Your own life has been impacted by it. The rhythm of your daily life has been broken. You are either confined in the bounds of your home, or you are going out less frequently than you would normally, or the places you would have otherwise gone to are shut, or your life has become more hectic than before for you are on the frontlines of the heroes battling the virus. In any way, you are impacted.

SARS-COV-2 has become the first virus to have spread this quickly this far. It has spread to more than 180 world countries. All but one continent. It’s not the first virus to spread. Sadly, nor is it last. Its predecessors were, however, more local and less slow in their spread. In 2003, a similar coronavirus spread to a number of world countries. It was called SARS or in medical taxonomy, SARS-COV-1. Going further back in history in search of pandemics, we can see that while they too killed millions at times, their victims were geographically speaking, very local. The global spread of SARS-COV-2 on the other hand has been, naturally, facilitated due to the interconnectedness and the globalized nature of the world we live in today. Also, the unpreparedness of several countries, and their failure to anticipate what’s coming their way further exacerbated the situation. While some countries took immediate action, many Western countries failed to act swiftly. Their governments never thought that such a calamity can reach the Western world today. Even if it managed to slip in, they thought, they were confident of their capabilities in tackling it. COVID-19 (the name given to the disease caused by SARS-COV-2) proved them wrong.

What is it

Coronavirus are a family of viruses that usually effect the respiratory tract in birds and animals. Three types of coronavirus have been discovered so far:

  • SARS (Severe Acute Respitarory Syndrome)
  • MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome)
  • COVID-19

COVID-19, a coronavirus, is the most elementary form of life. All it blindly does is what other forms of life naturally try to do – survive and grow. This microbial form of life needs hosts for it to survive and grow – these hosts can be soil, air, water or other forms of life including humans. Eight billion of us. And it does that without any regard for your nationality, age, gender, and personal preferences. There is surely no dearth of hosts for the virus.

So, from the eye of a virus, you and I are welcoming hosts. From the other side of the lens and a human purely perspective, we say we are infected when the virus lives in us or are called recovered when we have won the fight against this uninvited guest by destroying it and stopping it from growing within us. In the figures you see online, the numbers of those who get infected and those who get recovered are updated every quarter of an hour. Nevertheless, there is another group that is not being reported. The reason being that it is such a large group that it would be impossible to report everyone in the group. That group includes everyone – from the pool of living human beings – that has not been infected or recovered from COVID-19. It is called the category of susceptible ones.

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How it spreads

Exponentially.

The spread of coronavirus pandemic has been like a chain reaction, the likes of which we get to see in Hollywood action movies only. The exponential growth of the virus means that more and more people are infected with increasing speed.

In exponential growth, the number of new cases, in every turn, far exceeds our expectations. The human mind can understand linear growth. It is easy to find a relationship in a linear series: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64… as compared to an exponential series 1, 3, 13, 29, 75, 300, 1000, 2300, 1150…. The virus and its expansion do not care for our expectations.

If you have been following the news of coronavirus, you would have come across RO (pronounced as R-naught). In epidemiology terms, it is the number of people each infected person infects. RO of 2.0 means that each infected person would go on to infect 2 other people and these two people will infect two more each, and so on. Until no new hosts are available or those available attain immunity to fight it naturally, this chain reaction will continue to go on.

The lockdown measures introduced globally are targeted to achieve just that, i.e. to reduce the burden on the health systems by lowering the RO below the critical value of 1, meaning that every infected person will not be able to infect more than one person from the pool of susceptible. Think of RO as a dial of your aircon. You can increase or decrease the value on the dial by making a move in the respective direction. Lockdowns are aimed at achieving what is being called the so-called ‘social distancing’. Social distancing reduces the chance of viruses jumping from one host to another. Lockdowns are not an ideal solution in the long-term. As soon as they are eased, there is no guarantee that the virus will stop spreading anew. Remember how many initial infected cases it takes for the spread to become pandemic?

Just one.

But in the short term, it helps. It saves the health systems from becoming overwhelmed while scientists buy time to develop a vaccine. Our only saviours from the virus are either a vaccine and/or a natural immunity of the body against the virus.  

Symptoms

The Symptoms of COVID-19 are the same as that of a common cold and flu but they vary from person to person. Sneezing, runy rose, breathlessness, body aches, fatique, diarrhea, fever, sore throat and asthama attacks have been reported in the patients whop contracted COVID-19. People with already underlying conditions, including diabetics and high blood pressure, are at greater risk compared. The most common effect on the body is on lungs. However, stomach, liver, kidneys and the immune system in general can be effected by it.

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How to slow the spread

It would be naïve to believe that it will stop spreading on its own somehow without effective human intrusions. After all, the virus is only doing what is exists for – surviving and growing. It is bound to, however, respond to our interventions. An ideal case would be that our bodies fight it off and resultantly we develop lifelong future immunity against this particular strain of the virus. But we know that is not happening. Otherwise, we would not have people getting sick, some mildly other getting severely sick. Next, we would then get the ‘susceptible herd’ vaccinated in the hopes that any future waves of the virus do not mutate and thus in the virus makes a comeback, our antibodies will fight it off behind the screen without requiring the world to come to a halt. In the absence of a vaccine and lack of immunity, the spread will only cease when the virus does not find any new hosts and those infected and treated and cleared off before they are allowed to mix with the rest of the community.

In any case, fighting coronavirus will require large amounts of sacrifice, strength, and sums.

The sacrifice of the lives which will sadly be lost while the battle continues. Strength in coping with the lockdown arrangements; inability to see your loved ones, and accepting the day-to-day disruption as a consequence of quarantining. And last but not the least: large amounts of sums of money lost due to lockdown, the sums channeled towards the health care infrastructure, funds spent on vaccine development, and providing for the citizens who lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown.

Even with all the sacrifices, the contagion will not vanish but only slow down. RO is adjustable, remember. And as much as we would like it to go down from the current setting, it can also climb up with only a slight gesture. It will not take much time for the spread to speed up again should the social distancing measures get compromised.

While the majority of the world stays in quarantine, the scientists work day in and day out in pursuits of developing a vaccine. It would seem natural to direct all our resources to vaccine development then. That’s exactly the reason why philanthropists, like Bill Gates, are funneling billions of dollars towards vaccine development, with the prior knowledge that millions of dollars might be wasted in the process. But in the interest of time, Bill Gates is willing to waste some million dollars provided an effective vaccine comes out of the supplier belts of the factories being set up. We should be mindful of the fact that vaccine development is a frustratingly long process, 10-15 years on average. It has to go through a round of testing stages before it can get approval production. Only after that, there can commence commercial-scale manufacturing and distribution. Efficacy and safety are important factors while developing vaccines and assuring these two can take a long time, not to mention the billions of dollars required. If a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available within a year or even two years, this would not be short of a scientific miracle. A vaccine by September this year, as claimed by some governments, would be a true pinnacle of scientific innovation.

While we wait

What to do while a vaccine is being developed? We can not keep the world on hibernation mode for a year or two. The virus is already costing the economy billions of dollars a day. The way forward then is to keep those uber-susceptible – those with already compromised immunities and underlying health conditions – ultra-safe. Additionally, those who have been infected are kept quarantined until they recover fully. Continuing to work from home where possible. In the digital world, many jobs are in a lucky position to continue to be performed virtually but it can’t be said for the majority of the jobs in the market. And that’s the group the governments need to especially think about. Not everyone has the luxury to get online and start doing what they do for a living.

Those who can work virtually go about working and those whose jobs are disrupted wait for the things to return to normal. All this while observing social distancing will limit the new hosts for the virus to jump onto in its unbounded spirit of growth. Once there are no more new hosts for the virus to hop onto, and those in whom it managed to break in have been treated, it is expected that the virus will die off.

So where ever you are, please follow the advice of your government and stay home to help the health systems save the lives of your fellow countrymen. Despite strict lockdown measures in place, developed countries like the US and the UK are struggling to match the number of available ventilators to the influx of new patients requiring ventilation. It becomes obligatory for everyone to take this pandemic seriously and respect their government’s advice.

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Herd Immunity

Herd Immunity is effective in the long-term but in the short-term, it comes with a lot of assumptions. The assumptions in the case of coronavirus are far-fetched. Britain had been contemplating putting its bets on this risky move. First of all, as much as we understand viruses and herd immunity, at the end of the day, it is not a computer simulation and things do not always work out as planned, especially when the assumptions are many. COVID-19 is a new virus. We hardly understand it. We have not yet seen an annual cycle of it.

UK’s herd immunity proposition rested on the idea that if enough members – around 60 percent of UK’s population – are infected and thus develop immunity, then the spread of the virus will not be exponentiation. The young with milder symptoms develop herd immunity while the most severe cases are treated. This will shed off the burden from the already strained health system in the UK. The estimated RO for COVID-19 at the time of writing was between 2.0-3.0.

As much as the idea makes sense on paper, it rests on many assumptions. The unknown unknows can far exceed the known unknows. The whole idea of herd immunity is based on the notion that infecting millions of young people to develop immunity will buy us time to develop vaccines soon. But the development of vaccines can take years sometimes. It is a high-risk scenario in which millions were to be put into. Because of our novice understanding of the response of the virus itself, putting a bet on 40 million people would not be practical, despite its alluring but vague promises in the long term.

The second assumption is that while the young and the fit develop herd immunity, the old and the weak will be isolated. Only the most severe cases will be treated, which we know from South Korea’s large-scale testing experience to be around 1-2% of the population. Several cases have surfaced in Japan and South Korea where those infected with the virus were treated and declared healthy showed signs of the virus again. If only 1 percent of the cases show signs of re-infection, we are talking of 400, 000 people in the UK alone. UK’s health system, the so-called NHS, will not be able to handle the additional strain of hundreds of thousands of re-entrants while it struggles to grapple with the existing load. At the current availability of the specialized equipment, it will take 1.5 years to NHS to treat a mere 1 percent of the infected population with the most severe symptoms.

Even if the UK would have miraculously been able to manage the equation for herd immunity, i.e. the rate of new infections matches those treated and discharged, what about NHS itself which is working day in and day out at levels past capacity. The health workers’ well-being, staff shortage and the physical and psychological strain they have to cope with are not being factored into any equations. If the UK health system can cope with everything as if it was a computer simulation, the one thing that can break the bones of NHS is a minor miscalculation in the infection rate which will see more infectious people entering the hospital doors than there is room for. The United Kingdom does not have enough beds to deal with the anticipated numbers, let alone mess with the projections. Its hospital corridors – like its roads – can only do so much.

So, corona-over-optimists need a dose of reality. Yes, we, humans, will eventually contain it. We have set our steps on the outer space; we have previously fought plagues on the ground, we have eradicated maladies for good worldwide, so will be COVID-19. All this will, however, come at a hefty cost. While it is essential to stay optimistic, it helps to stay realistic too. Think of those who had to chip in a life or two infected by the virus, mostly involuntarily, sometimes in the line of duty.

As much as it is important to stay hopeful and positive, a bit of over-reaction is not unjustified. It is a pandemic after all. If a mild over-reaction achieves timely preventive measures – without clouding the thinking – let it be. In retrospect, over-reaction will not look as bad as inaction. It is time to show even more empathy. It is a global epidemic and everyone is affected by it. Shop sensibly. Think of others too. Don’t hoard inconsiderably. As long as factories are running, you will get your supplies. Take all the precautionary measures. They are for your benefit and of those who, unwillingly or unwillingly, interact with you.

The incubation period – in which a person might be carrying the virus before any first symptoms appear – makes the whole dynamics worse. The existing cases, as you would know, are plenty and rising every hour globally. The only factors in our control are the exposure and the precautions observed. Social isolation and taking precautionary measures – like washing your hands – will help. Your best shot is still keeping your hands clean and avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth. Avoid mass gatherings to stop the virus from spreading. Have faith in science. Take a break from your faith-healers should they still support mass gatherings. Were they efficacious, we would not be having this pandemic in the first place. Stay hopeful. Act responsibly. Follow precautions. We will see the other side of it.

Lessons in the crisis

The epidemic serves as a reminder of our interconnectedness, our mutual dependency on each other regardless of the geographical bounds, and the essentiality of the global cooperation. Each of us is responsible for the health of the other. Our non-compliance is capable of upsetting the health systems of our country. It is supreme to be able to exercise our unalienable rights of freedom and observing religious prayers. But there come times when they too require reconsidering. After all, you need to be alive to exercise those rights. So even before those established rights of freedom, the right to life comes first. You and I are responsible for protecting not just ourselves but also others equally.

We do not need an epidemic to make us realize that we have duties towards our fellow citizenry, which is this globalized world is the whole of humanity. But now that a pandemic is here, it can be hoped that we are a changed person in the post-corona era. Globalization today impacts every resident of majority world countries and territories. On the flip side, the actions of each individual have the potency to have global impacts.

The world today is a large web of interconnections. Only in such testing times, it becomes more evident. The whole world all of a sudden becomes one single community. Our world has become a global village since the wave of globalization took over the world. Only now, during the crisis, we can feel it more evidently. A single person is capable of setting off a chain reaction which, if left unrestrained, can determine the fate of billion others on this planet, however wide the geographical stretches between maybe. Basing the spread of this current pandemic on the theory that it originated in the wet markets of China, the fate of the whole of humanity is determined by the choice of a handful of residents of a small pixel of the world. Do you know how many initial cases it takes for a virus spread to become a pandemic?

Just one. The infamous case zero.

It is time for us to realize that we all have a shared responsibility towards each other – starting with those we share our roof with and as far as those thousands of miles away whom we neither know nor will ever get to meet. We, humans, are one big community of a single species sharing the world with millions of other species in an interconnected ecosystem. No man is an island.

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Origin

Interesting and controversial. Let it be both.

While conspiracy theories might show us a multitude of possibilities of the virus’s origin, so far, we have ample evidence to believe that it originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, China. Its predecessor, SARS also had its origins in yet another market in Guangdong in China where wild animals were sold in settings similar to those of Wuhan’s wet market. In the aftermath of the SARS outbreak, many scientific studies identified SARS-like virus in bats in China.

With all the research so far, scientists believe that COVID-19 originated perhaps again in bats but it entered another animal, possibly pangolin,  where it got mutated before entering the infamous case zero. That patient is long-dead but the infection he got sick with, resulting in his death, continues to live globally today. The confirmed cases worldwide stand above towering 18 million (as of 12 April 2020) while more than a hundred and ten thousand people have succumbed to it.

Microbial life exists in parallel to us. It just is too small to be visible to get noticed. Microbes live in air, soil, water, birds, and animals. Wet markets are an ideal breeding place for these pathogens. Different species of birds and animals are kept in closed proximity. The conditions for transmission of viruses from one animal to another could not be facilitated any better.

The existence of these wet markets is down to one there is a demand for them and second, they are allowed to exist. They are allowed to exist because they are lucrative and their revenues add to the GDP. There is a demand for these markets as people enjoy eating animals traded there. To make things worse, the animal meat is eaten in a variety of forms, often alive. (Cooking at high temperatures at least kills some bacteria but that is not the point). There is a regional demand for the exotic animals sold there, which goes often outside of the Chinese borders.

The spread of coronavirus begs opening up a philosophical debate around freedom and choice. You are free to choose what you wear as long as it is not affecting the lives of others. You can choose the god you want to worship as long as your veneration does not affect the lives of those who pick to pray to another god or hold no god at all for the matter of fact. Similarly, you should be free to eat what your gut can take, as long as you are not over-exploiting resources and causing an irreversible imbalance in the food chain system. On the flip side, avoiding certain foods for religious reasons is another dimension of choice and freedom (or the lack of it). What to make of a large part of the world populace whose eating choices and customs come at costs such environmental damage or the recent spread of coronavirus whose initial epicenter was Wuhan, China. Because of the over-dependence of the world on China today, it is almost impossible to confine the spread of a malady infliction world’s most bustling organ – China.

What you choose to eat and how you choose to consume it has many far-reaching implications than you might think. Meat is a part of human civilization for thousands of years. Its deeply ingrained in diets, habits, and cultures around the world. As much as we relish it, we need to be mindful of its wider impacts. It is not the animal life alone that gets slaughtered and its flesh then chopped and tendered for your watering mouth that you need to think about. It involves a whole chain of stages from the birth (better to call it breeding in today’s industrialized animal farming practices), to rearing, slaughtering, packing and finally transporting the meat to your local superstore – each stage has a footprint. That was for the environmental dimension of eating animals. There is a social dimension to it as well and has become clear by the spread of coronavirus. The moral question of eating animals is a separate discussion in itself. Moving past, if people worldwide today are beyond moral limitations of eating animals and have become conformed by their culture in eating both domesticated and undomesticated animals, then at least they ought to be mindful of the possible impacts of what they consume can have on themselves and others. Remember, we live in an overly interconnect world and no man is an island.

We can believe that we are free to eat what our gut can take. But we do not have the license to go about infecting others with our food choices. In today’s interconnected world and the obvious viral nature of contagious diseases, ‘others’ can range from those sharing the same roof with you to those in another part of the world. In no time, someone in a distant part of the world can be at the same risk level as someone within your arm’s reach. It is ever more obligatory on all of us to eat sensibly. Just because a culture permits something does not make it healthy, morally upright and environmentally suitable.

Xenophobia

Discussing a hard-to-swallow possibility is not the same as being xenophobic. It is not to blame, and resultantly belittle, a particular person or a group as a sole responsible. That would be unfair and that is not the intention. However, if a certain practice of a region or a country is detrimental, then remaining silent or only speaking in inexplicit language for the sake of political correctness would do more harm than good. There are a lot of things in a lot of world cultures that are not right objectively. By raising concerns around them, discussing them with an open mindset, and showing a willingness to change for the greater good. That’s how humanity grows.

The epicenter of the virus being Wuhan China does not justify any xenophobia against Chinese people. Attacks on Chinese, or those who are confused as being Chinese, are highly condemnable. We need to keep in mind that not all Chinese people support the existence of wet markets. It is not justified to take our anger on frustration on anyone who might look like hailing from China. Having that said, it is important for everyone, including Chinese people, in particular, to be mindful of what they eat and how they eat it. Cultural conformity of something is not a pass of universal approval, especially when it has consequences for the wider world. When a frequent drinker downs more than what their lungs can stand, it is still their problem in the most subjective sense, however much concerned the society be. But what if the bottle your friend downs every evening has an impact on your lungs as well. You then have a right to speak against your friend’s habit as it impacts you and your health. On the same lines, it is the responsibility of everyone to be mindful of their choices in the greater interest of society, environment, and global health.

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Chinese Government

The Chinese government is, without a doubt, to share the blame for it has the power and what comes with power: responsibility. First of all, the Chinese government suppressed the outbreak. The doctor who first raised the alarm was condemned by the state and was made to write an apology letter. He died of COVID-19 in early February after contracting the virus from the patients he had been treating. This silencing of the outbreak led the virus to spill over unbounded. It is quite possible that if timely measures were taken, without suppressing the news of the outbreak, the virus could be stopped from spreading this far afield and this quickly.

Secondly, a similar coronavirus outbreak took place in 2003. It is not the first outbreak of a virus that the governments worldwide had no clue, especially so China as SARS originated in China in a similar setting as that of SARS-COV-2 just seventeen years ago. They failed to learn from it, kept the markets open in pretty much similar conditions and proved that we do not learn anything from history. Other governments, especially those of Singapore and South Korea, were swift in their action as they were better prepared to respond after learning a lesson from SARS. The western governments were the most incompetent in their timely response. Their leaders always have had the attitude that such epidemics happen only ‘out there’ and would not reach their borders. Even if they did, their praiseworthy health systems would be sufficient to tackle them. The western world failed to understand the risk and the scale of it, despite several alarms being rung by scientists and thinkers for many years of a possible viral outbreak, e.g. a 2015 TED talk by Bill Gates where he raises concerns of a similar future pandemic. In my personal opinion, I believe that after the pandemic is over, the Chinese government should be held accountable and be investigated for their initial delay in responding.

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Everyone else

It is time humanity understands that we need to stop interfering mercilessly with nature. We need to leave the remote areas as remote. We need to let the exotic species stay exotic. The capitalistic system we breathe in is equally responsible and so are all of us. We are upsetting the natural systems. The outbreak of SARS-COV-2 can be reasonably attributed to the disruption we are havocking on the natural ecosystems. We humans, by nature, are curious beings with invasive tendencies. The closer we will go to the non-domesticated exotic species living in unexplored or less-visited territories, the greater will be the chances of pathogens jumping from them onto new hosts, and more recurring such pandemics can become. That’s just the nature of how nature works. It is not only keeping the exotic remote. Deforestation and urbanization, for example, lead to the same set of problems. Then there are a whole plethora of problems that arise due to climate change. One related example is the bacteria and pathogens which have been trapped for thousands of years under the polar ice sheets are now beginning to escape the trap as the planet warms and the ice sheets melt. These are pathogens against which other species do not have immunity. We are needlessly exposing ourselves to the risk. Another alarm is the specie extinction. Due to the accelerated rate at my species are going extinct, the microbial life is forced to find new hosts and us humans become their victim. Eating animals has the same risks. If we will not let viruses and bacteria make us their home, we will not be forced to stay at home.

Still, by limiting the exposure, there is no guarantee that viruses/bacteria would not jump on to us ever. As we co-inhabit with them, there always will be a risk of that happening. That’s just the law of nature. By limiting the exposure and by respecting the balance of natural ecosystems, we can reduce the probability and the scale of it.

Bacteria, viruses, and pathogens are all microbial forms of life who live in a variety of settings including animals. The same way you and I carry hundreds of them inside as well as on our outside skin at any time without causing much upsetting, so do other bird and animal species carry bacteria and viruses in them. Our bodies have learned to live with them or to fight off any intruder the body finds threatening.

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Humans need to understand that however superior we might think we are, we are still a part of a wider ecosystem in which we are just one of the many components, some scientists go as far as rendering us a non-essential component. For the ecosystem not only would survive but thrive if we are taken out of the equation. We depend on the health of the ecosystem we live in. Balance is the key. The health of the ecosystem, and resultantly our survival, depends on the intricate balance of all species in this shared ecosystem, many of the species which are yet to be discovered and many more which might perhaps go extinct before we humans can name them.

Misconceptions around COVID-19

  • Garlic does have anti-bacterial properties. However, to the best of scientific understanding, it does not help against coronavirus. Same goes for lukewarm water
  • 5G telecom technology has nothing to do with the spread of COVID-19
  • Exposing yourself to higher temperatures does not avoid/treat COVID-19
  • Drinking alcohol does not protect you against COVID-19
  • COVID-19 affects people of all ages, not just older people. People with underlying health conditions are at higher risk.
  • Antibiotics do not work against viruses. They only work against bacteria.

Post-Corona world

The Post-corona era will see a different world, or at least it should. The quarantine should serve as a time for us to realize what matters in life. Our social relationships matter, health care systems matter, eating healthy matters, health professionals matter, teachers matter, strong leadership matters, trust in the government matters, right investments matter, risk management matters, an economic system which protects the vulnerable matters. Universal basic income models going forward would matter.  Realizing that local actions can have global consequences matters. The global cooperation matters, on a local scale spirit of volunteering matters. Better surveillance, we like it or not, matters. The health of the ecosystem we are a part of matters. The environment we live in matters, the quality of the air we breathe in matters. And last but not the least, our physical and mental wellbeing matters. In essence, life matters.

Image Courtesy: google images

 

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