Covid-19: How Worried Should We Be About The Disease, And Our All-Too American Government
Today, let’s take a quick break from the mountain of data and focus on the emotional response we’re having to the Covid-19 pandemic. This article will address the concerns people have about normal life and the changes to it that will potentially follow fairly rapidly during the next few weeks. The main question I’ll try to answer here is simple enough: How concerned should we be about the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19?
In the Media
Media reports being all over the place as they are, and the history of SARS and MERS being what they are, people seem to be conflicted about how concerned to be over the Covid-19 outbreak. The President of the United States has been doing everything in his power to downplay and/or trivialize the disease for months now, repeatedly calling it a hoax and insisting it will be gone shortly without intervention, as well as classifying discussions of the disease to slow the spread of information about it. Without getting into the (utter lack of) appropriateness of these remarks and deeds, we must understand that they have set the tone for the way a large portion of the nation approaches the disease, and we must acknowledge the threat as it exists with this undeniable breach of propriety mixed in: a lot of people in the United States have undiagnosed cases of Covid-19, and they are beginning to fall ill and go to the hospital.
As the number of cases increases, the WHO declares Covid-19 a pandemic, and disasters are now declared in Houston (which is beginning to see community spread), Austin, and Miami, public awareness is finally coming around. Almost overnight, Covid-19 is glaringly present in the media (conspiracies about this are really, really stupid — if anything, the media response to Covid-19 has been underwhelming until recently). Austin cancelled South by Southwest because it seemed irresponsible given contemporary projections to try to get the entire music world to fly into town for a week. The NBA cancelled its season after a player tested positive for coronavirus. March Madness will be exclusively televised. The semester is over early for thousands of students from Stanford to CUNY as announcements roll out: classes will be online, and it’s time to fly home.
Still, a large number of Americans seem to think that these cancellations and inconvenient interruptions are inappropriate. They lament the changes to their daily lives as a result of a virus which, depending again on your source, “only” kills somewhere between .7% and 3.4% of the people it comes into contact with. In reality, what we’ll probably see over the coming weeks is that the virus has variation in its mortality rate according to the level of care a given population receives; people who receive worse care will probably die more often from the same illness.
Cause for Concern
In Italy, the entire nation has shut down as cases skyrocketed from 3 confirmed cases on February 20 to somewhere north of 12400 as of March 12. That’s a dramatic rise during a three-week time period. The disease spreads rapidly from person to person, then everyone gets sick all at once a week or two weeks later. In fact, we don’t actually know what the true case count in Italy is. It could be that we end up seeing 50,000 Italians needing medical care within a few short days, and if that happens it is going to end very badly for not only them, but also any other Italians with medical needs. People who are involved in car crashes, or who come down with some other life-threatening illness such as a severe staph infection may be left to fend for themselves without the benefit of modern medicine.
While I certainly hope that events don’t turn out this way, even if they do it is unlikely that we will know the real figures for some time. My point? Coronavirus has temporarily disabled the Italian healthcare system, which has had a profound impact upon the function of the Italian nation as a whole. We don’t know when the hospitals will be free to resume normal business. This can happen in the United States, and, while we all like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient Americans, the fact of the matter is simply that we face risk as individuals and as a powerful nation. And the stakes are very high: If the U.S. Government were to experience serious issues as a result of Covid-19, there could be geopolitical consequences for the next several decades!
Aside from losing money on the stock market and having to put Spring Break travel plans on hold, millions of Americans are working from home and avoiding social situations. This is good, or at least it would have been, if it had started months ago. As things stand, the number of cases stateside is likely to resemble the numbers in the European countries either now or in the very near future, but we still aren’t testing and so we don’t know. The South Koreans have, by contrast, largely managed to contain the disease using extensive testing and self-quarantine measures. As frustrations domestically mount with what is widely perceived to be a dishonest administration running an ineffective medical establishment, it is appalling to see the United States, once such a powerful leader in health and wellness, fall so unbelievably far below even the average global coronavirus response.
What Has Worked? Getting The Population On Board: Successful Cases of Covid-19 Control
I’ve observed a trend. The nations who were able to deal with the threat of the virus by dialogue and by awareness and by sharing information (Taiwan, S. Korea, among others) have thus far demonstrated by far the most success in managing the pandemic. Early and frequent testing has been an utterly indispensable tool in both Taiwan and S. Korea, and the public in each nation has been exceptional in dealing with an existential threat primarily due to close cooperation with community leaders and response-teams (which, again, were funded despite the lack of perceived need for them the previous few years).
I wish I could say the same for my great nation. In a nutshell: the American response to the disease has been utterly lackluster. Led by a President who is out of his mind, Americans have overwhelmingly ignored the threat of the disease and the potential for harm it poses. This is not only inappropriate for the situation facing American people in general, but also extremely dangerous for healthcare workers such as doctors and nurses.
The general assumption seems to be that, were the public to be aware of the threat posed by the disease, a panic would ensue. This, like many of the arguments coming out of Washington these days, seems completely wrong to me. I believe that other nations have shown us that this is not a necessary outcome of the spread of information, and in fact, in 2020 with the advent of the internet and real-time information transfer enabled by technology, the only reliable way to combat the disease is to enlist the aid of a willing and able populace. This is why I insist upon occasionally mentioning possible outcomes that are perhaps unlikely in my articles — the public deserves to know what the stakes are as we deal with this outbreak.
Classifying meetings about a widespread biological existential threat to our nation is not only un-American, it is unacceptable. The United States is already far behind the curve in terms of awareness and prevention, and I hate to say it again, but we still don’t know exactly how severe the threat we face is.
I’ll leave you with a thought experiment to reflect upon. We have good reason to believe the threat we face is severe enough to go far out of our way to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but we do not have any real way of quantifying this threat in terms of long-term health impact. If the mortality rate is 2%, that’s well and good, but there could be more to it.
Allow me to ask you a question to illustrate the depth of the potential risks we face. This will allow you to better choose whether or not to support outbreak control measures.
If the disease could recur after a major injury, how concerned would you be about getting infected a first time?
I’ll stop there, though I could elaborate or explain more possible scenarios, but you get the point. Nobody knows what the long-term ramifications of this virus look like yet (though this Fast.AI article is probably pretty close in terms of what we should be expecting with regard to the rate of spread). Nobody knows how many American Covid-19 cases will appear over the weekend or next week. And it is up to us, not knowing these things, to respond to this threat.
I am of the opinion that slowing the rapid spread of Covid-19 needs to be our top priority in the coming weeks and months, both as a nation and as individuals. I have felt this way for months, now, and it hasn’t happened yet, but social distancing measures are ramping up. Our best bet is to keep massive numbers of people from getting the disease all at once, if possible, because that will help us guarantee the best chances to everyone.
If the projections are right, it may already be too late for that. We’ll (most of us) probably live either way, although there is no telling what might happen next if the American hospital system were overrun while the stock market crashed. It is deeply disturbing to me that “we won’t all die” has become the common refrain as the United States prepares to attempt to weather more turmoil than it has in decades. What a striking moment in history this is.
Please, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.