With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of unanswered questions and incorrect information swirling around on the internet. I am neither a medical doctor nor a virologist, but I’ve seen so much that is misleading and inaccurate, I couldn’t help adding a few semi-factual reflections to the confusing cacophony. I do so with the hope that at least for some, it might provide a bit more sanity and clarity.
First of all, as much as no one wants to hear it, the main goal at this point is mitigation, not eradication. I’ve heard many make the claim that the vast majority of cases (80-85%) are relatively mild and most will readily recover. So far, so good. The real problem is the 15% (using the more conservative figure), as well as the wildly disparate death rates from country to country. It would appear the reasons for the disparity are many, but it’s not my purpose here to get lost in the numbers. Others have already put out valuable and accurate articles along those lines to help explain the reasons for these disparities.
Because this disease is very contagious—almost twice that of the flu—so-called “social distancing” is the main way to slow the spread. This ultimately achieves not eradication, but mitigation, and mitigation is necessary to keep those who will get very sick from the virus manageable in terms of numbers.
Italy (as well as China and Iran) is a good test case for this problem. Italy failed to put serious restrictions in place until many people had already died. When the numbers of sick shot up exponentially, medical resources were almost immediately stretched to the breaking point. There were not nearly enough medical personnel, beds, medications, ventilators, etc. to meet the burgeoning demand. If they had put restrictions in place earlier, they would at least have slowed the exponential spread of the virus and given the medical community a smaller and steadier stream of patients to be treated and released, making room for others to come in on their heels.
As it is now, Italian hospitals are deciding who lives and who dies based on factors like being a parent, being young and healthy, having no pre-existing medical conditions, etc. This is triage of the most macabre and dreadful kind, but wholly necessary given the situation they are in. Sad to say, all of that is now water under the bridge. If, however, the USA can learn anything from all of this, it’s that they need to put widespread draconian restrictions in place sooner and not later.
While no one wants to hear or face it, quarantines, shortages, travel bans, online-only education, and the cancelation of large-scale social events (regular church services included) are likely to be the new normal for quite some time—likely months and not just weeks. If we have learned anything from the lockdown in China, it’s that this virus is not going to be eliminated on a large scale for a long, long time. On January 23 in Wuhan, China closed down virtually everything that did not pertain to vital services for a city of 11 million people. The rest of China soon followed. While cases of the virus have finally fallen to nearly zero, it has taken almost two full months to get to this point and the Chinese lockdown has been enforced in draconian absolutist communist style, literally locking and sealing people into their respective homes and communities. Even so, it is still unclear when the restrictions will be lifted and to what extent. One thing is for sure, China will not be allowing people from other parts of the world back in to re-infect them anytime soon.
I am deeply concerned for the situation in the US for many reasons. First and foremost, Americans love their freedom way too much. They also tend to distrust and disrespect their leaders and those in authority over them. It’s difficult for most Americans to be told what to do. It’s even harder for them to actually do what they are told.
Most Asians, on the other hand, have a much more communal mindset and clearly understand the value of making hard personal choices for the sake of the overall societal wellbeing. Their Confucian roots also make them much more trusting of those in authority over them. This combination makes it more likely that people will do what they are asked (not even required) to do by the authorities for the sake of the greater good of all. We have seen the happy results of that here in Singapore where the virus spread continues to be kept from blowing out and overwhelming the medical system.
Beyond all of this, it’s still very hard to say what effect warmer and more humid days will have on COVID-19. We can only hope that similar to other coronaviruses like the flu and the common cold, warmer summer months will help slow the speed of transmission. We simply do not know yet, but very warm and tropic places in Asia (like Singapore) show that this virus is not easily contained in any climate. We also hope for a vaccine to be developed sooner and not later. But in the meantime, people everywhere need to be patient and take the governmental restrictions put in place very seriously so that hospitals and medical workers will not be overwhelmed and forced to make dreadful decisions about who will live and die.
So far, these are relatively factual (although admittedly debatable) reflections. In the post that follows, I will reflect more on issues of faith and fear as we increasingly come face-to-face with the realities of a post-COVID-19 world.