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The Coronavirus: Infecting our minds or our bodies? The culture of pandemics

According to Google Trends, coronavirus is the most searched term globally. Alongside the following questions: what is the coronavirus? How many people have died from coronavirus? How should you prepare for the coronavirus? How did the coronavirus start? How is the coronavirus spread? The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 has taken the world by storm, literally. But what’s the real risk? We’ll answer the most asked questions and debunk some myths to better understand the nature of the virus, and the culture of pandemics.

What is the coronavirus and how did it start?

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a contagious respiratory disease. It was first identified upon investigation of an outbreak in Wuhan, China, and is said to have been spread through a seafood market. ‘Wet markets’ are common in China and are a recurrent source of infectious disease due to the interaction with raw and sometimes live fish, meat and wild animals. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t unusual. In fact, a study from 2006, published in the journal Current Opinion in Infectious Disease examined the spread of infectious disease from Chinese wet markets. The researchers discovered the presence of ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-like viruses in horseshoe bats’, and recommended that action is taken to avoid the ‘pandemic potential’ of these conditions spreading. To clarify: this study was published in 2006, more than 14 years prior.

Interaction with live animals for food is dangerous, particularly in unsanitary conditions, as in wet markets. Diseases present in animals have the ability to mutate and be passed to humans transmitted by the respiratory route. When these individuals are infected - even before having physical symptoms of the infection - the disease can be spread. In fact, many infectious diseases spread rapidly before people are aware of their presence. Arguably the two most notable infectious diseases in recent years are severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which infected 8,000 people and killed almost 800; and avian influenza virus (bird flu), another zoonotic viral infection transmitted via respiration. As per a 2004 study published in The Lancet, wet markets are the dangerous source of many dangerous infectious diseases, and another form of SARS was predicted to reappear. So it did: in the form of COVID-19.

How many people have died from coronavirus?

The new coronavirus has already surpassed the 2003 SARS outbreak. As of March 12, over 128,000 cases of the disease have been reported globally, with over 4,500 deaths. In the US alone, there have been more than 1,100 cases reported, with 38 deaths. However, it’s important to note that these are only the reported cases; it is predicted hundreds, if not thousands more have the disease but are fighting it without physical symptoms. This is perhaps due to the sequencing of the virus’ genome, which can go undetected for up to six weeks in the host. 110 countries globally have reported infection, and individual cases are increasing rapidly by the day.

How should you prepare for the coronavirus?

As with all respiratory infections, COVID-19 spreads through contact with someone infected (within about six feet). Respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or touches something can spread person to person, for example if you touch a surface with the infection and then touch your own mouth or eyes. Based on how the virus spreads, you can understand how best to prepare for it. Regularly cleaning surfaces with disinfectant, washing hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap, avoiding contact with people who have physical symptoms of the illness or if you start showing physical symptoms avoid contact with others and avoiding touching bacterial ‘hotspots’ in public places like handrails. The symptoms of coronavirus include coughing, sneezing, trouble breathing, fatigue, high temperature, fever and shortness of breath. Essentially all the symptoms of the common flu.

People everywhere are in a frenzy. There’s a global shortage of hand sanitizer and face masks, the grocery store racks that used to have paper towels and soap are barren and public places are empty. We’re freaking out. Everyone is researching how to stay safe and avoid infection and for once, people are taking their health seriously. As a nutritionist, this has opened my eyes to how we view our health in society: for once we’re taking our health seriously, but it’s taken a pandemic of disease for people to swing into action. For some perspective: 56 million people die from cardiovascular disease each year, accounting for a third of all global deaths, cancer kills 9.6 million per year and respiratory diseases kill 3 million. The majority of people who die from these diseases have one or more of the following risk factors: high blood pressure (linked to 10.4 million deaths), smoking (7.1 million), high blood sugar/diabetes (6.53 million), air pollution (4.9 million) and obesity (4.7 million). In nearly all these cases, these deaths are caused by preventable, lifestyle related illnesses. People are killing themselves slowly with their diet, lack of exercise, exposure to chemicals and pollutants, stress and detrimental habits; yet they’re still reaching for the antibacterial lotion and calling out of work out of fear of the coronavirus.

One of the aspects of the coronavirus that is most misunderstood is the statistical risk, so let’s break it down. If someone were to ask you to risk your entire life’s savings on a gambling game that has a 99 percent risk of losing - would you do it? Would you buy flights from an airline that says there’s a two percent chance of making it to your destination safely? Unlikely right? When we look at the data on the coronavirus, there is a two percent risk that you will die from the disease; but similar to the other killers mentioned above, mortality from the coronavirus also depends on a number of risk factors including age, immune health, those with chronic diseases and obesity. The overall risk of death is two percent, meaning that unless you are already in poor health, or very young or old, your risk is next to negligible. In fact, you’re more likely to die getting hit by lighting.

This isn’t to downplay the danger of coronavirus, it’s a serious concern for many at risk groups of society, and the possibility of spreading is worrisome. However, we need to put it into perspective based on the statistical risk. Obesity related deaths kill more Americans every hour than the coronavirus kills in one day, suicide takes one person every 40 seconds, which means that on February 10 (one of the worst days for coronavirus), more people died from suicide, 28 times more and on that single day, 26,283 people died of cancer, a disease that is diet-related 70 percent of the time. Again, these statistics aren't to disregard those who have already been affected by coronavirus, it's just to put into perspective the risk for the rest of us, so that we aren't living in a place of fear, but a place of awareness.

So what’s the difference? Why are we so worried about coronavirus when we are so mindless about our health, even though preventable lifestyle-related diseases kill millions more each year? A key reason is that we don't know the extent of the coronavirus: will it fizzle out and be fine after a couple of stressful weeks? Or will millions of at-risk people die, hospitals be unable to keep up and health practitioners overwhelmed, a maximum demand for goods and services with minimal supply, offices empty and employment for millions dwindling; ultimately causing the economy to crash and a surge of depression to fill the lives of the many millions of people affected directly or indirectly? That is the question we need to all be focusing on. Rather than "will I die?" it's "who will be affected the most? How can we step in to help them and prevent the spread and the decline of society?".

As articulated by Dr Samuel Veissière, for the healthy majority of us, we are mainly freaking out because of the media and our inability to truly grasp the statistical risk. The coronavirus is more of a a moral pandemic; Chinese restaurants in the US have reported a sharp drop in sales due to consumer fear, colleges are closed and people are wearing face masks like they’re going out of fashion. Despite the fact that: Chinese restaurants in the US are completely unrelated to this disease, college students have the lowest risk factor at less than 0.3 percent and face masks do not help prevent the spread of disease. We are faced with news story after news story telling us to fear the worst, to stock up while we can and to touch elbows instead of hands when we meet people. Of course, these are helpful precautionary measures and can be extremely beneficial in areas with high outbreaks and amongst elderly, young or immune-compromised individuals; however, we need to avoid virtue signaling in times of moral distress and uncertainty. And that’s mainly what this is: a time of moral distress.

We are evolutionarily designed to fear disease, as a measure to stay alive. So when we are presented with the risk of coronavirus, it’s easy to feel alarmed and shift into a ‘fight or flight’ mode. But we need to take a step back, to realize the true risk of coronavirus: it's a nasty form of the flu with a low mortality rate, but it's also something that has the potential to threaten society as we know it, with a unpredictable global impact. While we must stay cognizant of an increasing risk, the current statistics should help to ease your anxieties and allow you to refocus back to your daily activities, rather than stressing if the person next to you just sneezed. Let's spread awareness, offer assistance and protect those at risk, without going full on freak out mode.

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