Social Contagion and Coronavirus

By Donavan Makus

The world has never seen a viral outbreak quite like Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19 to avoid confusion) before. What makes this instance unique is not how contagious or lethal COVID-19 ends up being in the final analysis; current studies suggest a mortality rate of 2.3%, well below the original SARS at its peak in 2003 at 9.6%, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) at 35%, or the various plagues that constituted the Black Death in the Middle Ages, which featured mortality rates between 15% for treated victims, up to 100% for untreated victims for some of the plagues. Nor is the setting or virus inherently unique; Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was also a coronavirus that hailed from China, being spread by human-animal contact. What makes this coronavirus different is its status as the first major virus of the social media age and the failed initial response. 

Named not after the beer but for its crown-like shape, the coronavirus family includes many viruses, such as MERS and the first instance of SARS. They are zoonotic viruses, transmitted originally from animals to humans. All three of these viruses are believed to have been originally transmitted to humans from bats. While the current COVID-19, SARS, and MERS outbreaks represent more well-known examples of coronaviruses, many cases of the common cold are also believed to be caused by coronaviruses, although it’s important to note there are significant differences inside the family as the coronavirus family is quite large. The symptomology of a coronaviruses can be viewed as cold-like, with fevers and breathing difficulties. Concerningly, the incubation period for COVID-19 may be as long as 27 days, hampering efforts to restrict its spread. The fatalities caused by COVID-19 and the other more well-known coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, lead to respiratory distress through various pathways, be it pneumonia or some other form of breathing distress. While no “cure” or vaccine currently exists for COVID-19, standard hygiene steps to prevent colds are effective against COVID-19, from washing your hands regularly, to staying home if you feel sick, and treating symptoms. After all, for all the attention paid to COVID-19, you are more likely to suffer from the common cold than COVID-19. 

COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019 in people associated with the Wuhan animal food market. Since then, the virus has spread rapidly around the globe, although it is still the most prolific in China. We may never know the true extent of the virus as the symptoms are similar to a cold. With a 2.3% mortality rate, many people will have been infected, felt poorly, and recovered. This is one of the perennial issues with infectious diseases: undercounting the total number of cases due to a lack of reporting leads to inflated mortality figures. This also serves to temper the doom and gloom of COVID-19 hysteria. While it is possible for otherwise healthy, young, people to become fatalities, many of the current cases of COVID-19 induced mortality are in older, more vulnerable populations. At last count, the virus appears to continue spreading despite control efforts, with outbreaks reported in Italy, Iran, and other countries not starting with “I”. With the current number of cases in the low ten thousands range (80,000 thousand as of article submission), the virus is still spreading, and the next few weeks will be quite crucial in determining if the virus takes a SARS-like trajectory, where containment measures were successful in causing the virus to eventually terminate, or see if it continues to grow. 

Determining why COVID-19 was able to proliferate and spread has important implications for future infectious diseases, but so does looking at our response to the virus. Despite misinformation and conspiracy cases, the virus is unlikely to have spread due to malicious intent or an accident. The typical suspects are, once again, “identified.” American sources allege that there was a Russian information campaign placing “blame” for COVID-19 with the Americans. It’s worth noting, before suggesting reflexive anti-Russian feelings from the American security establishment, that there was a well-established campaign by the Russians in the 1980s to link the American biowarfare programs to the arrival of AIDs in Africa that was quite successful, despite being completely wrong. To this day, there are people who believe the initial KGB-lead campaign to link American biowarfare with AIDs. Similar anti-Chinese sentiments, a new “Red Terror” alleging a bioweapon containment failure, are also similarly difficult to believe based upon the analysis of experts. Instead of nefarious white-suited unethical scientists, the most likely viral vector is the adorable ant-eating pangolin, which spread the virus to humans from bats. The previous KGB efforts to connect Americans with AIDs were a product of the pre-digital age, spread by placing articles into pro-Red newspapers and sources. Our current age is different. As the first major virus of the social media age, we were able to witness both the confusion and trail of evidence left behind in real-time, as bots spread rumors and public panic. Social media also reminds us of the importance of being mature and avoiding unfairly assigning blame. I would suggest it’s not a good idea to hold a COVID-19 themed costume party, complete with Corona beers, face masks, and Chinese flags. It is an even worse idea to post pictures of the party after the fact. By the same token, COVID-19’s origin in China doesn’t mean that all Asian-appearing people are potential viral hosts. By serving as a window into our most fleeting thoughts, social media can serve to magnify our less noble tendencies. Perhaps the greatest lesson for most of us is to think before you click.  

With the virus’s spread not yet contained, it’s difficult to conclusively look back. Despite this, the Coronavirus can teach us all lessons, particularly on the political and social sides. The initial response to the virus stands out as a failure of the authoritarian system and our own human tendency to sweep problems away. Beginning with an initial attempt to minimize the extent of the problem followed by the rapid implementation of wide-ranging quarrantines, the response suffered from bureaucratic malaise. It’s impossible to think for someone, but we can all understand what the first bureaucrats to see COVID-19 may have thought: “Perhaps this isn’t a real disease,” or even feeling afraid to report it to their superiors. Those few who did stand up and faced consequences, as a result, are inspiring. Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese opthamologist, is widely credited as being the first to note the potential for a new virus in a patient he treated in December. He turned out to be correct, and is credited as the first to sound the alarm on COVID-19. After noting his findings to his colleagues he was initially arrested for “rumor-mongering.” Dr. Wenliang, has, unfortunately, died of COVID-19 related complications, with his death unleashing both an outpouring of condolences and anger at how his early alarm was ignored. This exposed a flaw inherent in totalitarian systems. It’s hard to imagine a Canadian physician being quickly arrested for attempting to raise the alarm as they are safely protected by a robust legal system and strong professional associations. Despite this, Dr. Li Wenliang and his fellow health care team members should be commended for their devotion and efforts to contain the virus. Furthermore, while the initial response was poor, the decision down the line to implement wide-ranging quarantines was no doubt a difficult one, with great economic damage inflicted. The Chinese state government should be recognized for their willingness to fight the virus.

Only time will tell the impact of COVID-19. While the more optimistic and hopeful would like to see a SARS-style termination, COVID-19 is likely to linger with us for some time. While it’s never pleasant to use a condition that has caused fatalities as a teaching moment, COVID-19 has much to show us and we have much to learn. 

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