COVID-19: the surprise guest of 2020

Coronavirus in China. Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), people in white medical face mask. Concept of coronavirus quarantine vector illustration. Seamless pattern.
WhatsApp Image 2020-03-19 at 11.40.23

A little over a week ago, an airplane loomed over the International Convention Center in Sydney, Australia. As it went about a rather squiggly route, the plane exhaust spelled out the words “wash hands” in the sky. While the mastermind behind the sky-large reminder remains a mystery, what’s not a mystery is the virus that has entered the new decade with us.

Chances are, you, dear reader, already know of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that wields global control right this moment. Nearing the end of December 2019, several acute respiratory syndrome cases emerged in Wuhan, China. Scientists dove into work, soon announcing SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), a virus strain that hasn’t been previously identified in humans, as the cause of those cases.

With Wuhan as the center of the pandemic, the virus worked its way out of China and has since brought about outbreaks of the disease in the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia.

Now, don’t be fooled or terrified by what the news is feeding you. Research from Johns Hopkins University has found the majority of cases to be mild, showing flu-like symptoms, and only an estimate of 4.7% are critical cases that require intensive care, and even critical cases have a high recovery rate.

Who among us are vulnerable to the virus, you may ask? Those who have existing health issues are more at risk because their immune systems are less likely to fight off the virus successfully. The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested that “the severity of infection is associated with age (60+ years) and underlying conditions”.

The estimated current count for coronavirus cases stands at 334,000, with 14,000 deaths, but more importantly, 85,000 recovered cases. As long as an infected person isolates him- or herself from the public and take recommended steps to recover, he or she will be fit as a fiddle in no time.

Authorities have advised the public to take basic precautions against the virus, such as:

  1. Regularly wash our hands for up to 20 seconds
  2. Avoid touching our faces
  3. Wear a mask if we’re leaving the house 
  4. Cover our mouths and noses when we cough or sneeze

As COVID-19 takes up headlines and Twitter feeds, we see governments implementing quarantines to ‘flatten the curve’, medical professionals working around the clock to save lives, and the public reacting in both acceptably decent and extraordinarily peculiar ways.

The First Part

So, let’s talk about what has been happening around the world in these trying times.

To be concise, the general public is encouraged to practice self-isolation and social-distancing. Those who are exhibiting symptoms of the disease, which include cough, fever, and breathing difficulties are asked to isolate themselves for two weeks. Naturally, should the symptoms continue to worsen during self-isolation, it is strongly recommended that the patients get treated at hospitals.

In light of this recommendation, however, many have reported themselves to hospitals to get tested for the virus even when they’re only showing mild symptoms. The aftermath of this would be overcrowding of hospitals and overworking of staff, stringing along with the possibility of patients of other diseases not getting the medical attention they require.

A saying has caught on the internet lately: “We stay at work for you, you stay at home for us.” The phrase, undoubtedly, stems from hospital staff who are advising people to stay in their houses away from the virus.

Social distancing, on the other hand, means downplaying the amount of contact with others, ideally keeping a distance of six feet. By minimizing human-to-human contact, we are slowing the growth of the virus and ‘flattening the curve’. I believe this article from The Washington Post most accurately explains the effectiveness of social distancing. In conjunction with social distancing, governments have placed countries in lockdowns and restricted movements, encouraging families to only send one person out for food and necessities.

For starters, to minimize human contact, through which the virus can be transmitted, a number of major events were affected. Major sports tournaments such as the NBA, NHL, and MLS seasons are suspended, festivals like SXSW and Coachella are either canceled or postponed, Disneyland and Broadway Theatres are closed, and the traditional St. Patrick’s Day Parades were all postponed.

Of course, on a smaller but more relatable scale, retail stores that do not sell basic supplies are temporarily closing their doors in an attempt to contain the virus. Government officials all around the globe have ordered public gathering spaces such as bars and cinemas to halt business, whereas restaurants are the only exception allowed to provide takeout transactions.

Another exemption would be grocery stores and hypermarkets that supply necessities. A restriction of opening hours has been imposed and these places are asked to sanitize the area frequently and its employees urged to wear medical masks and gloves.

Medical expert Dr. Mike Varshavski has explained that by pausing events and businesses, we are essentially containing how the virus spreads. This is important in offering what Varshavski calls ‘community protection’ to those who are unable to protect themselves. He also said that we typically provide these community protections through vaccines, but WHO has projected the earliest date for a vaccine to be perfected, which falls in mid-2021.

However, this buzz of change in the business world is causing quite another flood of panic. People are clearing out shelves just to hoard supplies in the name of panic-buying; the popular purchases including hand sanitizers, soap, toilet papers, and of course, food. Many psychological reasons explain why people tend to stock up, but in an article for The Seattle Times, Chris Talbott writes: “Turns out those colorful, large cubes of toilet paper packages are distinctive and trigger something in our brains. In the minds of people, it’s become a symbol of safety, and these symbols, they need not be rational.”

By selfishly panic-buying and having no regard for the need of everyone else, shoppers are creating yet another social problem. There have been videos and photos of the elderly and vulnerable wandering into stores only to be met with empty shelves or perishable goods. While everyone else is busy wrestling each other for unnecessary amounts of canned goods, we have forgotten to look out for those who truly need them.

A few hypermarkets and grocery stores have implemented a system that lets the elderly and vulnerable buy goods first thing in the morning for a set amount of hours. This way, they can take their time with their purchases instead of fighting against young adults and teenagers. In my opinion, this should be implemented in all stores. What we need is to maximize everyone’s chances of health, not a bunch of idiotic hoarders cleaning out living necessities unnecessarily.

Another problem that has arisen has to do with unethical business practices. Even as we are amidst a global crisis, there are still people who only have greed on their minds. Several businesses and individuals have been practicing price gouging, taking advantage of the high demand for hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays, soaps, toilet papers, and more.

Matt and Noah Colvin, brothers from Tennessee, set out across the state to buy every hand sanitizer they came across, acquiring up to 17,700 bottles of them. Before the pandemic, the brothers were already profiting from reselling popular items on Amazon and eBay. Now that another opportunity has presented itself, they jumped at it.

Amazon swiftly removed the Colvins’ products and banned them from the site after discovering their unethical behavior. In their defense, Colvin claimed to the Times: “When we did this trip, I had no idea that these stores wouldn’t be able to get replenished. It was never my intention to keep necessary medical supplies out of the hands of people who needed them.”

Be that as it may, we have to remember that many people are being laid off their jobs temporarily due to lockdowns. These employees under quarantines aren’t being paid, yet their job as a household provider continues. By jacking up prices, we are making everyday goods more unaffordable for those who have it more difficult to make ends meet. This practice only does more harm than good; we shouldn’t compromise people’s long-run well-being for the sake of short-run profits.

The Second Part

Enough about that; let’s take a look at how people are coping:

In the city of Wuhan where citizens are asked to stay in their own homes to avoid further transmission of the disease, people would converse over distances by standing on their respective balconies. When cases first increased exponentially in Wuhan, its people would rally and chant “武汉加油!” (Wuhan you can do this!) from windows and balconies, believing that a cure will soon be found to fend off the virus.

Italy has been placed on lockdown until April. A video surfaced on the internet, featuring a Vespa rider roaming (or dare I say, Rome-ing) through the streets of Rome, met with zero traffic and a limited amount of citizens. Also in Italy, reflecting the situation in Wuhan, neighbors alike are gathering on balconies to play music, make conversation, and create entertainment to pass the time.

Even with everyone being confined to their own homes, people still found ways to keep their spirits high in the face of adversity. In a compound located in Seville, Spain, apartment tenants flocked to their windows as a fitness instructor hosted a workout session from a nearby rooftop. Likewise, coming from a lovely video clip is a man on a Spanish balcony serenading his neighbors with piano tunes. It seems balconies and windows are the closest you can get to the next person during a lockdown. One can even say they open up doors to conversations!

Then, there’s the internet. Schools have shut down along with businesses, meaning classes are conducted via the internet. Students have plenty of mixed feelings about this, but at least we’re trying our best to not break the flow of education for the next generation. However, universities shutting down their dorms mean that international students are facing problems – some of them have nowhere to go. What with the travel restrictions, it is almost impossible for some of them to even return home. Hopefully, authorities will conjure a solution to this problem, for students should not be rendered homeless in times like these.

Speaking of the internet, as always, our faithful users of the World Wide Web have taken it upon themselves to curate a handful of memes and TikTok videos to amuse others while killing their own time. It would seem that these two forms of internet content are growing to be ‘coping mechanisms’; are we surprised at this progress? Probably not. Between students sharing pictures of Eric’s (from the Netflix series Sex Education) infamous line “wash your hands, you detty pig,” popping up in campuses and teenagers attempting to put their own twist on the Renegade dance on TikTok, it becomes fairly obvious that many of us will be spending time on the internet waiting for this pandemic to blow over.

As always, you would get people who refuse to listen to instructions even when their health is in jeopardy. Many youngsters are complaining that staying indoors is suffocating and boring, that the lack of activities and social life strips them of daily busyness and meaning.

A video from NowThis News showed South Floridian college partiers ignoring the warnings and insisting on partying during Spring Break. This complete disregard not only endangers the students themselves but everyone around them. Thankfully, the local authorities have decided that beachgoing offenders will be dealt with and criminally charged if necessary.

I came across a post online the other day, it said: “Our elders were called to war to save lives. We are being called to sit on the couch to save theirs. We can do this.” Indeed, the effort needed to slow down the spread of the coronavirus and flatten the curve is minuscule. All we need to do is stay home, which I trust for many of us is already the norm, so what’s the harm in more leisurely hours at the comfort of your own room?

The Third Part

As I’ve said in my piece on climate change, it is equal parts heartwarming as it is heart-wrenching in these trying times when we see the whole world unite against adversity. These challenges that humanity faces together always shows us truths that we’re clouded from.

For one, we’ve come to realize that the key contributors that keep our society running are the doctors, nurses, teachers, even the people that we don’t bother to give a second glance – couriers, cashiers, even the shelf stackers. Yes, our world depends on other occupations to stay up and running as well, but we have to credit and acknowledge the backstage workers, not just the front stage performers.

Then, there is the case of racism. Just to briefly touch on the topic, many have been caught referring to the coronavirus as ‘The Chinese Virus” or the “Kung Flu”. While it may sound harmless, these names carry an implication that the Chinese produced the virus, or rather, they deserve it. Either way, it is false. This is not a joking matter. Lives are at stake; placing blame and wrongfully accusing a country of deserving or creating something of this extent should be the last thing on our minds. In fact, it should not be on our minds at all. When leaders start pointing fingers because of race, skin color, or the history of a people, it’s no longer just ‘protecting their own people’, it’s downright xenophobic.

This is an opportunity to learn, to not make the same mistake the next time a global crisis comes raining down on us. Bitter as the pill may be, it has to be swallowed.

The Last Part

Not all hope is lost. The coronavirus brought us bad news, indeed, but there were certainly positive aspects to this.

One, pollution is decreasing and air quality is improving. In parts of Italy, water bodies are clearing up as nitrogen dioxide pollution levels fall. The locals say that the water has not been as clear as it is now for a couple of decades. As factories and companies stop generating chemicals and pollutants, our surroundings are starting to show signs of recovery and growth.

Second, animals are getting more attention and less abuse. Again, relating to the temporary closing of businesses such as circuses, animals aren’t being transported around the world and forced to perform against their will or locked in cages. Plus, with everyone staying at home, pet owners can spend more time with their companions and give them the attention they so truly deserve.

Last but not least, the virus has gifted us with time. Contrary to public opinion, being confined to our own homes isn’t a bad thing. Before this, we hear of people complaining they don’t have time. No time for their families, no time for their friends, no time for their hobbies, and no time for themselves because of the workaholic culture. Well, now more than ever, all we have is time. Read that book. Write that story. Attempt your grandma’s recipe. Catch up with your loved ones. This is the moment to lessen your regrets; it is perhaps the only pause we’re going to get for a very long time.

All this goes to say that when we take a break from our normal, power-hungry, money-chasing, functioning routines and focus on the important things, the world gets a little better for everyone else.

We will get over this.

Just stop hoarding toilet paper.