Watching the emergence of the coronavirus unfold, I’m baffled by the degree of individualist thinking we as a western society are throwing at this issue. I’m saying that as an ecologist, aware of how all things are connected. Journalists and politicians repeatedly ask the wrong questions. “What can I do to stay safe?” should be “What should I do to keep society safe?” And “What should we all do keep the place running as smoothly as possible? The short answer: minimize spreading the virus and buffer the impacts.
Understandably, everyone’s first response to the news of the virus is: “Does this threaten me?”. Normal response, so far so good. But an important immediate question which many people are missing is: does this threaten our society? And while the answer the the first question is: “Probably not”, the answer to the second is “Certainly!” That’s why I want to shortly explain this thing from a graduated ecologists’ point of view. And yes, I have thoroughly studied this thing, and I’m aware there are uncertainties. I’m also not going to answer all basic questions. Just give a commentary on what I’m hearing and reading.
A quick first illustration of my issue: coughing in your elbow. I have not seen a single outlet which hasn’t called this a measure to protect yourself. “What can you do to protect yourself?” And then somewhere between point #3 and point #5 “Cough in your elbow.” You don’t cough in your elbow to protect yourself if you already have the virus! You do it to protect others. A single person you infect today, could infect thousands down the line. It’s remarkable that media, including the WHO campaign are ambiguous about this. Are they playing on fear for survival? Who are they thinking to fool, then? In which framework are they placing this campaign? That of you and yourself.
I’m hearing people compare COVID19 to a common flu because of the effect it may have on their individual health (a flu is something different than a cold, by the way). When it comes to these problems, ecologists, and epidemologists, don’t think in terms of individuals, but in terms of communities and populations. Whenever a new virus gets introduced, none of the members in the population have ever built antibodies for it before. I’m still hearing leeks say something like: “O, okay. So if I contract this coronavirus, my immune system will have to save me, just like with a normal flu. Well, I’m not getting a flu vaccine now, so I’ll probably be fine.” Where these people go wrong, apart from forgetting their own memory T-cells, is where they ignore the protection they get from the immune systems of their neighbours, colleagues and family members.
Here’s how that works. Any new virus infection you get is a race against the clock between the virus, multiplying, and your immune system, multiplying virus-specific T-cells to neutralize it. Usually, you never notice this race, because your immune system wins hands down. If not, you get sick and may even develop a fever which then helps break down the virus, causing your immune system to win the race anyway.
Now, once you had a certain strain of virus, your immune system has memory cells which remember it. The next time you contract it, these cells will be able to take faster action, so the chances of the virus winning the battle will be even smaller. And since you were not the only one to get this virus – how else would you have got it? – more people around you now have a similar level of immunity. Sure, the virus will mutate, but not enough to make it look like a completely new virus. Hence, people around you will act as a barrier between you and the virus, and you will act as a barrier for them. So even if your immune system is weaker, because you’re under some stress, aren’t sleeping well or because you got old by now, chances you get sick are low.
This insight provides an end goal in case we can’t stop this virus with quarantines: global herd immunity to Sars-cov-2. By the time 60 to 80 % of a certain group is immune, it becomes harder and harder for a virus to procreate in that community. If that scenario becomes true, and that’s what it looks like, we should try to reach this state with as little trouble as possible. In practice, this means finding a healthy balance between giving people an antivirus, waiting for people to build up their own immunity against it.
If you would get a single particle of the virus in your body, it would start multiplying from that point onwards. A few days later, you may have 10.000 particles (I have no idea how high actual numbers would be), but your immune system is already working hard to get it under control. You may never even notice you had it, and perhaps not even passed it on, yet you are now better protected against it.
If instead, everyone around you is sick, and they’re all coughing in your face, you might immediately get 10.000 virus particles in your body, giving the virus a head start. That means that the more people in your surroundings have this virus, the more likely it is for you to get severe symptoms. So, here again, it’s not just about you and your great immune system. Circumstances decide fates in this story. Think about the healthy Chinese doctor Li Wenliang who discovered weird symptoms, treated tons of patients, then died of COVID19 himself. You not coughing in someone’s face a single time, even if that person already is infected, may make a difference. We’re not talking yes and no, we’re talking about clouds of possibilities. And what we want to do, is keep those clouds as far from each other as we can.
How about the system?
But not only is the problem a collective one, the potential solution is as well. One common question I’m hearing asked in media, is: “Should I stock up?” I’ve heard otherwise completely reliable experts say it is not necessary or even harmful to do this, because you’re removing food from people who really need it. First of all, this answer unwillingly admits that shortages may arise. But what this statement ignores, is our collective capability and responsibility to buffer the impact of an outbreak in a certain community. Again this expert reveals an egocentric approach to this problem. Let me explain.
If you’ve read stories on the recent stock market flumps, you have probably read the hypothesis that local outbreaks could bother a supply chain, thus temporarily interrupting the arrival of goods. For example, if a big truck company in your area has to go on lockdown, a different company has to compensate the supply. The drivers may have to work harder, get under more stress and thus be more susceptible for illnesses. At that point, it would be great if we as a collective society would be able to do a step back and reduce our pressure on the system. If 10.000 people keep two weeks’ worth of supplies in their basements, that allows these truck drivers to supply 10.000 households worth less of food for two weeks. The system has extra time to adapt.
So instead of hoarding food in a panic and disrupt the system the moment the virus hits your neighbourhood, you could consider buying a little extra every time you shop, untill you have a few weeks’ worth of supplies. That way, we collectively build a buffer for the potential impact once the virus hits our community. This will also reduce our shop going frequencies, thus reducing the risk of contracting, or worse, spreading COVID19.
Once the virus hits your community, any pressure you put on the system will indeed potentially come at the cost of the weak and the elderly. But you can still do something now to reduce that effect. And once it’s here, you can help your neighbours, of course.
It’s a state of mind
Here’s something to think about: if you’re a healthy individual, one egoistic thing to do right now, would be to go catch the virus somewhere, then self-quarantine. Here’s why: in the unlikely case where you do get severe symptoms, hospitals will still have plenty of space for you. They will treat you with the best possible care you can imagine. You will come out of the hospital with an immune system that now recognizes the virus and will have the summer of your life, nakedly running through the empty streets and catching cheap last-minute flights to go to hotels with ‘corona’ in their name.
But if you’re a little more, say, altruistic, you’ll do everything you reasonably can to slow down the rate at which this virus spreads. This way, herd immunity has the chance to build slowly and the shock on the system is reduced, saving lives and reducing long-term health impacts of this virus. Every meeting you skype, every cough you intercept and every time you wash your hands could save hundreds of lives down the line.
My call is basically this: think about this virus not in individual terms, it does not think about you in that way either. Think about the collective. There’s no need to be afraid, but there is plenty of reason to prepare. It may not be you, who is most at risk, but you do play a vital role in the way this story will unfold. We have to solve this together. If that is by washing your hands and avoiding meeting people, then so be it. You truly have a chance to make a difference here. And though you’ll never know the exact impact of your individual actions, the global community will.