Honestly, it’s a conversation that many of us have had in the last eight months or so. We haven’t had a major pandemic in just over one-hundred years. We’ve had several viruses come out of the woodwork having pandemic potential, but the world has managed to stay the spread of each of them.
Why then, did SARS-CoV-2 manage to cause such a stir in 2020 with the spread of COVID-19? There are many different factors at play here and we’re going to look at some of them to see why our whole world has been turned upside down.
Of the most dangerous viruses in the world, the majority do not transmit very well. When you think of a dangerous virus, you may think of Ebola or AIDS. In each of these cases, you require direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids to become infected. This requirement seriously reduces the speed at which a virus can reach new people to infect.
Further reducing the speed at which these most dangerous viruses spread is the lethality of them. An infected person generally stops spreading the virus when they die, so it’s in the evolutionary interest of a virus not to kill its host. With a virus like Ebola, that is often not the case, and since people who are infected experience such severe symptoms, they are quickly isolated from the rest of society.
With SARS, both viruses SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, the transmission happens via droplets that are ejected from the body during coughing or sneezing fits. This ability to leave the body and infect others without direct contact allows these viruses to leave our personal space, and greatly increases the number of people that can be exposed.
The symptoms experienced by those who are infected with COVID-19 often mimic those of more common illnesses such as the flu or the common cold. This is dangerous because most of us do not seek medical care when we think we just have a cold. If the world was not on high alert for the presence of COVID-19, many of us who become infected wouldn’t even bother seeking help.
Further complicating issues, COVID-19 does not always result in catastrophic illness for those infected. Up to 80% of the individuals who are infected will experience a mild illness according to the World Health Organization. This can lead to a false sense of security in those who have yet to be infected and lead them to believe that the illness is not that bad, or even potentially that their family member did not even have COVID-19.
Since the symptoms are so mild for a week or two before a potentially severe escalation, many of those who are initially infected will spread the virus to those who are in their social circles unknowingly. It is for this reason that many governments around the world have worked to institute mandatory social circle limits, to varying degrees.
This of course brings us to yet another factor that influences how well a pandemic is controlled. The politicians and doctors who were responsible for fighting SARS in 2003 are largely no longer in power, and the current world leaders have reacted in their ways to control the issue.
From hospital funding, average levels of education, and varying degrees of personal space given to each person, every country around the world entered this pandemic with a different vantage point.
In some countries, the virus nearly shut down the economy. Stores were shuttered, people were laid off and then told to stay in their homes and keep to themselves. Only essential workers continued to keep services available. The isolation was unbearable for many, and the effects of that lockdown continue to linger many months later.
In other countries, a lockdown was either delayed or never really instituted. Some countries fared better than others with this approach, and there was certainly some success in countries such as Japan and Sweden, though it is important to remember that both countries do still have cases, and this pandemic is far from over.
In some countries, governments decided to take the choice away from the populace, and enforce a lock-down, social distancing, and masks. In others, people are being left to decide whether or not to take these precautions on their own without imposing penalties for a failure to follow them. In most cases, governments landed somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
At the end of this, when all is said and done, there will surely be many studies done on how this pandemic was politicized, and the impact that that has had on the continued infections. In the meantime, however, all we can know is that there was a political influence on how this pandemic was allowed to occur.
Yet another interesting facet to this is that the death rate is a lot lower than what we were originally shown by the statistics. Since the initial estimates were based on laboratory-confirmed cases, this missed many of the asymptomatic and mild cases that occurred in the community at large.
Serology testing has been confirming a greater percentage of the population has been infected than shown by the lab-confirmed numbers. One study in Canada by McGill University showed that for every infection that we know about, there are a few others that are flying under the radar. This contributes both to the continued spread of the illness and reduces the known mortality rate as these infections are included.
Does that mean that COVID-19 is not dangerous? COVID-19 is a very dangerous illness, and for the most part, the mortality rate has been kept artificially low because of the current state of modern medicine. Ventilators, concentrated oxygen, and new treatment methods developed every day further reduce the mortality rate among those infected. The World Health Organization has recently reported on the large variation in the mortality rate estimates and shows that there are large variations in the data based on the country that provides it.
That is unless the medical system is overwhelmed.
Limited Space within Medical Systems
Though not currently in the news, medical systems have been overwhelmed by COVID-19. This happened in Northern Italy where doctors were left struggling to contain the overwhelming spread of the virus. Eventually, the lockdown slowed infection rates to the point where the medical system could catch up, but the mortality rate increases drastically when this critical point is reached.
When hospitals can no longer accept additional patients, those patients are left within the community. When in the community, those patients continue to spread the illness to their friends and family, and the cycle continues.
This is perhaps one of the greatest threats propagating this pandemic. When a population doesn’t believe that there is a need for taking extra precautions it becomes much more difficult to control the spread. The internet is filled with articles about COVID-19, and this one is just one more.
What can truly be done about misinformation? In general, the best advice is to follow the guidelines given to you by your local government, however, if you would like further information, see the information provided by the World Health Organization for more ways to protect yourself.
How Did this Virus Spread So Far So Fast?
Many of the factors we’ve discussed here played a role, but in the end, we simply have no way of knowing the exact reason. With modern medicine, there is generally less reason for people to be admitted to the hospital, meaning there are fewer hospitals, with less funding.
Misinformation may have contributed to furthering the spread by causing those who become infected to not take it seriously. Further, we may have been lulled into a false sense of security because even if we get it, there will be a ventilator waiting right?
Lastly, it’s the virus itself. SARS-CoV-2 is capable of spreading extremely well through droplets in the air, further, those infected won’t feel too bad for several days, even though they are quite contagious during that time.
With these factors in play, we’ve seen December’s so-called “Viral Pneumonia” spread from its isolated post around the entire world. COVID-19 infections are soaring and there’s no end in sight for this pandemic. Teams around the world are racing to develop an effective vaccine, and effective treatments to truly bring it under control.
At Least We’re Done for Another Century!
I wouldn’t be so sure about this one. It took a hundred years for our medical system to struggle with a pandemic, but it’s not like potential pandemics have not occurred. MERS, SARS (2003), and H1N1 have all become potential pandemics in the last twenty years, we’ve just managed to keep them, for the most part, controlled.
As population increases, so too does the risk for pandemics. The total number of humans on Earth was estimated by the UN to reach 9.7 billion in 2050, and may even by 11 billion by 2100. Of course, at that point, the greater risk to the human population may be a lack of space rather than further pandemics.