Virus and actuality.
“Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. […] Do not misunderstand me danger is very real but fear is a choice.” —Will Smith
Making choices is a trade-off. A trade-off between what you want right now and the risks/consequences associated. If the decision process happens in our brain, we still make the conscious choice to act on it and follow one way or another, or any other half-way options. You might really want that ice-cream and decide to first go for a run and reward yourself after with the ice-cream. Then at least not all of the calories contained in the ice-cream will be stored in your body. Similarly, it is a choice for us to make whether we succumb to mass-hysteria, live in complete denial, or accept that some actions need to be taken in the face of the current situation.
Given the current pandemic-state of the world, the last you might want is read yet another article about this virus. How about we review the basics of its origins and the psychological roots of panic?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses. A virus is a small infectious agent, something that carries very little information but the information it carries has the ability to attack your body in some ways. Viruses cannot thrive outside a functioning organism (e.g., the human body, a plant, an animal, a bacteria), called a host – they don’t really discriminate. Well, not really. Each type of virus has a preferred host. For example, a virus might infect a plant but be harmless to humans or animals. Sometimes, however, viruses will adapt and make the species-jump, going from animal to human, plant to human, or human to others. One thing remains for sure: outside their hosts, viruses are dormant, they cannot multiple on their own – that’s what they need the host for.
Viruses highjack the organism of the host and will use its function to multiple. However, outside a host, viruses don’t die, they wait to be either picked up by their host or destroyed by… life around them. Which means that, yes, there are viruses laying around everywhere around us, waiting for a human to pass by and infect. But it’s not because you touch something that might have viruses on it that you will be infected. Viruses need a way into the body, they do not go through the skin, but they can go in through cuts or ingestion. Hence the generic rules of “don’t touch your mouth/face before washing your hands if you have been touching X/Y/Z”. Or more generally, don’t put your fingers in your mouth if you haven’t just washed them.
How not to succumb to paranoia or excessive mysophobia (fear of germs) then? First, our immune system is pretty good at defending us against most stuff we encounter. Exposition to the outside world is a pretty good first line of defence. And vaccination – a vaccine is a small dose of an infectious something for your body to familiarise itself with, learn to react in a safe environment so the next time it encounters that infectious something it knows how to defeat it. Second, common sense and basic rules. Washing hands is a good start. You don’t have to wash your hands 50 times a day, but regular hand-washing limits the amount of stuff you might put in your mouth (because it is pretty hard not to touch your face…). Regarding your environment, opening the windows once a day to refresh the place is good. Viruses don’t cling onto surfaces. They are casually laying there. Bringing fresh air means a circulation of air in your place, that could carry out dust and viruses. Easy-peasy. A regular clean/wipe of most commonly used areas is another easy step that wipes out viruses. Why do people keep going on and on about washing hands/cleaning space? Well, a virus is a circular-ish thing surrounded by lipids (like grease). Soap, washing products and cleaning products are made of specific components which job is to attack grease. Pow: No more virus.
Coronaviruses get their name because of the way they look: they are a round-ish thing, surrounded by “spikes,” making them look like crowns. Corona in Latin means crown. Coronaviruses are responsible for a range of respiratory disease, ranging from the common cold to pneumonia. Most people infected with a coronavirus will experience mild symptoms. However, some coronaviruses are nastier than others; among them, the Severe-Acute-Respiratory-Symptom coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the Middle-East-Respiratory-Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV)… and the 2019 novel coronavirus: 2019-nCoV, also known as COVID-19. Coronaviruses are originally animal viruses (called zoonotic viruses) that “spilt over” to humans either by making the species-jump by changing to infect humans or by increased contact between animals and humans. For example, MERS-CoV results from a spillover from camel to human. The original animal reservoir of COVID-19 is currently unknown but might have include bats and live animals (i.e., from livestock). Dogs have recently been cleared by the World Health Organization (WHO let the dogs out…) and cats never seemed to have been an infectious agent – it is all safe and sound to cuddle your 4-legged pets! General symptoms of COVID-19 resemble the flu or a common cold: fever, dry cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
The recommendations given by WHO and every other health agencies are really the same recommendations given every year during flu season: If you present any symptoms, don’t go around coughing without covering your mouth, wash your hands after coughing or sneezing and before touching stuff, and stay home. The problem we are facing with COVID-19 is that it is a brand-new virus: our bodies never encountered it before. They might have encountered something similar, but not this specific one, making them more vulnerable to it. The fact that we can go up to 14 days spreading the virus without having any symptoms (so without knowing we are contagious) is also a problem. But that doesn’t mean the world is about to end and we need to stock up and live in a bunker.
Where does the global panic come from, then? Why do some people prepare for the apocalypse while others go about their business as if nothing was going on? Denial or panic, what’s the right choice? Neither. As with most things, extreme reactions are not the solution. Panic blows every action out of proportion, while denial underestimates very real risks. How about finding balance? Avoiding big crowds has been recommended or instituted in some countries to slow down the virus and lower the number of new cases per day. The idea is to flatten out the spreading curve to give the time to research teams around the world to come up with efficient vaccine and treatment. Or reach spring. Funny how the flu or the cold is a winter thing, when we don’t open the windows as much and spend a lot more time indoors. Funny, indeed. Joking aside, the different reactions observed in the face of COVID-19 might be rooted in our brains. A recent study showed that anxious people tend to be overly cautious when making decisions, avoiding any potentially scary situation, no matter how small a fear it might be. What the research team also found was less expected: intolerance to uncertainty also pushed people to choose caution and safety, even when it might be an inappropriate or maladaptive choice. Especially when presented with an ambiguous situation. And what is the present situation but an ambiguous time where there are potential risks to be infected with a new virus?
If it is important to take appropriate measures to limit the spreading of the new virus, let’s make sure we do not let our emotions get the best of us. We might even learn a thing or two from this crisis, like how to remain connected, or what we could easily change long-term to tackle climate change. One can hope.
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