“From the evidence so far, the new coronavirus can be transmitted in all areas, including those with hot and humid weather. The best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is by frequently cleaning your hands. Eliminate viruses that may be on your hands and avoid infection that could occur by then touching your eyes, mouth, and nose.” — World Health Organization (9th March 2020)
Hello People! In this article, I will cover two crucial points related to the novel coronavirus disease.
The first will be an explanation of why COVID-19 is here to stay and what it means for the world. It will be followed by the second point, which includes discussions on the importance of proper science communication to obtain maximum accurate awareness about this viral illness.
Ezra Klein, an American journalist, blogger, political commentator, and co-founder of Vox, recently invited Ronald A. Klain, who is a renowned political operative and lawyer, to talk about the current pandemic situation on his podcast The Ezra Klein Show. Klain has served as the chief of staff to the USA Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden. In 2014–15, he led the administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
The Inflection Point
According to Klain, coronavirus is a harder challenge than Ebola. The economy is faltering, and entire cities are in lockdown. Above all this, there is no certainty about how long this unfortunate period will last. The world is in terrible shape. Every day, we are hearing reports of the medical staff falling sick in larger numbers after getting infected while treating patients, meaning the capacity will go down as patient count increases. Hospitals everywhere are starting to fill up. This situation is getting worse and will continue to do so in the next couple of days.
This conflation of an increasing number of patients and a decrease in capacity is where there will be a kind of an inflection point. To top this up, there are two other problems that the world is behind on — the first is ensuring proper testing of this disease. Scientists around the world are working on it. The second is the problem of a shortage of equipment. Hospitals and medical facilities are running out of masks and personal protective gear. There is a dire need to address these issues of utmost importance.
The Importance of Flattening the Curve
Explaining further, Klain said that thousands of patients showing up in emergency rooms overwhelm the system very rapidly. Especially when it comes at a time during which the capacity of systems is dropping. Epidemics and pandemics hit the healthcare workforce, first and hardest. As soon as they get exposed and sick, we have to put them in quarantine, so they do not infect others. This scenario is ironic since the number of available healthcare workers is decreasing when we need them the most. It is followed by significant problems such as the availability of enough hospitals, ICU beds, and ventilators. These requirements are very hard to flex up effectively and quickly. And, it is these severe concerns that perfectly explain why flattening the curve of COVID-19 is so essential.
Why Social Distancing/Self-Quarantining?
Observations indicate that few people under the age of 40–50 years have perished from the novel coronavirus disease. But as one moves towards the upper end of the spectrum, they see that people who are 65–80 years old, with some complicated health conditions, have a high risk of contracting the infection. For them, the case fatality rate is around 20 percent, which is a very high percentage. It explains the world needs to protect its older populations the most. It is also a reminder to the younger and healthy people that some risk is to themselves, but a lot of it is to the seniors if they become carriers or agents of this virus — this understanding aids in creating a social mindset about how to approach social distancing and self-quarantining. The rate of spread of COVID-19 depends on how many people we are in contact with — we can bring these numbers down drastically by following all different kinds of social mitigation measures.
Do Your Part — Stop Corona!
Klain expressed that it is critical to remember that for each person working remotely, several others make that work at home possible by not working at home themselves. This section includes people working in electrical power plants, water plants, wifi, cable, and those staffing the grocery stores, drug stores, and the gas stations. For some to be safe, others continue to go to their jobs, and these people are taking some serious risk on that. The people who can do their work from home really need to socially isolate themselves for these people and for the medical staff who are out there fighting with this viral illness on ground zero. We should think of this as a social project — as something we are doing for each other. If everyone does their part effectively, we all can stop corona collectively.
The Math of Contagion — Understanding the Deadly Chain
Remembering his days as the Ebola response coordinator in West Africa, Klain explained the math of contagion. One finds many deaths in a particular community, and on tracing the origin of these chains of transmissions, it always comes back to some random person on a scooter who came in contact with some other person of an entirely different community. The first one passed on the infection to the second, who gave it onto someone else, and the horrible chain continues to grow exponentially.
One of the most complicated things about COVID-19 is that it exhibits a long incubation period compared to its other family members. So the effects visible today are from people who were exposed some 14 days ago. Just stop and think about what you were doing 14 days ago. Those interactions and connections which you had at that time are spreading the illness right now. And, what people are doing now is going to affect the course of this disease 14 days from now. It is the reason why the lockdown periods are ranging from 14–21 days. One challenge about these social distancing and quarantining behaviors is that we are asking people to make radical changes in their lifestyles, the results of which will only be visible after 2–3 weeks. This disconnect is making the implementation of such measures a little bit harder.
Dealing with the Patience Levels of this Virus
Presently, there is a lot of the focus on implementing the short term precautionary measures. Everyone will be at home for two weeks, practice social distancing, take care of hygiene, and try to stay healthy. But these actions are treating this situation like it will go back to normal after three or so weeks, and that seems very unlikely. No matter how successful these social mitigation measures are, this problem is going to be with us for at least six to eight weeks, after which the world will start facing its relapses. In the words of Klain, the challenge is that the virus is more patient than the world is, and this will lead to an intense implementation of these measures every time. Every time this happens, the world will see a reintroduction of the virus, and then we will be back at it again. All this hide and seek is going to have a persistent drag on the world economy for a while.
Next, I would like to highlight a big online discussion currently happening on Reddit (as I am writing this article). Started by the New Reddit Journal of Science yesterday, this discussion panel is hosting Laura Helmuth (health and science editor for the Washington Post, soon to be the editor-in-chief of Scientific American, ex-editor for National Geographic, Slate, Smithsonian, and Science magazines, and immediate past president of the National Association of Science Writers), Helen Branswell (senior writer at STAT-an online news publication focused on health, 2011 Nieman Global Health Fellow at Harvard, and 2004 CDC Knight Fellow) and Carl Zimmer (science columnist for the New York Times, and author of several books about science). They are participating in discussions on how to ensure proper and accurate science communication about COVID-19, answering the questions of the public. One of the biggest challenges is to provide correct information to people and outcompete misinformation (inaccurate) and disinformation (false). In a scenario similar to the present times, evaluating real-time science becomes a necessity.
Ensuring the Credibility of Information
Science journalists have to work with researchers to ensure that accurate (and not overly technical!) information gets conveyed effectively, and a broader audience can utilize it. In the case of COVID-19, all this is getting difficult because it is a very new strain of the virus, the biology of which is still mysterious in a lot of aspects. Science communicators work hard to put out reliable information, but there is also a need to stop all the spurious details flowing around. It has been a longstanding problem, just as with issues of vaccines and global warming. Unfortunately, it is becoming incredibly intense with the current pandemic. The public can help in such situations by pointing out to their contacts when a piece of information is reliable or not. For example, a message of a friend of a friend of a friend about how to test yourself for COVID-19 should not be accepted at face value. Doing some fact-checking homework and employing common sense is, especially in these critical times, a necessary sanity check for any piece of information — no matter how alluring or convincing — that comes in through a WhatsApp forward or shows up on your social media feeds…
Importance of Compelling and Accurate Headlines
The writers should ensure that the headline accurately reflects the story. It is always a big challenge because if the headline is boring, people will not be interested in reading the story. Also, if the headline is misleading, people will come out from the piece with the wrong information, even if they read the entire story until the end. A misleading headline results in someone clicking away from it in irritation, which is a bad sign. Simpler headlines are easy to find when someone does a search. All this needs to be paid attention to, especially in grave times like these when fear and anxiety are doing rounds across the globe.
One of the hardest parts about writing science stories and articles as a journalist is to explain to the people repeatedly that it is an iterative, and self-correcting process, and even when everybody does everything right, some of the findings do not hold up over time. The readers should understand what researchers do know today, why that is different from what they thought yesterday, and what they still do not know and hope to find out tomorrow. An example could be that of this viral illness, where early on experts asked that people who were not ill to not use masks because they should be reserved for healthcare workers or the sick population. Now the world understands that there is a long period where people exhibit no symptoms but could still infect others, so there is a shift towards accepting that relatively simple home-sewn masks worn by everyone could limit the spread of COVID-19.
Mutations and Virus Strains
Viruses hop from person to person, and as they move around, they mutate (change in form or nature). So over time, we can trace the genealogy of any viral disease by analyzing the accumulated mutations in different lineages. Every virus produces lots of strains. But, it is wrong to assume that separate strains mean that an outbreak is getting worse. It all depends on what kind of mutations are happening to the virus. Many modifications do not do anything, while others might help the virus evade our immune systems. With COVID-19, as of now, the experts do not see any evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is evolving into a more dangerous form, and that is a small relief. Scientists know the rate at which coronaviruses mutate, and this is how they estimated that the current outbreak started around mid-to-late November or early December.
SARS was more lethal but less transmissible, and as a result, it killed around 8000 people. On the contrary, COVID-19, which is produced by a closely related virus SARS-CoV-2, is much less lethal, but far more transmissible. This is why it is getting many more people. While most of them do not die of it, the death toll is still terrible. There is an extreme need for people to understand these closely related points.
Learning From China
Since China experienced the novel coronavirus disease first, they have enormous information and experience which the rest of the world needs currently. Doctors from Johns Hopkins recently discussed with those from Wuhan to better understand what to expect when the cases increase drastically and what are the best ways to treat patients. It would not make sense to ignore this expertise!
Coping with Information Fatigue
It is a huge challenge in the present times. It is tough to keep focused when you are writing and reading about a pandemic that is washing over the entire globe. At these times, it becomes essential to create strict boundaries on how much time one should spend to get the latest news updates. People should be aware of the key things to do. They should try to zero in on the information that they need rather than trying to vacuum up everything on social media, television, and the internet with a COVID-19 hashtag. It is not just upsetting and exhausting, but it also leads to bad reporting. Everyone should employ good information hygiene and should shut the doors on baseless and depressive rumors.
Giving Information that Society can Understand
A large mountain of technical details never helps people understand any issue or matter. Even the ones with a Ph.D. in a particular field are often unable to understand the details from another area or domain. The strategy for the communicators should be to emphasize the most important message from any study or research and then try to give a sense to the audience of how the researchers and scientists got to that conclusion. But in this process, they cannot include every technical detail. The motive should be to spread awareness on the key points.
Tackle Fear and Stay Positive!
With time, the world is understanding more and more about this virus. We know that washing hands and social distancing are very effective ways to keep it at bay. Instead of panicking at every slight symptom, one should try to take the body-temperature twice a day. The unknown is scary, but we are gaining knowledge and getting stronger day by day. The changes caused by COVID-19 are overwhelming, and the world will make it through, one day at a time. We should remind ourselves of all of the incredible developments in science and medicine, and continue forward with the thought process that we have weathered even worse ailments and come back. The present change is going to be hard, but the world should have faith in the strength and resilience of people. If we were able to take the last step, then we will be able to take the next one too.
Be well, and stay safe!
“Social distancing is our current best defense against COVID-19.” — Michelle A. Williams, Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, USA
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