(Guest Article by Steven Woeste) This article has my thoughts about the coronavirus, and the possible circumstances that may result from its spread. Please understand, I am not an expert on the coronavirus, and I am not an expert on viruses. I have been trained as a research scientist in microbiology, which does include viruses, though my laboratory experience with them is limited. So, I do have scientific training, and more than basic or rudimentary. Even so, this article is not about the hard science of the coronavirus, like its genetic sequence, its structure, or how it interacts with the human immune system. The content is simply my opinions on the current coronavirus spread throughout the world, and its possible effects.
The coronavirus has developed into an epidemic that is worldwide. Certainly, the virus became an epidemic in some countries early, especially those with the least modern healthcare systems. Countries with a robust hospital system, and a nationwide system for stockpiling and delivering drugs, may fare better, but could still be overwhelmed; that includes the United States. Not all countries are so blessed, and without adequate medical infrastructure, containing the spread of the coronavirus has become impossible. It has essentially spread around the globe at this point.
Unfortunately, the possibility for a panic arising from the virus spread is real, especially now that it is epidemic. Recent presidential assurances to the nation have been to downplay the possible risk associated with becoming infected with the virus. However, the president also has not been completely reassuring about simple, important things, like getting enough face masks made. Even so, whatever may happen to the population at large, concentrate on helping yourself and those closest to you first. And work on keeping your head through all this. Joining any general panic will not help you.
The coronavirus causes a variety of problems in humans during infections. Some of the more common results are respiratory diseases. Mild to moderately severe infections cause symptoms like a cold, while more severe infections can be like the flu, and can lead to pneumonia. Most people infected will recover, though some will die. That does not mean that the people who recover will all do so on their own. Most of them will likely need medical care, including hospitalization. So, large numbers of infected people, even though most of them recover, will be a huge strain on the medical care system. And, the coronavirus seems to be more lethal to younger adults than was first assumed. More young adults are dying from infection than had been expected.
Could the coronavirus cause something as bad as the flu epidemic of 1918? That depends on many factors. The healthcare system in 1918 was very different from that in 2020. The current hospital system, and that for dispensing drugs, is much improved. Also, medical knowledge about viruses is vastly better than in 1918. Some of the practices used to deal with the 1918 epidemic may have worsened it, like housing infected people very close together. That may have promoted something called superinfection, where people already weakened with one disease (the flu, which is viral) become prone to infection with a second, simultaneous disease-causing organism (like pneumonia, which can be bacterial).
Curiously, the flu virus responsible for the 1918 epidemic may not have been a particularly aggressive or unusually infectious agent. That said, the death toll in the U.S. was about 500,000, and worldwide, somewhere from 30,000,000 – 50,000,000. It is estimated that up to 28% of the U.S. population was infected. Those are frightening numbers, but the country, and the world, survived. But is that what will happen this time? Again, there are differences between 1918 and 2020.
One major difference is China now produces much of our pharmaceutical stock; in 1918 we made most of our supply. China has the largest number of people infected with the coronavirus, and is having manufacturing and distribution problems. As Chinese production of pharmaceuticals drops, especially those used for treating pneumonia, it will become progressively more difficult to acquire those medicines in the U.S. Could other countries make up the shortfall? In theory, but not when they also are disrupted by the coronavirus. Even if other countries manage to keep their production and distribution systems intact, they may need everything they can make for themselves. And it could get more complicated than that. If our supply chains in the U.S. get disrupted, we could have sufficient supplies of medicine, but no way to distribute it. How things turn out depends in part on the severity and the longevity of the coronavirus outbreak.
Are we prepared as a nation, and as individuals, for a massive coronavirus outbreak? I don’t think so. At least, not with the way things are. I’m not saying we are incapable of dealing with this, but we are not ready to deal with it yet. There is still no vaccine to prevent infection. It is possible that at its peak, the number of infected people could collapse our healthcare system. If the hospital system is heavily burdened with coronavirus infections, there may be little or no space for people with all the other usual types of problems, from infections, cancer, stroke, diabetes, accidents, etc.
So, what happens when medical care gets really tight? Besides judging who will get treated, and who won’t, there will be the ugly task of deciding who comes first, and who comes later. Could things get out of hand? Yes, they could. If some form of “medical rationing” starts, it may require force to keep things functioning. Unfortunately, police officers may be necessary to help keep the peace at hospitals and medical centers.
And if things get worse? The military may be needed to keep order. Does that seem ridiculous to you? I’d think again. I’m old enough to remember the riots (not from infectious disease) of the mid to late 1960s. In some circumstances, the police were not enough to keep order, and units of the National Guard were used to patrol cities. Unfortunately, this is not all just hypothetical. National Guard troops are now organizing around some cities, though their intended tasks are not clear.
I’ll make some additional points about those problems in the 1960s. Then, our economy was strong, and unemployment was low, yet it didn’t take long for large-scale riots and destruction to erupt. What could happen now, where our economy is weaker, and the unemployed population is large? People are rather different now than they were in the 1960s. Back then, they were more likely to do what they were told. If the government put announcements out about staying in your homes, keeping off the streets, or not mobbing grocery stores, people were more likely to obey than they are now. In plain English, people then more readily recognized government authority.
Also, in the 1960s, people were generally in much better physical condition then they are now. While just about every family had a car back then, walking was still done for most short trips. It was somehow seen as frivolous to drive your car a few blocks to the grocery store, the post office, the shopping center, or a restaurant. Even children routinely made trips of several miles (or more) on foot. Bicycles were much more commonly used then, especially by adults. People also ate much less, and meals were smaller and had less fat, and much less sugar, than now. Going out to eat was rather rare, and hardly ever to something fancier than a place that served hamburgers or pizza. A fair number of people still gardened, and grew fruits or vegetables. What’s the ultimate point? People were leaner, stronger, and had better endurance for physical tasks.
That leads to my next point. At no time in human history have so many people been so obese, as they have in the U.S. Besides limiting one’s mobility, obesity goes hand-in-hand with increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other major diseases. To say it differently, the large portion of our population that is obese also has underlying (sometimes several) major health problems. This makes that category of people more susceptible to infection by the coronavirus, and death, no matter their age.
Speaking of force, authority, and keeping things functioning, disruption of our economy by the spread of the coronavirus could have huge “knock-on” effects. As time has passed into the 21st century, things have become much more complicated, and much more fragile. It used to be that food was transported across country by rail, then taken relatively short distances by truck. Now, rail transport is a much smaller part of the food distribution process, and truck transport a much larger part. That’s a problem, especially as the truck transport system is part of a larger system called “just in time delivery”. Grocery stores no longer warehouse, or store, significant quantities of food in reserve; what’s on the shelves is about what there is. The grocery stores depend on a constant stream of truck traffic to bring food, on a daily basis, as needed. Disrupt the trucking network, and you create food shortages. That’s already starting to happen with some of the larger trucking companies going bankrupt. Should the economy worsen, more bankruptcies could occur.
What’s the worst thing of all? People largely no longer store food in their homes like they used to. When I was a child in the 1960s, most people kept several weeks’ worth of food in their homes. Most don’t do that now; they may have several days’ worth, and a lot of that can be junk food like snacks. So, the average person would be hard-pressed to deal with a disruption in the grocery supply that lasted for 3-4 days, let alone weeks. And now with the “shelter in place” edict, what if you only have limited opportunities to go out to get food, or other necessities? If things get bad enough, food supplies may become very limited, and intermittent, and possibly under military control, with food distribution at set times and places. People with special diets (lactose or gluten intolerant) may have difficulty.
The more complex the distribution network has become, the more fragile it is, and increasingly susceptible to disruption or collapse. What happens when you can’t get food to parts of the country that need it? Food shortages are a guaranteed way to cause chaos, especially in the U.S., which has not known large-scale food shortages for decades. It should also be noted that the U.S. no longer produces all of its own food; we import a significant percentage from other countries. If food imports were sharply curtailed, depending just on our own food production could mean shortages. There are hints of that now, with the restriction of traffic across the borders with Mexico and Canada. Yes, vital materials like food can still cross, but for how long? No one will be exporting food to us if their own supply is threatened.
There have been recent panic shortages of items at grocery stores, typically toilet paper, but that has spread to other things like bottled water, and canned food. Most recently, stores have placed limits on many items, only allowing purchases of one or two of the same thing. It doesn’t take much panic buying before even the largest grocery stores are emptied; it can take less than a day. Again, what happens when no food is available locally at the stores, and none is coming any time soon to replace it? Things can get ugly very quickly.
Recent rumblings about cash and its use have been ominous. There have been claims that cash, especially paper money, is part of how the coronavirus spreads. That’s ridiculous! But perhaps any story will do. If you forbid the use of cash, and only honor electronic transactions, then people won’t make runs on banks to get their cash out, and they won’t use cash to break their dependence on credit and debit cards. There are already limits on the amount of cash you can withdraw per day (or over several days) at banks. Cash restrictions can become stricter, with limits going lower, to as little as $100 or $50 a day. That makes a logical segue to the next step; no cash at all. It’s easier to keep people under control if the only system they can use to buy and sell is the system that you control.
Again, it’s not just the coronavirus’ ability to infect people, and make them sicken or die. It’s the amount of disruption the virus can cause in vital, everyday activities. The impact of the coronavirus on the system’s operation in part depends on the public’s perception of things, even if it’s inaccurate. In other words, if people think things are collapsing, then they will act as if they are. Are people logical as crowds? I’d say rarely to never. If crowds of people start assembling and acting impulsively, then things come off the rails very quickly.
I mentioned earlier that China makes much of the pharmaceuticals for the U.S. So? It seems our military is one organization that depends on Chinese-made drugs. That’s an awkward situation, isn’t it? What happens to our military when it cannot get the drugs it needs? Of course, that’s also true for the civilian population. People who need heart medicines, drugs for diabetes, cancer, mental disorders, genetic defects, etc., will now be without. Many cannot live long without the proper medicines.
Certain portions of our workforce are critically important, like doctors and police officers. What happens when significant numbers of them are infected, and out of commission? Especially with doctors (and nurses, medical assistants, orderlies, etc.), it’s a double whammy. As the number of people who have the coronavirus and need treatment rises, the number of professionals available to treat them drops. And, the number of available beds in hospitals is decreasing.
Could anyone realistically estimate the total number of infected and dead for the coronavirus outbreak? I don’t think so. I’m afraid the only accurate numbers will be after the infection ends, and the final tally can be made. And, I’m assuming a vaccine to protect against the coronavirus will not be ready in time. Usually, vaccines can take years to develop (in 1985 it was predicted a working AIDS vaccine would be on the market by 1987; it still is not available in 2020).
You may find you have to change your behavior towards, and view of, other people. Should things get ugly, you can no longer share information about your day-to-day activities, especially how well you might be doing putting things like food and water in reserve. Telling people about how you are doing is a good way for the information to spread to those who will come to take the things you’ve worked so hard to store. So, who will you tell about these things? Even telling your family, like your parents or grandparents, can be a problem. Better to act like everyone else, and appear to be struggling.
Unfortunately, as with any large-scale emergency, you must take care of yourself first, and take care of your needs before helping others. Only when you are secure can you even think of assisting those who did not take action when they could have. Above all, don’t let people guilt trip you into providing for them because you owe them. You don’t. You may provide for others in a manner consistent with whatever god you worship, or your own principles, but don’t let others set the rules for you.
And how is the system doing at dealing with the coronavirus? In some ways, the system is not doing so good. The early recommendations to wear face masks were perhaps well meaning, but those masks, at least the ones readily available, will not filter out airborne coronavirus. Worse, recent recommendations to use scarves as face masks are just idiotic. That will not help at all, and may encourage people to go out in public (thinking they are protected) when they are not. (Besides, if the scarves actually worked, you’d have to throw them away after using them.)
Some have seen the recent shelter in place orders, and “lockdowns”, as having an ominous meaning. Forbidding people to leave their homes, certain areas or cities, and not allowing them to assemble, could be a form of control. It limits the population’s ability to organize and act jointly, possibly against the rulers of the country? That fits with certain other kinds of control, like possible government control of food; both supply and distribution. And, in turn, possible government control of currency use, industrial production (GM, Ford, and Chrysler are now idled), and medical care takes a broad portion of the fundamental necessities out of peoples’ hands. Is there a deliberate plan to crash the economy? The recent shuttering of much of our service sector economy is a good start. What will people do for income? Perhaps Canada is a preview, as recently they’ve started a version of universal basic income.
The coronavirus outbreak will get worse before it gets better. The worst part is no one knows how long things will get worse, or how bad things will be. There are too many unknowns with this virus to make accurate predictions. The best thing to do is to prepare for the worst, and to hope for better. Do you what you can, and by all means, stay healthy.