No, We Don't Need To 'Calm Down' About Coronavirus

Yes, We Need To Cancel Sh*t—And No, We Don’t Need To Calm Down About COVID-19

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A general view inside the empty arena before the start of the quarterfinals of the Big East Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2020 in New York City. Sarah Stier/Getty

In the last few days, as I’ve been attempting to educate the enthusiastically obtuse about the coronavirus, I’ve been told to “calm down,” that the media “needs to stay OUT of it,” and that “this is all just one big overreaction.”

First of all, let’s not get it twisted—I am not “panicking” about the coronavirus. I have the usual amount of toilet paper in my linen closet and no stocks of nonperishable food items to speak of, so go on ahead back to your cruise ship buffet, Tina, but don’t come crying to me when you end up quarantined off the coast for two weeks because you played blackjack with the wrong person.

I may not be panicked, but I am concerned.

I’m concerned because the World Health Organization is concerned. The WHO on March 11 officially classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, the WHO Director General saying at a COVID-19 media briefing, “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”

I’m concerned that too many people are prepared to go about their business as usual and put us all at risk. Um, we need social distance. We need to cancel things. As many things as possible. Festivals, conferences, concerts, vacations. Cancel all the fucking things. Yes, there will be discomfort and complications, but let’s figure those things out as we go. A little discomfort now beats a fucking pandemic taking out our medical system. Unless you would like to end up like Italy.

I’m concerned for those of us who are elderly or have weakened immune systems. Who among us can honestly claim that everyone in their life would survive coronavirus? Could we maybe act like we give a fuck about these folks? Even if they are not in our immediate family, we should care about public health.

I’m concerned because far too many people in this country are treating coronavirus like it’s a joke. We have a pair of absolute wankers from St. Louis, Missouri who broke quarantine last week after their daughter returned from study abroad in Italy exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. The entire family was instructed by healthcare professionals to self-quarantine until the test results were back, and instead the dad took his other daughter to a daddy-daughter dance and the mom went grocery shopping and got a manicure. And then the test results came back positive.

People walk across a deserted Piazza Navona in central Rome on March 12, 2020, as Italy shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops in a desperate bid to halt the spread of a coronavirus.
People walk across a deserted Piazza Navona in central Rome on March 12, 2020, as Italy shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops in a desperate bid to halt the spread of a coronavirus. VINCENZO PINTO/Getty

I’m concerned because our most renowned institutions of higher learning are concerned. More than 100 universities have shut down or cancelled in-person classes following spring break. Some people claim this is a major overreaction, that it’s creating unnecessary panic, that it will cause more disruption than it’s worth, and why aren’t high schools also closing, then?

But universities aren’t like your local high school, where kids go from home to school and back every day, and maybe a few took a spring break trip with their families. College-age kids would be returning to one central, tightly packed location coughing all over the same buffet in the student commons after having been boomeranged to and from literally thousands of locations. There would be no way to know who may or may not have come into contact with coronavirus or who may be carrying it asymptomatically. Yes, many students will suffer difficulty if they can’t access their dorm rooms, and I sincerely hope universities do their part to mitigate the harm done to these students.

University administrators are smart people. Part of their job is to perform risk-benefit analyses, and they have determined that the risk of a school-wide epidemic wasn’t one they wanted to take. They opted to make everyone, including themselves, uncomfortable for a few weeks, rather than swim out into the dangerous waters of a potential outbreak of a deadly virus on their campus.

I’m concerned because the smartest people on the planet have analyzed the risk and have reacted accordingly, and too many people who love a good ol’ conspiracy boner are ejaculating their ignorance all over the fucking internet.

I’m concerned because these people don’t understand risk. They don’t understand exponential spread. They don’t understand the impact of not appropriately timing our responses to a situation like this.

I’m concerned because looking at current U.S. statistics tells us very little about the current situation in our country, if we don’t consider those numbers in terms of where we’re at in the contagion timeline. As in; we are newer to the virus than places like China and Italy. We are nowhere near done with this.

These numbers concern me:

China’s Hubei province:
January 23: 444 confirmed cases
7 days later: 4903 confirmed cases
14 days later: 22,112 confirmed cases

That is a 4,880% increase over two weeks.

Italy:
February 22: 62 confirmed cases
7 days later: 888 confirmed cases
14 days later: 4636 confirmed cases

That is a 7,377% increase over two weeks.

The first two cases in the US weren’t documented until January 14. For comparison, let’s look at US reported cases for which the date of illness onset was known:

February 18: 36 confirmed cases
7 days later: 80 confirmed cases
14 days later: 242 confirmed cases

That is a 572% increase over two weeks.

Again, note that these reported numbers for the US are only from cases in which the date of illness onset was known—only a quarter of the actual known cases—and yet we still see a 572% increase. Currently, the United States actually has over 1,000 confirmed cases (and remember that some who get sick have only mild symptoms and may not report), the vast majority of which are still active, and our government has done basically nothing to stem the spread. So, if we’re a little over a week behind Italy, and the rate of contagion is similar, the number of cases could quintuple in the next week.

I’m concerned because, in China and in Italy, early on, business was conducted as usual, allowing the virus to spread exponentially, and the United States’s apathy at the government level appears to be even more pronounced. The Trump administration currently sits with its collective thumb up its ass, and too many of those who worship Trump perpetuate dangerous myths about coronavirus being a “hoax” or “just like the flu” or “no big deal.”

I’m concerned because too many people don’t understand that the goal is not so much to stop the spread of COVID-19 altogether, but rather to flatten the curve—to prevent a dramatic spike that would cripple our healthcare systems, and instead have a manageable, slow spread that would allow hospitals not only to treat those sick with the coronavirus, but also those in need of other types of care.

In terms of herd immunity, believe it or not, it’s actually good for people to get sick—but at a rate our healthcare system can manage. As more people get sick and survive the virus, antibodies in those individuals rise and make them immune to the virus, thus providing a level of herd immunity that will then begin to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Again, the point is not to stop it. It’s too late for that. We need to do what we can to slow it down.

I’m concerned that people who understand absolutely nothing about epidemiology spread too much false information about how a virus like this actually acts. No, goddammit, it is NOT LIKE THE FLU. The coronavirus spreads far more rapidly, has a significantly higher mortality rate (some estimates suggest it is ten times deadlier than the flu), and there is no Tamiflu equivalent for this, no vaccine to slow its spread. Don’t @ me with your numbers about how many people the flu kills every year and tell me that by comparison, coronavirus kills far fewer. Almost half the reported cases of coronavirus are still active. We don’t know what the mortality rate will end up being. Coronavirus is nothing like the flu.

A man walks past the closed Air France counters at the Terminal 1 section at John F. Kennedy International Airport on March 12, 2020 in New York City.
A man walks past the closed Air France counters at the Terminal 1 section at John F. Kennedy International Airport on March 12, 2020 in New York City. KENA BETANCUR/Getty

Anyone still comparing coronavirus to the flu or saying it’s a hoax or snort-laughing and calling me—and by extension, the World Health Organization and Harvard—stupid, needs to sit the fuck down and shut up. At this point, you’re not just ignorant, selfish, and ableist, you’re an actual danger to society.

The smartest people in the world are trying to tell us that we need to take action. They are telling us that the way to slow the spread of this virus, so as not to overwhelm hospitals, is by social distancing. Aside from basic hygiene, it is the only thing we have. For the countries most impacted by the coronavirus, it wasn’t until their governments implemented mandatory social distancing that new cases at last began to level off.

To reiterate, here is what you can do as an individual to prevent the spread of coronavirus, in addition to the obvious washing of hands, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and staying home when you’re sick:

– Avoid crowded places.

– Avoid travel.

– Try to keep your distance from people (the WHO says 6 feet is optimal).

– Don’t hug or shake hands with people.

– Don’t touch “high-touch” surfaces, like door handles, service desks, etc. Use your sleeve, a tissue, the bottom of your shirt, or a hanky.

– Share accurate information. Correct people when they claim COVID-19 is a hoax or that people are “overreacting.”