Welcome to this podcast where we indulge the topic of the day, month or even year: coronavirus.
I will steer away from that and simply give ourselves some things to think about. Let’s start from the beginning… 00:49
They’re like the start-ups competing with corporations – start-ups are just so lean, they can change at no cost to them. They can just immediately shift things… 2:26
…as a vulnerable person you may be horrified both at the thought of being severely ill, and at everyone else’s lack of concern for you as long as it doesn’t affect them… 4:52
I had actually written a poem addressed to corona… 8:04
Corona corona Queen of Life… 10:26
Think of how fast a viral meme spreads; you want to show it to your mum, and she has already seen it… 11:35
The beauty, the power, the destruction, the intrigue and allure of biology… 16:51
Hi guys, how’s it going? Did you know there is 40 times more energy in empty space than in matter? Didn’t see that coming, did ya? ♪ tune
Welcome to this podcast where we indulge the topic of the day, month or even year: coronavirus. Normally we have some time to reflect back on events and make sure we draw the correct conclusions, but with this outbreak, thousands of scientists, politicians and civilians at large are scrambling to make sense of what is really going on. Is this new virus different? If so, how? Is it worse? Is it a health threat? Is it a security threat? Is it an economic threat?
Between the financial analysts, the doctors and people on the ground experiencing events first hand, it is difficult to get the true picture of what is going on during this deeply international event. One of the first things students learn in epidemiology is that an epidemic is an outbreak of a disease not normally present in a country; while a pandemic is when it goes international – global. It has highlighted the true interconnectivity of the world, whether it’s for business, family, supplies or research; and how it represents a liability as well as an opportunity.
I could have trawled the media for stats and facts, but given the ongoing nature of this pandemic and the way information needs to settle down before we can truly appreciate it for what it is, I will steer away from that and simply give ourselves some things to think about. Let’s start from the beginning. ♪ tune
Influenza is a common condition caused by a virus. Viruses are peculiar organisms that cannot live outside of a body. There are viruses for bacteria, other mammals and us humans. We have flu vaccines which are a combination of bits of different viruses which in the past have proven problematic. We can’t pin down a flu-causing virus because it is always evolving and reshuffling its protein coat – capsid; which is how it invades the tissues of its host. We also can’t know for sure which virus is going to be worse next; this is why the flu vaccine is a combo. In a sense, we just don’t know what is out there.
Viruses are literally pieces of very basic biological material; DNA, RNA, sometimes extra proteins; that find good reproductive conditions in their host; that is, energy and the machinery required to replicate DNA, and in the process cause various symptoms; some are purely an arbitrary generalised immune response by the host; some have evolutionary implications, for example maximising the spread of the virus from human to human; this could be simply being indoors in the colder months, or insistently spewing saliva through sneezing and coughing.
While viruses can’t survive as such outside the body, they are also extremely resilient because their makeup is so basic. They don’t need much. They’re like the start-ups competing with corporations – start-ups are just so lean, they can change at no cost to them. They can just immediately shift things. The havoc they cause can be difficult to deal with, but also not that bad. The general flu has a very low death rate; and the deaths caused are associated with an inability to weather it rather than a direct cause – it is a final drop, if you will.
Between health threats and economic threats, it is difficult to establish exactly what we as individuals, countries and humanity as a whole are actually facing. Perhaps the combination of factors becoming out of control is the chief instiller of fear. So, what is the problem? ♪ tune
I think the problem is the unknown itself. When we find out that there is something out there invading our bodies, our borders, our everyday order, and the only thing we know is that we don’t know enough; everything starts to spiral out of control in our minds and in our lives. From the data so far it appears that from a health perspective, it may be more difficult to weather than the seasonal flu, and it spreads more easily. Most people don’t report getting the flu; and the least severe cases are the likeliest to go by unrecorded; so the real death rate may well be lower than 3.4% because the real total number of cases is much higher; some estimates point to a real death rate of 1%, still 10-fold higher than seasonal flu.
We are scrambling to develop a vaccine, but of course this won’t work on the next iteration of a virus; and the already present vaccine against the known flu cannot be 100%, or even anywhere near, 100% effective; and while it is in the UK free on the NHS for vulnerable people; no one can force anyone to take it. We are desperate for a perceived savior; but often we simply do not choose it even when it is plainly available. If the virulence is indeed very high and very many people will be catching this virus; then for that particular scenario a vaccine becomes less and less relevant the more people become infected – it is too late, they are already infected.
For later years this may become useful but again; it is a matter of people actually getting the vaccine; and a new virus is always around the corner; reports say the coronavirus could have easily already mutated. The question is – regardless of the virus existing; is the way we manage spread, borders and other things to blame for the infections going pandemic? Should the spread have been controlled more forcefully? Or rather, should it be more freely allowed to take hold to avoid any self-fulfilling prophecies born out of panicking and creating more issues than there would have been otherwise?
Is it reckless to continue our relatively spoilt lifestyles of flying for convenience when there is a virus spreading aggressively? Are the whims of a wealthy international lifestyle to blame for this pandemic loophole? And once it has entered the country, should we just take a month off to ride it out instead of focusing on lost economic productivity? Is it that bad to just contract our lifestyle a little bit instead of bullishly persevering in a losing battle?
On a personal level as a non-vulnerable individual you may dismiss the threat entirely and continue cheerfully into the future; as a vulnerable person you may be horrified both at the thought of being severely ill, and at everyone else’s lack of concern for you as long as it doesn’t affect them; I read a very good piece of advice: don’t act like you are trying to avoid catching it; act like you already have it and are trying to protect others from yourself. How have I been coping personally? ♪ tune
I started washing my hands more insistently and I think the soap or hot water have irritated the back of my hands… so I started moisturising. I think I might have got the infection. No obvious symptoms, but the very specific sense of being ill, like a low level fever. My sister definitely had a cough. But if it takes 14 days for the coronavirus to kick in, there’s no way to track the countless human interactions that would have happened while everyone thought they were perfectly healthy. Sneaky virus.
I actually worked on this script over many days to refine it as events unfolded; I can confirm that today, 1 week after my symptoms started, my mother has come down with a similar fevery feeling. All the numbers we have, growing everyday, 300, 500, 1000, are a fortnight behind. It’s like a car chase and we haven’t even got in the car yet. You get the idea. I wasn’t sure if maybe I had caught it, but I tried reassuring myself and trying to keep chilled and have a good time as much as possible. I thought of the virus as a biologist, as another life form doing its thing, what life forms do; you cant blame the lion for savaging the zebra, it’s just what life is.
The virus is just living its life. I wrote a post about this, saying corona is just living its life like everyone else – don’t be racist – a bad joke perhaps but one that made me chuckle in the midst of my suboptimal brain function as I was potentially down with this very virus. I immediately received a message from someone pointing out that it was not funny and I shouldn’t say something like that. Perhaps I failed to communicate the real depth of thought that I have, maybe bizarrely, about this topic.
I had actually written a poem addressed to corona. I hope you enjoy it. But first, a disclaimer: while I love the science of this topic and I am qualified in science, this poem is purely for art’s sake; it is not meant to be a source of facts; it is based on some facts but it is primarily an art form for the sake of making us think deeper about the biology of it all on a global scale. It is not intended to be factual or political. So switch off your left brain, close your eyes, detach a little from the mania, and enjoy. ♪ tune
Not the Rocks and the Trees
Corona corona Queen of Life
Roaming the plains and the trees
Like the birds and the bees
Kicking ass and charging fees
Bringing human to its knees.
Corona corona Queen of Life
Not the rocks and the trees
But the plains and the trees
Of human lung.
Corona most of your children die
But those who make it 2.3
To the lung plain and tree
Are the strongest.
Corona they gave you a new name
For you have upgraded your cloak
And soon they will antidote you
They are crunching the numbers
On your capsid couture
And soon generations of you
Shall not be born.
Corona corona Queen of Life
Lest they realise you weren’t new
For a new cloak you’ve already grew
As they scramble to eliminate you.
Corona corona Queen of Life.
Corona corona speck of dust. ♪ tune
Panic in Slow Motion
Let’s talk about the non-health implications; I think the pandemic is acting as a catalyst rather than a cause for many social changes, by disrupting the way we travel, work and view our healthcare infrastructure; it is catalysing a transition to something better; in the face of climate change; and the undeniable kick in the butt that a pandemic is for pretty much the entire human race, and especially for the richest and most powerful people, ironically; on a financial level; it brings abstract issues like biohazards, globalism, consumerism and politics to our personal front door – literally – I read in China people’s doors had to be welded shut in some cases to ensure they were not leaving their homes…
After the dust settles we will have inevitably fallen into a new order that perhaps makes much more sense: some parts of our lifestyles and society had been built on less-than-solid foundations: the way we pollute; the way we consume; the way we connect. These foundations are falling. I think many people are struck by the lack of scientific and healthcare investment. Why are we wasting resources of trivial fluff while our existence itself crumbles in the face of an invisible, miniature speck of dust of a life form that a virus is?
How many luxury items could have paid for another thousand hospital beds; hazmat suits; or these fancy but also slightly creepy extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machines that we seem to not have enough of in the case of a pandemic? We must either consolidate our defences against pandemics; or consolidate out resources for coping with them should they arise; but we seem to have been doing neither. So, silly old us, our only option left is to socially distance; this is a political decision, and we see that countries who have immediately implemented it have had milder outcomes.
I previously asked – what is the problem? My answer was fear itself – this is true on a global, perhaps esoteric scale; on a more practical level, the problem is that the virus spreads – well, wouldn’t you know it – virally. Think of how fast a viral meme spreads; you want to show it to your mum, and she has already seen it! The word viral is of course derivative of the word virus.
As such, there are various scenarios of virality depending on our behaviour: in one, we don’t change anything – the spread shoots through the roof and breaks our healthcare system capacity, resulting in many deaths – in the UK estimates are several hundred thousand deaths or even over a million – in another scenario, we actively change our behaviour to stem the spread, like not hitting share on that meme; just saving it for later – here, the spread increases more slowly, allowing our infrastructure to deal with it effectively, and minimising deaths – both directly and indirectly by not sending ripples of chaos into society – this is where the concept of fear comes back in.
So, I reckon I’ve already had corona. Personally I can just go back to normal. However, I won’t. I won’t because I am both keen on minimising the worst of the impact of this pandemic; and also excited about the future possibilities around greater environmental responsibility and shifting towards a better lifestyle where we rebuild the weak foundation that we may have been getting away with for too long; that has enabled what should have never happened in a so-called advanced society: a new virus originating in one location spreading so quickly around the world.
An infinitesimally higher virulence or death rate is the only difference between this corona pandemic – mild as it may turn out to be – god willing – although I am sure many people in different countries who have already suffered personal tragedies from this would not agree that it has been mild at all – so, the difference between this and a truly back-breaking cataclysm. How could we have been so unethically, ignorantly and brazenly blind sighted to have walked into a scenario that doesn’t belong in the 21st century?
So; I am not socialising for work or otherwise; I have made it clear to organisers that I disagree with marching on with non-essential gatherings. Remember, if you feel ill you must self-isolate for 7 days. UCL has moved its classes online. It has even moved its examinations online, whatever that turns out to be. My sister is off uni and there is no clear picture for how her exams will be administered.
Another update on my mum: she had plans to go out just now, as her fever came on; I told her to stay home, by my advice and of course the official government and for that matter NHS advice – she went out anyway. This highlights the deeply political nature of this pandemic. There is no predicting whether people will decide that 1 million vulnerable people dying is not their business; or whether they start hoarding toilet paper and send the economy into the dark ages.
For one, I will be doing away with non-essential activities of a social nature. Could you do the same? ♪ tune
My dad wanted to visit me but he cancelled due to fears of infection. I was a bit struck by that. Someone on social media said that this will be the worst global event since world war two. Surely not? As I said, the unfolding events make it untempting for me to cast any conclusions – much as I would love to – but I know it would be most unwise. Regardless, I could hardly say no to covering a global event of a deeply biological nature. The beauty, the power, the destruction, the intrigue and allure of biology.
Stay healthy. Thanks for listening, and remember, a silver spoon was used to prevent bacterial growth. Today, silver is a key antibacterial agent used in many applications and actively researched. Byeeee ♪ tune