To understand how an epidemic, and then a pandemic, can happen, one must understand human nature. People have selfish impulses and crude drives. It’s important to understand that even decent people will do distressingly bad things for reasons even they don’t understand. They will be stupid. They will be careless about or ignorant of how illness spreads. They will be vectors for a virus or bacteria and spread the sickness unintentionally. We know this happens because of how easily the flu spreads now. Commonsense behavior could prevent the spread of colds and influenza, yet the United States had 69,000 people die from the flu in the 2017–18 season alone. (That number has been revised down from 80,000 people.)
Governments are made up of people with diverse motivations and people who often behave illogically. There are stories that Chinese government authorities punished doctors who warned of another SARS-like virus for “spreading rumors.” Still other rumors are rampant that the real number of sick Chinese people is far greater than the nearly 20,000 currently reported. A study in the health journal The Lancet extrapolates around 75,000 infected. No one knows for sure. If either story is true, human error or malevolence has already contributed to the spread of this new disease. (Johns Hopkins is tracking the reported Corona virus numbers here.)
Whatever the reason for the virus’ spread, it has proved itself extremely difficult to contain. This much is known: a person can be asymptomatic and pass the virus to someone before the first symptoms appear. Distressingly, after the virus passes, the person’s viral load is dramatically high, and the recovering person can spread the virus further. Now we know that the virus can live on surfaces like doorknobs. For more on that, read the CDC transcript about testing and transmission here. All coronaviruses constantly mutate (a couple strains of the common cold are coronaviruses), and so any extrapolation is theoretical. Here is a good explainer:
If one assumes that this new coronavirus will spread and that people are stupid about preventing it, what can one do to protect oneself? This is an important question whether the new virus spreads or not. The influenza bugs are here, and so are the incurable common cold plus myriad other sicknesses. These recommendations will be useful for all of the above.
Common Procedures During Cold and Flu Season
The following are general preventative recommendations for any time of the year, but especially mid-September to the end of April.
What to Do When Someone Shows Signs of Sickness
You may wonder why you should quarantine if you have a cold. Well, because many viruses cause a cold and some are deadly to young children and the immune compromised. RSV is a common enough virus that shows up as a mild cold in healthy adults but can causes acute respiratory distress syndrome in babies and small children and compromise their immune systems.
A special note about the flu: Flu symptom duration varies. From the day before the first symptom through the entire duration of the illness, the person is contagious. From the first day of the last symptom (when a person finally feels well) the person sheds the virus for three more weeks. Doctors rarely talk about this unless they work in a transplant unit or in infectious disease. Lesson: Even after someone feels better, strict hygiene should be enforced.
At this writing, the Chinese stock market is sliding. Commodities are dropping. Civil order in some places is tenuous. Wuhan, the epicenter of the new virus, is running short of supplies, and hospitals are overwhelmed. People are dying at home, alone. Civilization is a thin veneer layered on top of irrational animals who act in mystifying ways.
It’s better to assume that fear or hubris will lead to stupid actions that have harmful consequences. Plan for it. Whether the coronavirus afflicting the Chinese people will stay relatively contained is not yet known. It doesn’t have to be known, though. Already the flu claims many more American lives than necessary.
Be smart. Be strict with hygiene. Be prepared.