In the past few months there has been quite a lot of excitement around the Coronavirus outbreak. While many warned about overreacting, the situation now really seems to escalate: many countries take extreme (probably sensible) measures (like Italy shutting down everything except supermarkets), the US stopping all passenger traffic from Europe (except UK, which seems unreasonable), and the WHO officially calling it a pandemic.
Some people have now been wondering: Don’t panic? Pandemic? What is it all about?
I probably cannot give a complete and correct answer on this as I am not “specialist”, however, I tried to get an overview myself and wanted to share it.
Disclaimer: In doubt, trust the official sources and generally follow the instructions of your local government.
If you have been following the news, you can probably skip this part.
According to the WHO Corona dashboard, while writing this, there have been around 125 thousand reported infections worldwide (and it increased by a thousand within the hour I was writing) with more than four and a half thousand deaths. Around 81 thousand infections and three thousand deaths being in China. The number of infections is growing exponentially (this means it is increasingly getting increasingly larger).
After China Iran, South Korea and Italy have started to have large problems with the virus spreading. In Europe the virus is now rapidly spreading (many cases having come from Italy). As mentioned above, governments are taking strong measures in response. It is strongly adviced to avoid social contacts as much as possible (in other words stay at home or go into nature where no one is but don’t get yourself hurt there).
Also my university (Aalto University Finland) has decided to hold lectures remotely and has asked all staff to work from home as well.
First of all the virus: It is said that the virus is not as dangerous as the predecessor SARS. Additionally, it is frequently mentioned that more people have died of flu this year and do so every year. However, it is important to point out that there a vaccinations against the flu, risk patients (and anyone else) could receive. Also, the common flu is much more well understood and there are effective treatments against it. Since the Coronavirus is a new virus that the immune system of most people does not know how to cope with, chances are much higher of falling sick.
But still, most people do not die, right? However, imagine the whole world being ill at the same time: food shipments would stop, supermarkets are closed, hospitals would be overloaded, governments could not work, police and military forces would be weakened, not to mention fire fighters and so on. The good news is: we are not there. The bad: hospitals are already starting to become overhelmed in some places. So this is the true reason you should try everything to stay healthy: to save hospital capacities and to let researchers win time to find treatments.
THis is where we get to the next point: Spreading the virus. Now you might think: well, if I fall sick, I just stay home – no need for a hospital, doctors and intensive care. Not quite so. Because the virus is not well understood you cannot know for sure how the course of disease will be for you. And then the larger problem is that someone will most likely have to care for you even if it is just a family member. This person is then also at a high risk of falling sick or at least spreading the virus. Now chances are rapidly increasing that high risk patients get affected – that is: old and weak. In the end, by staying healthy, you are saving your grandparents, parents, or someone elses.
Another scenario to consider is that the more often the virus is shared, the higher the chances are that it again mutates. This makes it even harder to find a treatment. Especially, making it more unpredictable.
Now, we are all sensible peole and can wash our hands. Despite, noone I know has been to Italy, China or similar. So, I can just meet with those people and wash my hands. These are other dangerous thoughts: only one person needs to have scratched their nose after touching a contaminated surface, such as an elevator button or sink in their office. Thus, expect the virus to be more cunning than you are precautious.
I also wanted to tell you something about the actual scientific facts and numbers. However, it turns out that almost all numbers available are those you probably read in the news, and the science does not quite agree yet. So I think it is not worth repeating this. It is worth mentioning, though, that this is a good example where open and public data can be enormously helpful and can enable anyone (like bored students) to analyse them. This is why I have been quite disappointed by how sparse the data is and hard (often only by request) to get. Concerning the wordlwide data, practically, someone else has already written down the story more extensively with all the nice plots you need.
I hope after reading this, you get a brief idea of why the steps that are taken are taken and that you can calm down a bit now. Just use this chance to catch up with some time for yourself: for example, you could buy some Netflix shares, and recommend your friends and family to watch all those series everyone is talking about*… and maybe you have even benefited from this terrible situation.
* I am not recommending to watch Netflix series to you. This is neither healthy nor could I claim that I particularly like them.
How to protect yourself and others
To date no treatments or vaccines are available. For researchers to gain time to develop treatments it is therefore important that you try to stay healthy (as long as possible).
The most important part is to follow the instructions of your government, company, or institution. This includes:
- Washing hands frequently (at least before eating, cooking, or touching your face). Why? Because the easiest way for the virus to spread is through surfaces that an infected person touched before you touched it. There is a nice photo showing the effect of the duration of washing your hands on the cleanliness.
- Avoid contact to other people (outside your home). Why? Because the virus is spread by droplets that travel through the air when, for example, someone sneezes, coughs, or speaks excitedly. Also this reduces the chance of you touching contaminated surfaces.
- If necessary, regularly clean surfaces that people (including you) get in touch with, for example, gloves if you live in a cold region. Why? Because the virus might stick around there (for multiple days I have heard). Ideally, use desinfection.
- If you are or feel ill stay home. Why? Even if you are sure (which you probably are not), a weakened immune system increases the chance of you becoming infected by the new virus and having more trouble coping with it. Additionally, infecting others will lead to the same thing for them.
- Further instructions given by institutions, such as, WHO.
Additionally, your body is armed with one of the most advanced mechanisms to fight diseases known: the immune system. By the way, there is a nice video on this on YouTube.
So, I also highly recommend to keep your immune system well prepared, this includes:
- Eat healthy. Watch out for a balanced diet and avoid too much sugar, salt, and saturated fats. Make sure you get all the nutrients your immune system needs – especially fruits and vegetable help with this. Why? Because your body requires a lot of important nutrients to function correctly, you gain these nutrients by eating.
- Exercise. Keep your body fit by exercising at least thirty minutes every day –- you do not have to do body building but there are tons of other options. Why? Only recently have we humans stopped to move most time of the day. Our body is designed to be moved frequently. Only this way you can really remain healthy (I am not going to list all benefits here).
- Sleep. Sleep at least eight hours every day and make no exception (I will write another post on this). Why? Sleep is very crucial for your body to recover and your immune system to stay performant.
Also, you might want to:
- Keep your stress low. Why? Stress is a mechanism that should only be active very shortly, meaning minutes or hours. When stressed, your immune system functioning is reduced, your heart beats faster than is healthy, your brain degenerates, and lots of other scary stuff. So keep stress where it belongs: for emergency, and special situations.
- Drink enough water. This is the last point because I believe it is the least problem in our society. Still, every now and then I hear of people not drinking enough water (also because in some countries it can be quite challenging to get water when thirsty – looking at you Germany!). Make sure that you drink at least two liters every day and keep in mind that coffee and tea does not count. Eating salty, sweating, and too much coffee might lead to a higher demand in water. Why? Your body consists mainly out of water. Water is required for cells to stay alive, for new cells to be generated, and to keep or get infections out.
- Get some fresh air. For example, by taking a walk (in a park or in nature) or opening the window. Why? Fresh air gives you the oxygen your body needs, and helps to clean your lungs and body in general.
I hope this gives you a better impression of what is going and helps you act accordingly. As I believe that most of the people reading this are smart and self-reflecting, I ask you to let me know if you think anything is incorrect or gives a false impression.
UPDATE (14.03.2020): I previously recommended to use hand sanitizer after washing your hands. However, this might not be sensible as hand sanitizer may not be good for your skin destroying its protection. It is, however, still a valid option if no warm water and soap is available (and also recommended by multiple sources). As always, if in doubt, check the official information.
UPDATE (16.03.2020): Previously, I claimed that a good example for open data was the Finnish government which allowed someone to build a dashboard based on it. However, I misread it and it turns out the data is provided by a news site and not the government.