By Arnie Suntag
Since word of a new severe respiratory illness that began in Wuhan, China surfaced at the end of December 2019, our way of life has gradually been altered and millions have been transfixed by the ominous reports the news media broadcasts every day.
Previously unknown to many in our country, places such as Hubei Province and its capital, the city of Wuhan, have become somewhat notorious in the scourge that has now engulfed a large part of our world. This is where the alleged new threat arose – a novel coronavirus that has infected thousands, causing many deaths. Coronaviruses cause diseases in mammals and birds. It is a known fact that these viruses can on rare occasions be transmitted from animals to humans, causing new and often potentially deadly diseases. Examples include SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that appeared in 2002 and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) that appeared in 2012. The SARS fatality rate was 14-15 percent, while MERS was even higher, at over 34 percent. Fortunately, these diseases were contained. Then, of course, there are the familiar bird flu that first appeared in 1997, and the swine flu of 2009. The bird flu was difficult to transmit from person to person and this is fortuitous, since the mortality rate was a whopping 60 percent. The new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has proven to be highly transmissible and can be quite virulent. The virus arose in the bat population and, through a mutation (mutations are typical for RNA-based viruses), it became capable of being transmitted to human beings. Some have speculated that this new coronavirus was genetically engineered in a Wuhan laboratory dedicated to developing biological warfare agents, but I will leave this so-called conspiracy theory for another time.
The imagery and information about COVID-19 being disseminated through social media and mainstream news outlets has been scaring the daylights out of many people, while at the same time generating quite a bit of cynicism in others. There is no question that people are being infected and quite a few are dying. But how much is fact and how much is fiction? This is one good reason why it is so important for us to be balanced in our understanding of the novel coronavirus phenomenon and its potential impact. This is not the time to panic nor to overreact. If there was ever an opportunity to trust in God to help us through an emerging crisis, it is now. With that in mind, I am going to share the facts as we know them today. Some may be disappointed by what I am about to say, because they are hoping for a reprieve from what they may feel is a hoax. They would rather just close their eyes and make this new reality that has engulfed our world go away. It would be much more palatable to dismiss it as a gross exaggeration which, quite frankly, I myself would like to do. And indeed, the media is exploiting much of the story clearly for political purposes. That is the worst part. Nonetheless, there are hard facts to objectively consider. If nothing else, it would be prudent to err on the side of caution. That being said, it is imperative that we are aware of the measures to take in order to minimize exposure to this novel coronavirus and to prevent its spread to others. In order to foster a more balanced perspective on this subject, let me share a few historical facts.
In 1918, the world was shaken by a pandemic that infected one-third of its population and killed an estimated 50 – 100 million people. It was one of the largest pandemics in human history. The Spanish flu, as it became known, was caused by an H1N1 virus of avian (bird) origin. Due to the war raging in the world at that time (World War I), governments prohibited any media disclosure of the flu outbreak in order to maintain troop morale. The media in Spain was not impacted by this censorship and broke the news. Because Spain was the only country revealing the otherwise unknown epidemic, it was assumed that it had been particularly hard hit. Thus, the moniker Spanish flu. The virus that caused this deadly disease was the first of its kind, thus no one had a natural immunity nor were there vaccines available to confer such immunity. Furthermore, there were no antibiotics to treat secondary infections – a common complication of a severe upper respiratory tract infection, making this outbreak far more deadly than nearly anything which had been seen before in human history. It was particularly deadly for children and for those who were between 20 and 40 years of age, making it unique in that respect. However, the extraordinarily high death toll may have been in large measure due to malnourishment associated with the war, the lack of antibiotics, overcrowding in hospitals and other facilities, and poor hygiene, all of which resulted in bacterial superinfection. Thus, it was such secondary infections that resulted in the high mortality rate.
There are, unfortunately, certain startling similarities between the Spanish flu pandemic and the current coronavirus outbreak. Following the appearance of a new acute respiratory illness in Wuhan, China at the end of December 2019, public health officials identified the causative organism – a novel coronavirus, or a coronavirus not previously known or identified. This is one of the more concerning aspects of the new virus. As most of us know from the news media reports, this new virus spread rapidly through China, and COVID-19, the acute respiratory illness it causes, grew exponentially. However, it was some of the aggressive and seemingly outlandish methods China utilized that were ultimately responsible for containing the virus, although such practices bordered on what many critics singled out as human rights violations. Rather sadly, however, the only way to prevent a new strain of virus from being disseminated throughout the populace is by aggressive methods, including the isolation of infected individuals. This includes quarantines and lockdowns – scenarios that are fairly intolerable for most of us.
While the preceding historical retrospective may be somewhat illuminating, we are still left with the question, how real is the novel coronavirus threat? Well, if there is a bottom line to it all, it is simply this: the novel coronavirus has not been encountered by our immune systems before. Our bodies have no defenses against the virus because we have not been exposed to it or to any similar virus before. We have no antibodies to stave off infection. This makes us the perfect host for this virus. The degree of illness we may experience depends upon the status of our immune system at the time. Anyone who receives a sufficient exposure to the novel coronavirus will invariably become sick. In that way, the situation is similar to the Spanish flu, and the potential consequences are obvious and staggering if the virus is not contained. And therein lies the key. We must be proactive. Each one of us. It is vital to do everything possible to maintain our health and foster a strong immune response. Among other things, we need to get serious about eating a healthful diet, getting plenty of exercise, and generally being diligent in following all the other rules of healthy living. We must also follow some reasonable guidelines to minimize the likelihood of exposure to the disease, and to protect others from the same.
While some may want to brush this pandemic-causing virus off as “just another flu”, bear in mind that the flu itself can kill quite effectively. Each year since 2010, the flu has caused anywhere from 12,000 – 61,000 deaths in the United States. So, logically speaking, it is better to be safe than sorry. There are factors that make COVID-19 particularly dangerous. For instance, the incubation period, or the time it takes from infection to the development of symptoms, can be up to 14 days or longer, whereas that of the flu is usually between one and four days. Most people develop the flu just two days after exposure. During the incubation period for COVID-19, an individual may be completely asymptomatic. However, during this time, it may be possible for them to spread the disease. So, one may not even realize that they have been exposed to COVID-19 by their family member, friend, or neighbor, because that person appears to be perfectly healthy. The other unique feature of COVID-19 is what is known in epidemiology as the R0 value. This represents the number of people to whom an infected individual may spread the disease. The R0 value of COVID-19, as proven so far, is greater than that of the flu. It is extremely contagious. Finally, the mortality rate for COVID-19 is proving to be considerably higher than that of the flu. So, while some may want to write off COVID-19 as just another run-of-the-mill respiratory virus, this could not be further from the truth. This virus has the potential to be just as deadly as the one which caused the Spanish flu, if not more so, unless adequate methods are implemented to corral it before it increases exponentially. Unfortunately, such methods may radically alter our way of life until the virus has been effectively contained. This is why, to the dismay of many, we are witnessing the cancellation of major events, the closing of schools, the cessation of sports, the elimination of most public gatherings, and other unprecedented means by which to limit the spread of the virus. This containment effort will more than likely soon include the cessation of all mass transit, all air travel, and the complete shutdown of our national borders. The economic and social ramifications will be staggering, but without these measures, COVID-19 could potentially become the Spanish flu of the 21st century.
As a result of completely understandable concerns arising from the latest developments, people are panicking and behaving irrationally and irresponsibly. Some are hoarding food and supplies, leaving grocery and other retail store shelves bare. Some are literally getting into physical altercations with others over toilet paper. Some retailers are taking advantage of the pandemic and engaging in price gouging. Others are promoting so-called natural cures that, in reality, have little if any value except to generate tidy profits by capitalizing on the fear factor. So, for those professing to be Christians and yet participating in such thoughtless behaviors and reprehensible acts I say, where is God in all of this? This may well be the real acid test to see where many of us actually stand in our faith. The fact is, if there was ever a time to reflect on one’s faith and relationship with God, it is surely right now. This pandemic and the potential economic collapse and imminent moral decay should be of no surprise to any of us. These events are prophetic — right out of Matthew 24 and other scriptures. On a pragmatic level, there is no reason to fear. There are simple and sensible precautions each one of us can take to protect ourselves from COVID-19.
So, whether one is convinced of the urgency of the situation or not, the rational person will err on the side of caution and do what is necessary to navigate through the current crisis. Ultimately, this too shall pass.
The foregoing being said, let’s look at what we can do to prevent COVID-19. What informed sources know about the virus is that it can indeed pose a significant health risk to those over 60 years of age, those with pre-existing medical conditions, or those with a compromised immune system. The mortality rate understandably increases substantially for those in their seventies or eighties, just as would be the case with the flu or any other serious respiratory illness. For the most part, younger adults and children appear to experience less severe infection. However, this can change radically almost overnight, just as it did with the second wave of the Spanish flu. As mentioned earlier, RNA-based viruses tend to mutate. Should this occur with COVID-19, the results can potentially be as devastating as those of the Spanish flu. Therefore, it is both reasonable and essential to follow some basic rules to prevent exposure and minimize infection, particularly since we cannot predict the outcome of the pandemic at this point.
First and foremost, be aware of COVID-19 symptoms. These primarily include a cough, fever, and difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath. These symptoms can appear 2-14 days after exposure to the coronavirus. Equally important to realize is that these symptoms can be caused by other respiratory illnesses as well, so do not assume that it is COVID-19. Call your healthcare provider and make arrangements to be checked. The same is true if you witness such symptoms in your children or other family members. Furthermore, it is important to isolate when possible all others with whom the infected individual may have come in contact until they can be tested, in order to minimize the likelihood of spreading the virus. Keep in mind also, as mentioned earlier, that an individual can be infected with the virus and show no symptoms at all, yet still be able to transmit the disease. This is the reason for washing your hands frequently, covering a sneeze or cough, cleaning environmental surfaces with disinfectants, and the host of other recommendations you will find in a fact sheet that you can download from the Johns Hopkins page at this link: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-facts-infographic. It is also advisable to take a few minutes to review the information about COVID-19 offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on their website at this link: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html. The most challenging aspect of controlling viral spread is avoiding handshakes and hugs, along with keeping a safe distance from others (social distancing). I realize how unpalatable this is for all of us, but keep in mind that it is only temporary. The pandemic will eventually run its course, and at least this aspect of our daily lives will return to normal.
Again, I want to stress the fact that there is absolutely no reason to panic or overreact. Preparedness and common sense should prevail. Keep in mind that many of the same recommendations would apply even if this were a major flu outbreak. Most of all, we should pray that infections with COVID-19 will decline, as has happened in other pandemics, and that our families and loved ones will be protected until that occurs.
Arnie Suntag is the founder and president of Walk of Faith, an organization that conducts seminars and educational series on health and disease prevention and provides outreach services to the community.