“When a man is getting sick in an airline seat next to you, you may not want to embarrass him by calling attention to the problem. You say to yourself that this man will be all right. Maybe he doesn’t travel well in airplanes. He is airsick, the poor man.”
— Richard Preston, The Hot Zone (1994)
When Preston wrote these words, Marburg virus, a type of filovirus, had only been known to science for about 30 years. Its appearances were so sporadic — and deadly — that little research had been done. The patients either died before treatments could be tested or simply didn’t live in a place where research was an option.
As Preston relates the gory details of two cases in Kenya, 1980, he points to two bigger problems than a deadly virus: an understaffed infrastructure unable to handle an outbreak and the effects of xenophobia on our attitudes toward viruses.
Now, we face a pandemic of a new virus, SARS-CoV-2. The difference between coronavirus and something like Marburg is its capacity to spread. In The Hot Zone, Preston explains how patients with filoviruses are often too sick to travel and are quickly isolated. Transmission risk is highest among health care workers and family members preparing bodies for burial. In addition, the symptoms come on quickly. That’s why Ebola, Marburg, and similar viruses have failed to become global pandemics.
Because SARS-CoV-2 is largely asymptomatic, and because many people in the First World are stubbornly refusing to take the virus seriously, the disease it causes, Covid-19, is likely to spread. Even the world’s most advanced nations will be overwhelmed by people seeking medical help, as economies crash from a complete disruption of our daily lives.
Our arrogance will be our downfall.
Since I read Preston’s book about five years after its publication, I’ve been morbidly fascinated with epidemiology and the history of disease outbreaks. In my capacity as a science writer for the University of Florida, I regularly reported on their Emerging Pathogens Institute’s studies of dengue and Zika. With notably xenophobic rhetoric flowing from their mouths, many Floridians panicked over the intrusion of Zika into Florida.
Yet Zika was spread by a disease vector — the mosquito — as well as between sexual partners and by pregnant women to their fetuses. Unlike SARS-CoV-2, it did not have what epidemiologists call “community spread,” or the ability to jump from host to host through general contact with other people.
Now that the number of cases in the United States exceeds 1,000, people are quietly panicking while publicly declaring their skepticism for the whole thing. In a recent YouGov survey, only about 30 percent of American respondents believe that SARS-CoV-2 presented a threat to them. After all, the flu has community spread and no one dies from it.
Wrong. The flu killed more than 34,000 people in the U.S. last flu season, including more than 250 children. And that’s with a widely available vaccine.
What will happen while we wait for a vaccine to be ready for human use? Many Americans seem committed to continuing their way of life — one that involves being in close contact with large groups of people while openly rejecting any threat to their way of life. As my fellow millennials finally can afford their cheap flights, they’re packing the hand sanitizer (now a luxury item) and taking off to potentially carry the virus to yet more populations.
When the latest Ebola outbreak began in 2013, I dusted off my copy of The Hot Zone and voraciously read news about the spread of the virus. Unlike in previous outbreaks with 90 percent mortality and limited spread, this outbreak was pervasive and enduring. I wondered if it might spread beyond West Africa. Some of my acquaintances scoffed at my apparent panic.
“You’re American,” they said. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. The media is just trying to scare you.”
“Is the media not allowed to report on what’s affecting other parts of the world?” I responded.
“Whatever,” they sighed.
Fast forward to 2020, and Our Great President is calling this the Democrats’ “new hoax.” (Apparently, he doesn’t know what the word hoax means.) On both sides of the political spectrum, anti-science and anti-media attitudes are palpable as Americans scramble to maintain their sense of power in the face of a disembodied threat. It is unclear if they are also the ones hawking hand sanitizers at gouged prices. “Listen to scientists, not the media,” blares a popular meme making the rounds. The posters all ignore the fact that the CDC and WHO are distributing information from the world’s top epidemiologists.
“One hundred ten people die in America every day from car accidents,” a Trump supporter told a BBC reporter in Mar-a-Lago. “That doesn’t stop me from driving.”
When Italy’s daily coronavirus death toll has exceeded 200, that’s not entirely comforting. Given the virus’ high mortality rate among older patients and those with existing cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, it’s also incredibly selfish to assert that you can keep living your life as-is while other people die. Our cars have state-of-the-art defense systems. Not all of our bodies do.
Of course, vaccines are something that Americans feel are optional. Anti-vaxxer groups continue to push for natural remedies in lieu of flu vaccines. Recently, a four-year-old child died from the flu after his mother opted for vitamin supplements at the heed of the “Stop Mandatory Vaccination” Facebook group. When I posted this story, someone immediately commented that they’d gotten flu from the flu vaccine. This is impossible. What happens is that (a) you’re already infected when you get the shot, (b) you get infected before the vaccine becomes fully effective, or (c) you develop a reaction to the vaccine that makes you feel icky.
That’s the problem with both flu and coronavirus. Because its symptoms largely revolve around “feeling icky,” people don’t seek medical treatment. After all, it’s not like filovirus diseases, in which your organs start leaking out of your orifices. And because Americans have low access to healthcare, they’re not only more likely to grin and bear it, but also to assert that they “feel fine” and proceed to carry on with their normal lives.
Unfortunately, we can’t yet compare coronavirus to the flu. Not really. Not enough testing has been done to understand the scope of its spread, and we also don’t know how many recent deaths are due to it. We don’t have the data to calculate a true mortality rate. It could be the same as flu. It could be a lot higher. Current estimates place it at 3.5 percent, compared to 0.1 percent for flu.
In 1989, a filovirus appeared in Reston, Virginia, mere miles from DC. Scientists were initially alarmed by the similarity of the virus to the devastating Marburg and Ebola, but the strain only affected monkeys. The panic faded as quickly as it had begun.
Indeed, filoviruses were almost always borne by monkeys or bats, with which humans had limited contact. We’ve gained a false sense of security. As long as we aren’t thwacking our way through the jungle or browsing the infamous Asian food markets, we believe we’re safe.
In America, our sense of safety is so delusional that we’re now learning handwashing techniques that should be common practice. (From my casual observations of people in public bathrooms, I can tell you that they are not.) We take cleanliness to be a sign of our status as First Worlders, while we associate filth with foreigners. “We’re fine,” says my friend on Facebook. “We’re American.”
Covid-19 is becoming an ugly mirror to our racism. Just as people claim they can’t get HIV if they aren’t black, just as people thought they couldn’t get Zika if they weren’t Latinx, they believe that only Chinese people are affected by coronavirus. In an age of such arrogance, we’re facing a world of people who won’t wash their hands and think the media coverage is all a ruse for ad revenue. Meanwhile, people quietly stockpile supplies just in case they’re wrong — and as usual, the people who can afford four weeks’ worth of toilet paper prevent the poor from getting any.
How did we become such undiscerning skeptics? When did we decide that our convenience is a good excuse for others’ misfortune? What’s it going to take for us to take the virus seriously before it overwhelms our hospitals and tanks our economy?
It’s time to stop worrying about giving the media views, or being a sheep, or whatever’s holding you back from being safe. The vulnerable members of society need you to help prevent the spread. Embrace the comfort of your own home. Fight for your right to sick leave. And wash your damn hands.