Coronavirus – fact and fiction

There’s way too much misinformation and panic about the coronavirus. I’m disappointed with the traditional media for not reporting on it more responsibly, so I decided to write the kind of article I’d like to see. This article explains what you need to know about the coronavirus. It’s referenced and researched rather than based on fake news.

Please share this with people you think need it. And don’t trust anything that isn’t researched and referenced.

That’s fake news.

A cough is a symptom of the coronavirus (Image from the US CDC)

Warning I may be wrong about some things so don’t let your common sense be ruined by anything I say here. And pay attention to reputable government agencies.

What is this virus? Why should I worry?

First off, let’s make something clear. The actual name of the current virus that’s scaring people is COVID-19. It is a type of coronavirus which means three is more than one coronavirus. The common cold is a type of coronavirus, for example.

The media are using the term ‘coronavirus’ to mean ‘COVID-19’ because that’s easier to say and work with. In this article I refer to coronavirus but I mean COVID-19.

The impact of this virus is hard to estimate although there already is some indication of how bad things can get. Even if you don’t get sick you can be affected as supply chains are affected in different ways. The worst would be if you, or someone you know gets sick and dies of it. The media doesn’t help when it runs articles mocking people taking precautions.

Incredible.

Last week I called out a journalist who I thought was writing a piece that would be a disservice to public health.

Unfortunately, my concerns proved well-founded. Recode’s virus piece ignores WHO & CDC, gets the science wrong…and focuses on handshakes!

— Balaji S. Srinivasan (@balajis) February 14, 2020

You should always question the media.

As a general rule, if the media isn’t quoting sources then you should be suspicious. Do your research and double-check so-called ‘facts’. The same applies to info you get on social media. Unless it’s referenced, don’t believe it.

(I’m thinking of the panic on social media this morning in Malta1. If someone tells you there was an ambulance in Sliema, it doesn’t follow there was a case of coronavirus there. Wait till you see it in – verifiable – news before believing it. Then, and ONLY then, can you share it further on social media.)

This article is split into two:

  • The main things you need to know about the virus. EVERYONE should know these things. Forewarned is forearmed. No excuses.
  • The main things you can do about it.

5 things to know about the coronavirus

A fever is a symptom of coronavirus

Like any virus there is an incubation period. Every virus has an incubation period. This is the amount of time between the point when you get the virus, and the time when symptoms emerge. Usually you’re fine during the incubation period so you wouldn’t know you caught the virus.
This is why it’s stupid to say, “You’ve caught a cold because you went out in the cold this morning.” The common cold has a 3-day incubation period.
You cannot catch it instantly. That’s not how viruses work.
During these 3 days, you’re carrying the virus and can spread it to someone else. For those 3 days, the virus is using you to spread to other humans. By spreading to other humans, the virus can survive for longer.
With the coronavirus, the incubation period is 14 days. The longer period means the coronavirus can spread to more people. This is why people should self-quarantine. By avoiding human contact for those 14 days you make sure that you don’t spread it further.

The symptoms are fever, a cough and/or shortness of breath. If you have these symptoms don’t think, “Oh, it’s just a cough,” because this time it could also be something worse. If you or someone you know has these symptoms inform the authorities and wait until a medical professional tells you that you’re okay. Unless you’re a medical professional you do not have the ability to tell if you’re coronavirus-free or not. It’s as simple as that.

Shortness of breath is a symptom of the coronavirus (Image from the US CDC)

The mortality rate is high, which is why it’s dangerous. Irresponsible people are talking about the number of deaths per year of seasonal flu, heart attacks and a number of other things. Their logic is flawed. They reason, “If more people die of other things shouldn’t we worry about those things more than coronavirus?”
If anyone says this to you, you have my permission to call them an idiot.
The key number to look at is not the total number of deaths but the mortality rate. 3 people out of every 100 who catch coronavirus will die. For the seasonal flu, that’s less than 1 in 100.
I have a 3.4% chance of dying of coronavirus and a <1% chance of dying of the common cold 3. That makes coronavirus 30 times worse than a cold.
If I’m older than 80, the chance of dying rockets up to 21.9%. For that age group, the coronavirus is 200 times worse than a cold.
The mortality rate is the number that’s important. You should know this because you’ve caught many colds over the course of your life and haven’t, so far, died of it.

This too will pass. You may have to quarantine yourself for a few weeks as the numbers continue to change but the virus will run out of steam. We will then return to normal until some other moron decides to order a bat-burger. The director of America’s CDC contradicts me on this front and has stated this will be with us for longer. If he’s right then we have to wait for a vaccine before people stop dying of it.
Literally, we have to outlive the crisis.
I don’t know how right he is, but information out of China suggests the spread does slow down. The pattern is replicated in Thailand and Singapore so this isn’t the Chinese lying through their teeth. Then again, I’d like to think the director of the CDC knows more than I do about the topic.

Understand the numbers so you don’t panic. It was inevitable that the coronavirus reaches you – wherever you are – so panicking about it is irrational. Now you need to make sure you know what’s going to happen next. Current estimates show that the number of infected people doubles between 2 to 7 days6. This means that, in a worst-case situation the number will double in 2 days; in a best-case situation it will double in 7. The median is 4.5 days. As of time of writing, Malta has 5 cases. This means I expect the following numbers:

Best-CaseMedianWorst-case
6 cases16 March13 March11 March
12 cases23 March17 March13 March
24 cases30 March21 March15 March

(You can calculate the numbers for your country or region.)

If you see the number of cases in Malta increasing according to this table don’t panic. This is normal and to be expected.

If you don’t see the numbers increase, or if the numbers increase more slowly it means one of two things:

  • The virus has peaked and is slowing down.
  • The authorities aren’t doing enough tests and aren’t catching infected people.

Warning: If the media starts running panic-laden headlines about numbers which match my table, don’t trust them.

10 things to do about it

Self quarantine yourself if you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus. Remember the incubation period starts from the time of exposure, not when you start showing symptoms. If you wake up and feel fine it doesn’t mean you’re fine. It means the virus has not affected you yet. If 14 days pass and you’re still okay, then you know for sure that you haven’t caught it.
Don’t argue that you’re too important to stay indoors. This is a public health issue. Czechia has already stated that anyone who does not self-quarantine will be fined EUR 120 0007. I expect other countries to follow this example (Italy already has8 ). I also expect law suits arguing that ‘your carelessness killed my father/mother/etc.’ This is not unrealistic; if you spread other fatal diseases most jurisdictions already treat you as a killer.

Wash your hands on a regular basis. Do I really have to say this? Didn’t mothers teach people to wash their hands on a regular basis? Anyone handling food should be washing their hands when they touch non-food based items. If you’re in a kitchen there are specific food safety regulations. If you’re in one of the supermarkets stupid enough to display uncovered food, don’t pick them up with your (unwashed) hands.
(Side note: I am still surprised at how supermarkets in Czechia display uncovered bread. How do I know someone didn’t sneeze on them before I walked in? It’s a shocking lack of hygiene if you ask me.)

Update: Since writing this, some supermarkets in Czechia have changed the way they handle bread. The ones that have done this have my custom.

Don’t touch things, especially ones outside your control. If you can’t help it, then you know you should wash your hands too. You can reduce the time the coronavirus lives on surfaces if you cover them in copper tape9. Metals kill viruses so this is good to know, but it doesn’t mean you should cover your entire house in copper tape.
If you’re stupid enough to do that, cover your house in silver tape too so you’ll also be safe from werewolves.

Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. The corollary to this is: if you sneeze into a tissue, bin it.
I remember seeing a cashier in a supermarket cough over a customer’s goods on the conveyor belt. She didn’t bother covering her mouth. When the customer complained she actually got offended that he called her out on it. She seemed to think coughing was a normal thing to do and that this customer was unreasonable.
He wasn’t.
If there’s anything this anecdote teaches us it’s that we need to teach children how to do this more.

Make sure you have enough food to cover a 14-day period. I can’t believe this is something that has to be pointed out. Am I the only one who has a stock of food, detergents and household goods always to hand? Get into the habit of keeping a 2-week stock of essentials and consumables because you never know when you might need them. Don’t forget a first-aid kit. And don’t forget things to keep you occupied like books, internet access, games and so on. Stop saying, “Ah yes but if something goes wrong my neighbour/brother/sister can always help out.”
Start thinking about being independent because you cannot predict the future.
Also, start thinking about how you can use online delivery services because this works well for these kind of scenarios. (The flip side of this is a question for retailers: Do you offer delivery services? Because you should.) If you’re on the continent then deliveries from major retailers, like Amazon, are worth their while. It’s reasonable to expect these deliveries will be overused at these times but I doubt they will stop. This is just common sense and this advice holds all year round.

Don’t wait until someone else does something. Be proactive. Most people will get out of a room if it starts filling with smoke. If 2 or more people do not leave the room, the others will stay put even as the smoke thickens and gets worse. This is the result of a famous 1960s experiment.
Don’t reassure yourself by saying, “No one else I know is doing anything about this so I don’t need to either.” Data and facts always override opinion and emotion.

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus dashboard

Don’t believe everything you read in the media. I’m including this article in that statement. I’m quoting all my sources here so you can double-check and see for yourself. This is how you can tell if I’m bullshitting or if I’m right.
If someone makes an unsubstantiated claim, research it.
This is what you should be doing anyway because of fake news. And you shouldn’t be doing it about medical emergencies only either. Act smart and your life will be simpler.
If you want information about the number of cases in your country and how bad things are, check out this beautiful dashboard by Johns Hopkins.
Why can’t all governments share information this way?

Don’t travel unless you really, really have to. Some countries are blocking travel and some airlines are cancelling routes to infected areas. If you have to travel double-check your health insurance, research your destination and be prepared. The Times of London ran a helpful checklist for travellers which is useful.

Don’t believe in folk remedies. Some people claim zinc helps with cold symptoms but there’s no hard evidence for it yet. This doesn’t mean you should say, “Ah well it worked for that friend of my cousin.” You especially shouldn’t take zinc and then think you’re invincible and order bat a l’orange. The Czechs think beer cures a cold11 which sounds like a great excuse to me. Remember: if you have a cold and take beer and the cold passes, it doesn’t mean the beer solved it. It could be a coincidence. You need scientific proof that the beer was the thing that cured you.

Don’t spread fake news. If you get advice – especially over social media – don’t spread it unless you are 100% sure of it. Do your research, stop spreading rumours and don’t ever say, “there’s no harm in sharing something because you never know, right?“.
If it’s not fact, you’re spreading stupidity.

There is harm in that.

I’m looking forward to a time when all this will be behind us. I’m hoping new habits will continue but I know it’s easy to revert to old behaviour. We should wash our hands more frequently, be better prepared for emergencies and learn how to tell fact from fiction.

Let’s see.

Meanwhile, please share this with people who don’t know enough about the coronavirus. Share it with people who need to be reminded to stock up, or wash their hands. Share it with people who you know need this information.

And take care of yourself and your loved ones.

References

Coronavirus: fake claims on social media over case at Gżira hotel; Vanessa Conneely; The Times of Malta; 2020-03-09
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19); Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; 2020-02-29
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Mortality Rate; Worldometer; 2020-03-05
CDC director: Novel coronavirus ‘is probably with us beyond this season, beyond this year’; Jacqueline Howard; CNN.com; 2020-02-14
“You’re likely to get the coronavirus” Subreddit and discussion; 2020-02-25
COVID-19 brief for friends and family; Effective Altruism Forum; 2020-02-28
Coronavirus: Prague and CR update; Prague Daily Monitor; 2020-03-09
Coronavirus in Italy: it doesn’t seem like a holiday any more; Roberta Bonometti; The Times of London; 2020-03-08
Coronavirus: Justified Practical Advice Thread; Elisabeth Ben Pace; Lesswrong.com; 2020-02-28
The Smoke-Filled Room; WeirdUniverse.Net; 2008-08-14
Can beer cure a cold? 10 Czech remedies to try this winter; Katrina Modrá; Expats.cz; 2020-01-24

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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