When the coronavirus first entered our consciousness last February, Donald Trump sought to minimize its severity. For that, he was roundly criticized by the media and it became part of the myth that Trump’s mismanagement of the crisis led to catastrophe.
But his reasons for minimizing the coronavirus were sound. Already, the media was turning the pandemic into a cross between the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob. In their efforts to whip up hysteria and create a crisis to increase revenue and profit for their TV networks and print publications, an enormous amount of misinformation was given to the public. This created mistrust and suspicion leading to a separate crisis of confidence in the information the public was getting.
The original crisis was fading, so, just in the nick of time, the coronavirus has apparently mutated. It’s no deadlier nor will it make a greater number of people ill. But — omigod — it spreads faster!
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
All good and no cause for alarm, right? Wrong.
A more transmissible variant of COVID-19 is a potential catastrophe in and of itself. If anything, given the stage in the pandemic we are at, a more transmissible variant is in some ways much more dangerous than a more severe variant. That’s because higher transmissibility subjects us to a more contagious virus spreading with exponential growth, whereas the risk from increased severity would have increased in a linear manner, affecting only those infected.
There is very little known about this variant, so, of course, media can go wild speculating how bad it’s going to get.
Increased transmissibility can wreak havoc in a very, very short time—especially when we already have uncontrolled spread in much of the United States. The short-term implications of all this are significant, and worthy of attention, even as we await more clarity from data. In fact, we should act quickly especially as we await more clarity—lack of data and the threat of even faster exponential growth argue for more urgency of action. If and when more reassuring data come in, relaxing restrictions will be easier than undoing the damage done by not having reacted in time.
In case you missed it, the answer is more and tighter restrictions. Because that worked so well the last time in stopping the spread of the virus, right?
In the end, we’re stuck with the exact same problem we had in March — a lack of specific information about this new variant. So, like lemmings being led to the sea, we should simply do the same thing that we did in March that didn’t work and resulted in a catastrophic contraction of the economy.
This uncertainty in understanding the variant’s exact mechanisms means that we don’t know if our existing tools—masks, distancing, and disinfecting—are as effective as they were compared with an identical scenario with the regular variant. To be clear: The variant is still a respiratory virus, so the basic tools will not change, and they will all continue to work. In fact, they have become more important, but we may need to be stricter—less time indoors, better masks, better ventilation, more disinfection of high-touch surfaces—to get the same bang for our protective buck. It may be a small difference, or not. We don’t know. We won’t know for a while.
Don’t go anywhere to see people but spend less time indoors. I’ll remember that when I’m standing all alone outside my house in the middle of a Midwestern winter. I won’t die of COVID, I’ll catch pneumonia and end up with the COVID patients in the ICU anyway.
I have great respect for epidemiologists, researchers, and public health officials involved in fighting the pandemic. I’m not questioning their intelligence, dedication, or compassion. I am questioning their political judgment. The coronavirus is not so much a public health problem as it is a political problem. Not understanding how humans think and react is hampering public health efforts to combat the coronavirus.
This new variant will, if it is spread far and wide, probably lead to more positive tests. Whether it leads to more serious cases of COVID or more deaths has yet to be shown and until more information is forthcoming, talk of severe lockdowns is grossly premature.