The truth about coronavirus

The title is ironic. Although there doubtlessly is an objective truth out there about coronavirus, finding out what it is requires an impossible sense-making effort built on the shifting-sands of unreliable, incomplete, ill-defined data sets, conflicting medical and scientific opinions, politically charged allegations of incompetence and claims of success, and much more. Nevertheless, all of us navigating this space (and that is basically everyone on the planet at this point) necessarily have a set of working hypotheses for what we think has happened so far, is happening right now, and may happen in the future. It’s ok to change your mind. This is a work in progress.

Now, I can’t be bothered writing this in the style of an academic essay with footnotes and references, so I am just going to dump it out as a list of things that I currently believe to be likely to be true. In January 2020 I certainly couldn’t have anticipated what April 2020 was going to be like. And now as I write this at the end of July 2020, despite the experience gained in recent months, it’s difficult to be certain what things are going to look like a few more months into the future. Still, I think it’s an interesting exercise to write down what you think, just to see how well it holds up to the test passing time. For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to use the word "coronavirus" here as shorthand for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease that it causes.

  • People should be wearing masks to dampen the transmission rate of the virus. Even without recourse to any kind of scientific study, it’s already obvious that wearing a covering over the nose and mouth must in some way filter out some of the particles that would otherwise be exchanged between humans, objects, and the air around them. Even if you’re skeptical about efficacy, wearing a mask is not onerous, and it just might reduce the viral load enough to save you, a loved one, or a fellow citizen. Even if you consider it a slight to your personal freedom to be obliged by the authorities to wear a mask, just do it for the good of those around you. If you’re still too thickheaded and stubborn to buy that argument, I’d expect the government to fine you until you come to your senses.
  • The virus doesn’t appear to withstand ultraviolet radiation all that well. Consequently, it is safer to be outside during daylight hours than at night.
  • Conditions outdoors seem to be less favorable to transmission than being in closed spaces. This seems to be true even at night when UV light is not a factor; rather, it seems that outside air movement tends to favor the dispersion of the virus. In contrast, being in closed spaces, especially where there is recirculating air, greatly favors transmission. I miss eating and drinking out, but I am in no hurry to return to restaurants any time soon.
  • Two meters is a safe distance. But time is also a variable. For example, a distance of one meter from an infected person may be just fine if you’re only at that distance for a short time. Likewise, other factors (mask, whether or not you’re speaking etc) must surely modify transmission rates.
  • Soap and water can kill the virus. So, wash your hands thoroughly for 30 seconds whenever you come home. When you’re out, avoid touching your face and surrounding areas.
  • The virus can survive outside of the body for an interval that depends on the kind of surface on which it is deposited. As such, anything that I bring into my home from the outside is kept in "quarantine" overnight before being used (expect things that need immediate refrigeration; I wash those with soap and water before putting them in the fridge). The idea here is to keep things simple and just apply a consistent policy to all objects (whether they be plastic, paper etc) rather than trying to treat them differently based on material.
  • Despite the criticism heaped on authorities for their flawed management of the situation, it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of officials are doing their sincerest best to navigate a complex terrain filled with uncertainties and competing priorities. Rather than descending into politically-motivated name-calling, let’s stay calm and keep the focus on what matters — controlling the pandemic and protecting human lives — even though it requires us to tread the emotionally fraught space where we must balance protecting the populace in the short term with the longer term need to maintain a viable, functioning economy. In other words, we should try especially hard to highlight problems and promote solutions in a constructive, civil manner.
  • Because the virus spreads exponentially in the absence of countervailing factors, it will always seem that the response was either too drastic, or not enough. For example, after a lengthy period of confinement everyone is eager to return to normalcy and will demand to know why they were stuck in their homes for so long, forgetting that the only reason the curve flattened sufficiently to reduce the strain on the hospital system was that the confinement was sufficiently long. Likewise, in the contrary case, when cases spiral out of control, it will always seem that the authorities did not do enough, and that is true, but only with the benefit of hindsight; the nature of transmission is such that there is a lag time between infection and detection, and during that interval the transmission continues. I think people could afford to be less judgemental, less determined to expect Nostradamus-like prophetic abilities from their politicians and experts, when they retrospectively evaluate the decisions that were taken in the past without perfect foresight.
  • Coronavirus is not just an "old person’s disease". It can kill young people too. In people of all ages, it can leave persistent negative secondary-effects in place even after initial recovery. Despite the relatively low case fatality rate, it is a nasty disease that you do not want to have. As time goes by and the average age of people who test positive for the disease goes down, we see an alarming pattern: young people are more likely to go out when confinement ends, more likely to be asymptomatic carriers of the disease, and are potentially deadly infection vectors when they come into contact with their older loved ones. Caution is warranted.
  • Coronavirus has had a brutal effect on the tourism industry, which is bad news for countries, sectors, and people that depend on it for a living. It may be years before travel patterns are back to pre-coronavirus levels, and in fact, the adjustment we’ve seen may never fully be unwound. Personally, I think people travel too much anyway, so the adjustment is a good thing on many levels; but because it will be devastating for so many people’s livelihoods, it will require a robust response from governments to not only prevent people from falling into poverty, but literally restructure the entire economy in some places. I couldn’t care less about the effects on the big businesses in the industry (it’s fitting and natural that businesses that can’t survive in the free market die off sometimes); I want a social safety net for people and not tax-payer funded corporate welfare. Sadly, I don’t think that the countries that derive a large part of their prosperity from tourism really have any idea for how to redefine themselves over a short time span; they’re pretty much stuck with hoping for a vaccine that restores everything to normalcy, or a future of permanently depressed income.
  • There is a non-negligible chance that the virus originated in a lab. I don’t care whether the virus came from a lab, or an animal, or wherever (although insofar as humans had any role in it starting and spreading, obviously I’d wish that we wouldn’t have done it and won’t do it again in the future), but I do think it is important to be open-minded about the origins in the sense that the origins may have implications for the development of vaccines and treatments. I don’t think it is productive or useful to assign blame to a specific country for all of this starting, regardless of the source.
  • Where I live, a second "wave" is likely, even though it likely won’t be as devastating as the last. Specifically, we seem to be unable to adequately identify and track clusters of infections despite our efforts to do so, which means that we can expect positive test rates, hospitalizations, and deaths are to climb steadily upwards. I don’t expect the growth to be exponential, due to all the countermeasures, but it does seem like that we’ll have to re-implement restrictions which we previously lifted. Right now, that means capping the size of groups of people meeting, shutting down nighttime bars/discos (which sadly, tend to be filled with disinhibited drunk people with poor judgement and risk awareness in close proximity to each other in closed spaces for hours without masks), and reintroducing at least some travel restrictions. We also need to get our contact-tracing game up to speed or the fiction of this thing being "under control" is going to continue being wishful thinking for an unpleasantly long time.