The world economy has ground to a halt. The travel industry numbers show it. They're devastating. The Wall Street Journal reported that sixty percent of worldwide airline fleets are grounded, hotel occupancy in the US is down 68 percent, and there's been a 93 percent drop in airline ticket sales for future trips. This is unsurvivable. And with most of the country still under stay-at-home orders, the time is ticking, not just for these businesses, but legions of others. In three-to-four weeks, scores of businesses will close for good. In four-to-six weeks, the butcher's bill could be higher for American enterprise. Yet, with no vaccine, social distancing is key. These orders were done to curb the spread and prevent our hospitals from being overrun.
Right now, we appear to be seeing stabilization rates. A good chunk of the nation, around 29 states, plans to initiate procedures to re-open, albeit slowly. The risk here is the second wave of infections, but the nation cannot remain closed for over a year, which is what some people are suggesting. So, for a virus that isn't as lethal as say Ebola, why did we have to lock it down? Why didn't we do so for the SARS or MERS outbreaks? FiveThirtyEight broke it down:
If the name didn’t give it away, SARS was caused by a virus similar to the one that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, but it didn’t have nearly the same impact. This is in spite of having a relatively high case fatality rate of 9.6 percent, compared to the current estimate for COVID-19: 1.4 percent.
Another respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, has an even higher case fatality rate of 34 percent. But it’s also led to fewer deaths than what we’ve already seen from COVID-19: As of January 2020, there have been 2,519 cases of MERS and 866 associated deaths from the infection.
SARS and MERS didn’t cause the same level of devastation that COVID-19 has largely because they aren’t as easily transmitted. Rather than moving by casual, person-to-person transmission, SARS and MERS spread from much closer contact, between family members or health care workers and patients (or, in the case of MERS, from camels to people directly). These viruses also aren’t spread through presymptomatic transmission, meaning infected people don’t spread it before they have symptoms. Once people got sick, they typically stayed home or were hospitalized, making it harder for them to spread the virus around.
As for Swine Flu, FiveThirtyEight noted that Swine Flu spread easily, though it was not as contagious as COVID-19 and not nearly as deadly, preventing our health care system from being overwhelmed:
“The 2009 pandemic, the H1N1 swine flu, that [disease] spread very, very well, but the fatality rate was quite low, and that’s the reason why it wasn’t dubbed as a particularly serious pandemic,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, in a February livestream.
Even with such a low case fatality rate, the swine flu had a high overall death toll due in part to how easily it spread. With an even higher case fatality rate and perhaps even a higher rate of transmission, COVID-19 has required drastic measures to prevent its spread.
What about Ebola, a disease with a mortality rate that can reach as high as 90 percent? Again, a highly lethal virus, perhaps the deadliest on this list, but blessedly hard to contract. It doesn't spread like the flu:
Similar to MERS and SARS, Ebola is not easily transmittable. Infected people don’t spread the virus until they start showing symptoms, and even then the virus is hard to catch because it is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluid of an infected person, like blood, sweat, and urine, rather than through the kind of particles produced when someone sneezes or speaks. Unless you’re nursing patients (either at home or in a hospital setting) or tending to their body after they’ve died, it’s unlikely you’d acquire the infection.
Ebola also tends to cause pretty severe and identifiable symptoms, such as fever and fatigue followed by vomiting and diarrhea. Not only can infected people not spread the virus until they’re sick, but once they become sick, they’ll know it.
“If you want to see illnesses which are controllable, they all have transmission very much tied to symptoms, and this includes SARS and Ebola,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “If you’re in an Ebola zone, you can be pretty sure whether or not the person you’re talking to is a potentially risky contact.”
This makes it easier to isolate infected individuals and protect health care workers to limit the spread, which is what occurred in the 2014-2016 outbreak. It’s a striking difference from COVID-19, which we know can be spread without any symptoms at all, and even when people get sick, some people might have symptoms so mild that they’re not sure they have COVID-19 in the first place.
We all know that viruses adapt and mutate. Forget nuclear Iran; the virus poses as our true existential enemy. This too shall pass. A vaccine will be developed, and it may be common to get both a flu and COVID shot in the future. Temperatures might be taken prior to entering some locations until then, along with other measures to ensure social distancing is still being practiced. How restaurants will do this is beyond me. Yes, in some states they can re-open, but probably at reduced capacity. They're still taking a hit, but hopefully, that extra cash flow, coupled with some establishment's transitioning to take-out, can help them tread water better. This is still going to be a slow process back to normal, folks, but we'll get through it.
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