The Mad Science column sig

In the past few weeks the situation with COVID-19 seems to have spiraled from a distant issue into an unreal worldwide disaster. Travel has been banned, UK and other schools have switched to remote teaching, and now people are buying up all the toilet paper in stores.

For those who personally don’t know anyone infected with the virus, all the new changes may seem like an overreaction, one propagated by media hype and public fear. Though I would agree this is true for the toilet paper thing, COVID-19 should not be dealt with lightly. This virus is unique in its ability to spread and cause disease, and the measures our schools and countries are taking are not overreactions.

To see why COVID-19 is such a big deal, I think it’s helpful to examine it in the light of two other diseases: SARS and influenza.

From 2002 to 2003, a different coronavirus caused a disease known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which led to an epidemic that began like our current one. Like COVID-19, SARS started in China, spread to other countries, and claimed many lives. But despite having a lower death rate than SARS, COVID-19 has already proven to be more serious.

In the span of about a year, SARS affected 26 countries, infected over 8,000 people, and killed 774. In just the past few months, COVID-19 has spread to well over 100 countries, infected over 190,000 people, and killed over 7,500.

One reason our governments and institutions have taken such radical action to combat COVID-19 is that it spreads so efficiently. SARS was a more aggressive disease, with more obvious symptoms that made it easily identifiable and stopped. The COVID-19 virus, on the other hand, can spread almost secretly through mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic individuals. This rapid spread, coupled with a risk of death in the elderly or those with underlying conditions, makes COVID-19 like a more well-known disease: the flu.

Every year in the U.S. alone, the flu kills thousands. The CDC estimates that during the 2018-2019 influenza season, the flu resulted in 35.5 million cases, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths in the U.S. alone. As the coronavirus hype grew, many people compared COVID-19 to the flu, making the point that way more people die from flu than have died from COVID-19.

This is an important point to make, but we shouldn’t downplay COVID-19. Let’s be clear: the flu is bad. That’s why doctors emphasize so strongly that you get your flu vaccine each year. But flu plus COVID-19 is way worse, and this coronavirus has the potential to become just as bad as the flu. It spreads faster and is estimated to be more deadly. The only difference is that the flu is already here. It’s in the population, and we deal with it coming back each year. COVID-19 cases only number in the thousands now, but the fear is that if we don’t contain the disease, it could overwhelm hospitals and become a seasonal virus on top of flu, revisiting us and overwhelming hospitals every year.

All these changes, bans, and social distancing rules really suck, but we must remember the sacrifices we make now are not just for ourselves, but for our whole community, for the stability of our healthcare system, and for our future. Until we have vaccinations and antiviral treatments to help us combat this disease, the best things we can do are cooperate, keep our hands clean, avoid contact if we can, and please, leave some toilet paper rolls for everyone else.