Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Science, Headlines and Impact: Living in times of coronavirus

A person washes their hands with disinfectant soap, in Heiloo, The Netherlands, 04 March 2020. Authorities worldwide have advised people to take basic measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, including washing hands regularly with soap, sneezing into the elbow pit and immediately disposing of used tissue papers. EPA-EFE/KOEN VAN WEEL

You’ve seen the headlines and heard the concerns: Covid-19 is fast-moving across the globe. We give you a snapshot of what you need to know about the coronavirus disease and what you should ignore  – as in ‘drinking bleach has never been a good idea’.  

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Viruses, where do they come from

What are viruses? “Viruses are entities that infect cellular life”, says Professor of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, Marilyn J Roossinck in The Conversation. They are like parasites, that need “a host for replication”.

Ah. Roossinck explains that new viruses appear because they jump from one species to another.

Is that it? Well, The Week adds that there could also be the intentional or accidental release of a manmade pathogen. “A laptop captured from ISIS in 2014 contained instructions on how to weaponize plague bacteria.”

**mild panic attack** Don’t. The laptop was captured before anything could happen.

Phew. Then what happens? After jumping species, the virus goes through a process of adjustment to its new host. And while this happens, the host is trying to understand what the heck this invasion is about – kicking the immune system into overdrive. “This is what makes the host sick,” says Roossinck.

And coronavirus? First, coronaviruses are “a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans”.

Okay… Those specific viruses can cause respiratory infections. Covid-19 is one of the coronavirus diseases, which sparked in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Covid-19 stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019.

A jump from one species to another? Indeed. Daily Maverick’s Don Pinnock and Tiara Walters broke the news that the coronavirus had a strong connection with the Earth’s most threatened mammal, the pangolin: “It is probable that the virus originated in bats, with pangolins being the vector into humans,” they said.

Is it deadly? It can be. As of 3 March 2020, the WHO said that the “global death rate of the new coronavirus is 3.4 percent”. (In the world’s most tested country, South Korea, the death rate is around 0.6%)

What does that mean? One of the most dangerous pathogens on the planet, the Ebola virus, causes Ebola haemorrhagic fever that has a 50 to 90% mortality rate, says Mental Floss. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed between 50 million and 100 million, “or about 3 percent of the global population”. It had an estimated 2-3% death rate.

Oh… The issue with Covid-19 is that it is more infectious than, for example, SARS – although SARS was deadlier.

Where are we now? Covid-19 has now spread to 97 countries. Back home, as Ferial Haffajee reported, “ ‘Don’t cause panic,’ Mkhize implored South Africans (…) The health minister said that while South Africa’s health system had many problems, it also had a good history of dealing with epidemic outbreaks”.

Explain: Covid-19

A few things you need to know: the virus can cause pneumonia. “Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties,” says The Guardian. You might be infected but not know about it as symptoms develop “from 2 to 14 days after exposure”. Although there haven’t been enough studies done yet, it seems that contagiousness can be up to 29 days. The WHO explains that the virus tends to spread via cough and sneeze droplets.

You should keep yourself informed about the virus but beware of some fables spread on social media. You can read in Spotlight a detailed list of Covid-19 myth-busters. The WHO also advises:

  • Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body won’t kill the novel coronavirus;
  • Downing a bottle of bleach is never a good idea;
  • Rinsing your nose with saline doesn’t help protect you from the virus; and,
  • There is no evidence that eating garlic can help prevent infection.

What you can do

From the World Health Organisation and The New York Times:

Wash your hands. Grab the soap and take your time to let the foam cover your fingers and the back of your hands. No soap? Make sure to have a hand sanitiser close by.

And if your hands are not clean, avoid touching your face… and others’. Viruses can last on objects for up to 24 hours, so washing regularly is a must.

As the New York Times notes, “the handshake is on hold”, replaced, for now, by the “foot tap”; meanwhile, in Israel, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged a greeting of namaste instead of a handshake”.

If possible, avoid large crowds. Because proximity is often how viruses spread, try to give people, and yourself, some space.

Step away from people coughing. “The virus seems to spread through droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze. They can land in the mouth or nose of a person nearby — within six feet — or possibly be inhaled into the lungs”, says the New York Times.

Need to sneeze? Cover your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or tissue (not with your hands).

What about a mask? WHO says that masks should rather be used by people who are infected with the virus or taking care of infected people, not healthy people. So hold on before you buy one.

Do not share food, toothbrushes, towels, cutlery, glasses etc.

Feeling sick and not sure what to do? Call the public hotline set up by the Department of Health, at 0800 029 999; it operates 24 hours.

In numbers

0.1: The average percentage of people who die from seasonal flu strains vs an average of 3.4% for people infected with Covid-19

102,242: The number of Covid-19 cases around the world, as of 07 March 2020

57,624: The number of people who have so far recovered from being infected with Covid-19, says Worldometers

Mighty words

“Well, I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number. Now, and this is just my hunch, and — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this.” –President Donald J Trump

“Protect yourself and your community from coronavirus with common sense precautions: wash your hands, stay home when sick and listen @CDCgov and local health authorities. Save the masks for health care workers. Let’s stay calm, listen to the experts, and follow the science.” – Former President Barack Obama. ML

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