Tough choices around coronavirus

Policy versus personal choices

Each issue involves the choice made by policy makers and the choice made by individuals. For example, consider the issue of kids and their schools in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The policy choice is whether to shut down schools or do remote education or continue to operate schools as normal. The personal choice for parents is whether to send their children to school. The responses to the two related choices need not necessarily align. For instance, a district may decide that the best policy might be to keep schools open in an area, but they allow parents to choose whether or not to send their children in. In that area, one parent may have a child with asthma, and may determine that the best choice is to keep the child home. Another parent in the area is a single parent doctor, who needs to send their kids to school to go to their job. The key thing to realize is that there is no one size fits all solution. The right thing to do is what works best for each case.

The basics

  • The corona virus attacks humans and makes them sick.
  • Since this is a new virus in humans, most people do not have immunity when first exposed to it.
  • Currently, the virus is known to have mild impact on most people, except high risk individuals — particularly people of older age, and also people with chronic conditions including immune system disorders, diabetes and respiratory illness such as asthma. Caution is also advised for pregnant women, though the exact impact is not known. This study shows the effect of age, coexisting disorders, etc. on a group of patients in China.
  • Every few times the virus goes from one person to another, it mutates — changes its genetic structure — slightly. The more it mutates, the more likely it is to transform into something that may change its behavior patterns. For instance, a newer strain might attack some classes of people more severely. This mutation is important to consider. Some people are of the opinion that it is a good idea to develop immunity early on by being exposed earlier — but it is possible that a new strain emerges later that can attack the same person. Also, by more people letting the virus infect them (either due to disregard of suggested precautions, or intentionally trying to get infected), we are spreading the virus more rapidly and increasing the chance of mutation and possibly stronger variants of the virus.
  • Another reason to minimize spread is that the more it spreads, the more at risk individuals are going to develop serious disease and more of them will, unfortunately, die. By taking steps to minimize the rate of spread, we prevent deaths and severe illness in our community.
  • Yet another reason to minimize spread: The research community around the world is working on studying the virus, trying to develop vaccines, treatments, etc. One estimate states that a treatment may come in months, but a vaccine is likely further out. There is a race between researchers trying to find a vaccine or treatment strain of the virus has a vaccine or treatment, and the virus mutating itself to generate strains that have no treatment. Minimizing the spread buys humans time to win the race. A much weaker factor is that there is some chance that warmer temperatures might render the virus inactive. If this turns out to be the case, minimizing spread till the temperatures turn warmer could buy us additional time.

How to minimize spread

For all the reasons listed above, we want to minimize the spread and the rate of spread.

  • avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • stay home when we are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • People showing symptoms of Covid-19, or those giving extended care to them in a hospital or at home should use face masks to avoid spreading the disease to others. (The CDC also recommends that other non symptomatic people should not use masks to prevent risk of Covid-19. This is important because the benefit of doing that far outweighs the damage done due to the current global shortage of masks, gloves, gowns, etc. for health workers.)
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty. (This is critical for infected people to minimize spreading, but also important to prevent getting infected if you are not — or spreading it if you are infected and don’t know that you are infected).
  • avoid touching our nose, eyes and mouth
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

Prevalence

Some of these preventive choices to minimize spread and chances of infection are affected by the prevalence of the virus in our region. We can track the prevalence in our area through a number of dashboards:

Policy Choices

Currently, across the world, policy decisions are being made based on one of two conflicting viewpoints.

And finally

Remember that, like all the challenges we have endured in the past, this too, will end. Life will return to normal for most of us. How and when it ends, and how much damage it causes and leaves behind, will be driven by the choices we make today — individually, and as a community. I sure hope we make the right ones.

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