Social solidarity vs COVID-19
COVID-19, now the official name of the coronavirus causing a serious respiratory disease outbreak, is the latest virus threatening to become a pandemic (worldwide epidemic). But worse than the virus itself are the misinformation and paranoia caused by humans.
In times like these we need to think of One Health, which considers the interactions of the health of humans, of the environment, and of nonhuman animals. We started the decade with all kinds of challenges to this notion of One Health. Think of Taal, the eruption of which was a gigantic paroxysmal “cough” that wreaked havoc on humans and nonhuman animals.
Humans form the most complicated part of One Health—nearly 8 billion of us now, many living in very densely populated megacities. A graphic example: UP Diliman has an estimated 70,000 residents, a number that, during the day, swells even larger with students (25,000 enrolees), 2,000 faculty and 2,000 staff. Which means administrators have to take every disease outbreak seriously.Humans complicate matters, too, because we are highly mobile, with viruses traveling as fast as human hosts do. The 1918 flu epidemic spread so quickly because its carriers were soldiers returning home from World War I. In the end, that pandemic killed more people than the two world wars.
Humans are thinking animals, which is good, but we also run risks by overthinking. There’s something about us that wants the cheap thrills of sensational news, now made worse by the internet and social media, with the speed of dissemination of news described as viral. For example, there’s misinformation going around about pets transmitting COVID-19. Not true; in fact, pets can’t transmit any respiratory viruses to people. I would worry more about rabies transmission, which you can prevent by having your pets vaccinated.
Irrational fears blind us to simple prevention. The most effective way of preventing yourself from getting COVID-19 is frequent hand-washing with soap and water for 20 seconds, which is equivalent to humming “Happy Birthday” two times.
Humans look for scapegoats when there is a crisis. It’s a panic response to look for people to blame, and this time around, it’s the Chinese, forgetting that while the outbreak did start in China, Wuhan to be specific, it’s now spreading through people of different nationalities.
We forget, too, that the Chinese have since put Wuhan and 11 other cities in the province of Hubei under lockdown, affecting 57 million people. In effect, China helped to protect the world, at great cost to themselves. One of our faculty stranded in Wuhan where he is doing postgraduate work emailed me saying the university there was providing international students with all their meals, for free, and have started them on online classes.
There are other stories of social solidarity that are not publicized enough. The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, had two heartwarming videos. One was CCTV footage of a man showing up at a police station in Wuhan, bringing in 10 boxes of masks, thanking the police at reception and then quickly leaving. Two policemen chase after him but he runs off, turning around briefly and waving. The two police are “helpless” and end up saluting him.
Another posted video shows medical personnel in their “astronaut suits” dancing with patients to lift their spirits. We forget how sick people aren’t just fighting infections but also depression.
There’s not enough publicity either about the more than 500 medical personnel in Hubei who have been infected through caring for COVID-19 patients. That includes Li Wenliang, the physician who first sounded the alert on social media about a possible outbreak, and who was reprimanded by superiors. Li has since died, sparking mourning and protests in social media, with netizens calling for more freedom of speech.
Vigilance is important, but we need more social solidarity, guided by science. For example, when we hoard masks, which are not useful in low-risk environments, we deprive people who do need them for protection: those already infected, and those working in hospitals.
When the Philippine government announced that it was considering the use of SEA Games dorms in New Clark City (Capas, Tarlac) to quarantine people for observation of possible COVID-19 infection, residents, including the mayor, protested. Fortunately, in a gallant gesture, the mayor eventually retracted, explaining that residents had not been informed ahead of time.
The enemy is the virus, not people. And the solutions lie with human solidarity.
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