OPINION: This is a bigger deal than you may think. Media outlets have been accused of over-sensationalizing the coronavirus pandemic, but perhaps they are just reporting things as they are. Maybe they are coming from a reasonable place.
We have had decades to study the common cold and the flu, but this strain of coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, is so new—the amount of literature on it pales in comparison to the former. What do we really know about it?
Perhaps some people are not so concerned because they see news reports of others who have recovered after being infected with COVID-19. But at this point, how can we know if full recovery is actually possible? What if infection by COVID-19 causes some underlying long-term health effects—or worse, irreversible damage—that we do not yet know about?
For all we know, COVID-19 could become the new commonplace sickness, joining the ranks of the common cold and the flu. When we get sick, we often say, “I caught a cold,” or “I caught the flu...” Soon, we could be saying “I caught coronavirus” like it is a normal occurrence. This is potentially another endemic coronavirus on top of the existing four; one that can cause severe lung infections... That would be a chilling reality, even if science later determines that COVID-19 is thoroughly conquerable.
"This is going to be with us for some time—it's endemic in human populations and not going to go away without a vaccine," said infectious-disease expert Amesh Adalja at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security.
Some preliminary studies have suggested coronavirus can cause pulmonary fibrosis, or permanent scarring of the lung tissue, that leaves the affected chronically out of breath. Even scarier are the comparisons made between coronavirus and AIDS—some research shows that the former can damage the immune system similarly as the latter.
“Based on the results, I think the most important thing now is to take measures at an early stage of the disease to protect patients’ lungs from irreversible fibrosis,” said Dr. Zhiyong, the director or Zhongshan Hospital’s intensive care unit in Wuhan.
On estimate, an individual with coronavirus can infect two to three others—that’s a reproduction rate almost double that of the seasonal flu. It also has a fatality rate of around 2%, which is about 20 times higher than any of the seasonal flu lineages in current circulation.
Clearly, this is not like the SARS outbreak of 2003. Such was an earlier coronavirus that had wiped out 770 people in China during its prominence. It took about 20 months for a vaccine to be developed for testing in humans; however, by then, the outbreak had already been contained by basic public health measures like setting up quarantines and raising awareness for hand hygiene.
Which brings me to this point: I don’t think it’s overboard for governments, organizations, and companies to mandate their employees to work from home as a public health measure. Canada has recently reported over 100 cases of novel coronavirus infections, and while that number is small in comparison to other countries like China, Italy or South Korea, it wouldn’t hurt Canadian companies to impose stricter community-based measures.
People are still going into work; to offices, to schools… they’re still commuting on the TTC and the GO, going to concert venues, attending Raptors games... Whether Canada is at high risk or not, if we truly want to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, perhaps it’s time to get more serious about crowd control. We could start by rolling out work-from-home protocols.
Top companies like Google and Microsoft have recommended their employees work remotely if their positions allow for it. Twitter and Shopify have taken it a step further by making it mandatory for all of their employees worldwide to work from home, hoping that the move "will help play a part in reducing the spread of the virus, and hopefully lessen its potentially huge burden on the healthcare system."
When it comes to employers and businesses, the Government of Canada recommends “implementing staggered work hours to reduce crowding on public transit during peak commuting hours and in large workplaces during normal workday hours.” If remote work is a valid option, why not skip all of those steps and just go straight to enforcing work-from-home protocols?
No, it’s not going to stop people from gathering in public—the Government of Canada makes the point that “the feasibility of avoiding crowds is uncertain as crowding occurs in large cities daily.” However, if more employees worked from home, it could reduce the frequency that crowding occurs, and that could be a powerful way to limit the spread of infections. It could also lessen the strain on our healthcare resources, which are at risk of overload.
Only recently did the NBA announce it would be suspending the current season until further notice due to Rudy Gobert, the center for the Utah Jazz, testing positive for coronavirus. Coachella organizers and several musicians have decided to postpone (or cancel) their events due to similar concerns. Some countries like Italy have even imposed nationwide lockdowns.
Canadian companies should start implementing measures to limit crowds as much as possible, and that starts with encouraging companies to make employees work from home where it is possible. The priority should be to keep the number of infections small as it is now and to contain the spread before it gets worse.
Epidemiologists suggest that eight weeks could be an effective period of time for arresting the outbreak. I’m not sure of the economic implications of that, but surely it’s worth considering if it means increasing public safety.
Photo by Jay Woodworth
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