Coronavirus: It’s going viral as we speak

At the time I am writing to you, scientists are hunched over test tubes and Petri dishes in a desperate race against time, against the coronavirus. They are searching for cures, for a vaccine. Nurses and doctors in gowns and face-masks are advising patients, testing for the virus, and attending the sick. Workers at fast food chains and groceries, and at delivery services are working to keep the supply chain and bring food to our tables. They all do so knowing the risks to themselves and to their families. Local, state, and the federal government are scrambling to find solutions that would soften the impact of the virus and of the war against the virus. Administrators and doctors at my own hospital are preparing for the worst.

It seems like an ocean of time ago (it was two weeks, to be exact), a patient of mine, a skeptic, asked me if all of this was even real. He asked, “Even if it’s real, isn’t the cure (social-distancing and shutdown of the economy, he meant) worse than the disease?” I told the skeptic about my Italian friend, Matteo, a physician who lives in Verona, Italy–a beautiful city just miles away from the epicenter of the Italian viral outbreak. I told the skeptic that Matteo described the situation as “This is a Catastrophe!” And Matteo isn’t a man to use such words lightly. I also told the skeptic that in Israel, the government had decided to put the army in charge of the situation, a sign of the severity of the outbreak. And that two towering hotels in Tel Aviv, and a huge underground parking lot were converted into makeshift hospitals, all in anticipation for waves of patients in critical condition. “We are next in line,” I told the skeptic, “it is just a matter of time until the virus finds its way to us.”

It is also a matter of mathematics and exponential growth. It is catching. It’s going viral!

And a matter of buying time. Epidemiologists and public health officials call it “flattening the curve.” Here is what it means: if we let the epidemic take its course, there will be waves of new patients, many of them in critical condition, that would flood our hospitals like a tsunami. Our hospitals aren’t ready for this type of an attack. There isn’t enough breathing machines for the extremely sick, not even enough face masks and gowns to protect the medical teams. Nurses and doctors would get sick, and there would be nobody to take care of anyone. But if social distancing works, and it had worked in other places, the spread of the disease would be slower, allowing medical personnel and hospitals to prepare. You can’t win a war without weapons and ammunition. You can’t fight an epidemic empty-handed. It would take time to build the system up to capacity. Social-distancing is the tool to do it. It is painful personally. It has a huge economic impact on individuals and on society. But it is the only tool we have right now to save many, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.

Fear is futile except if it is a driving force for positive action. The positive action you are asked to take is social-distancing!

Here is somewhat optimistic thoughts (and things to pray for):

While the personal toll is immense, and we are all at risk, we, as a species, have been at this junction before. Think Spanish Flu, plague, cholera, Ebola, AIDS, smallpox. Coronavirus will not defeat humanity.

Social distancing could decrease the number of people affected by the disease, or at least buy us time until we are better prepared.

With time, more people are exposed to the virus and many will become immune to it resulting in “herd immunity.” In other words, if everyone in the herd around you is already immune, you won’t get infected.

The virus could spontaneously mutate to a less aggressive form (it could become more aggressive too, but this section is meant to lift up your spirit, you heard enough pessimism).

A cure could be found; a vaccine could be developed.

The human spirit is strong. We are social animals with unlimited ability to invent and overcome. We are creatures that fight despair with newly found hope and togetherness. The other night, I saw a video of a dog walked by a drone (his owner, in self-imposed social distancing, stayed at home and watched her dog from afar). And in another video that went viral (the other viral!), I saw many Italians standing, each on his, or her own porch, singing together into the night, their voices carry a feeling of loneliness, but also an intense sense of togetherness and hope.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Aspirus and the author of “Is Life Too Long? Essays about Life, Death and Other Trivial Matters.” Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com.