COVID-19 is a Trial Run

COVID-19 has killed a lot of people, especially in the US. According to as of today (August 19) we stand at almost 800,000 deaths worldwide, with the US accounting for over 175,000 of them. There have been around 22.5 million infected, with 5.7 million of those in the US. And that’s just confirmed cases; with under-reporting, real case counts are likely to be much higher.

Looking at the mortality rate hardly paints an accurate picture of the damage this disease does. In those that haven’t died we’re hearing anecdotal evidence of people being sick for months or having permanent heart and lung damage even if they showed no visible symptoms. I think we’re likely to see higher medical costs and lower life expectancy for years to come. That the US accounts for a full quarter of total cases (likely more because of under-reporting) means the US will bear a significant percentage of those future costs relative to other countries. There are economic costs as well; because our closures have extended so long, they’ve caused many businesses to shutter and many people to lose jobs. No matter how you look at it, the US is weaker as a country than it’s been in a very long time.

And yet, COVID is far from a worst case scenario as far as viruses go.

SARS and MERS both have significantly higher mortality rates, as does Ebola which kills about half of the people it infects. However, none of those have spread very well. The trifecta of (1) short incubation periods, (2) low numbers of asymptomatic carriers, and (3) high mortality rates (2 and 3 are likely correlated) seems to be a poor combination for widespread infection. What makes COVID so much better at spreading is just how few people it kills, and in how many people it’s quite mild. The longer asymptomatic period for many people and total lack of symptoms for a few mean that carriers lack the feedback that they’re infected, giving them more chances to spread the disease.

In other words, Typhoid Mary was so devastating precisely because she lacked symptoms. We have a whole country of Typhoid Marys now.

Other countries have solved this problem by aggregating information about positive tests and population movement, allowing them to predict a positive test before symptoms necessitate a need to get tested (if they ever even manifest). This of course is what we call contact tracing, which the US does not do because of its invasiveness. However, invasive as it is, it’s hard to argue with its effectiveness.

Other countries have also been willing to close borders and mandate business closures, mask usage, and distancing at a level the US has not been able to attain. That’s also been quite effective.

Now, hypothetical time: imagine a virus similar to COVID but with a longer incubation period and a higher mortality rate. You wouldn’t have to bump either very much; a doubled mortality rate (I won’t cite COVID’s as the number is contentious, but let’s say it’s a single-digit rate north of 1%, so doubling will be a number north of 2%) plus a few extra days of incubation time on average would likely kill an exponentially higher number of people. We should actually be grateful that COVID-19 is so mild! With a different virus might be burying millions of corpses in the US alone by now.

But I think it’s only a matter of time before we are facing that virus, and we are burying that many corpses. Evolution is just a large number of dice rolls; as we see a higher world population with more people traveling internationally than ever before, the odds begin to get a little more stacked against us because the dice are just rolled more often. And when a dice roll produces something bad, it has that many more chances to spread. I’m not even going to touch engineered viruses here, but that’s a thing that may be on the horizon as well.

COVID was a warning shot. But the next shot might not be a warning shot, and it might not be so forgiving to a country that feels it has the luxury of such silly indulgences as debating the inconvenience of wearing a tiny piece of cloth over a tiny percentage of ones body (if it even has the manufacturing strength to produce enough masks in the first place). “But the government telling me to do this thing infringes on my individual freedom!” you say. The next virus may not care that you feel bad by having to wear a mask, or that it’s inconvenient to be able to go wherever you want in your city at all times for a few weeks or months. It may just kill you and a bunch of people you care about anyway. Viruses are like that; they don’t care about your freedom. They aren’t an enemy you can shoot with your stockpile of guns. America’s notion of enemies is dated: the government, border-crossing Mexicans, or dark-skinned Muslims in a faraway land where as Disney says, “they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. American’s notion of enemies doesn’t include a tiny pathogen that you cannot even see.

And that really is the lesson we need to take away from all of this. We are now at war, and that war is against things like tiny pathogens. Or clever Russians who know how to manipulate how you think by presenting you with a steady stream of innocuous-looking articles that don’t seem bad but are secretly chock full of misinformation that changes how you think without you even realizing. Or any number of things. A ton of Americans are geared up for a fake hypothetical war to defend their land from the government (and the entire US military if you can believe it). And our military is all geared up for proxy wars in faraway lands over oil deals. But those kinds of wars aren’t real wars we’re facing, and we have few defenses against the actual wars going on right now. In those real wars and against those real enemies we are piddling and defenseless. America is weak, and our chances of survival depend on adapting and rising to the occasion. Without that, defeat is the only possible outcome, and the only question is when that will happen.