As you are probably well informed and aware by now (unless you are literally living under a rock with no human contact–super lucky for you), we are currently living in scary and apocalyptic times. COVID-19, known as the disease caused by novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), is a newly discovered respiratory illness that has pretty much spread to all corners of the globe except Antarctica.
COVID-19 is a global threat to all of humankind, affecting hundreds and thousands of lives as we speak. Invisible to the naked eye and more powerful than the world’s economic and militaristic strength combined, this small non-living particle exposes how vulnerable humans really are. We really are our own downfall with our too- big-to-win egos and harnessed potential to obliterate our own planet. We are no match for mother nature.
It is just month three of the year 2020 and things are only getting started.
Around December 2019, preparations for the Lunar New Year was underway in China. The Lunar New Year marks the start of the lunar calendar and is China’s most important holiday where many migrant workers can finally return home to celebrate with family and loved ones. A massive migration event called Chunyun (traditional Chinese: 春運; simplified Chinese 春运) takes place about a few weeks prior to the New Year. It was estimated that China would rack up around 3 billion trips, making it the single most largest human migration event in the world. Around this time, an outbreak resembling Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) occurred in Wuhan, China. This of course quickly became a cause for concern not just for China, but the rest of the world.
Scientists later identified the SARS-like virus to be a novel coronavirus, now acknowledged as COVID-19. Coronaviruses are a subset of viruses characterized by their crown-like structures (or devilish crowns as I like to call them). These consist of spike proteins that attach perfectly onto receptors lining the cells of your lungs and respiratory tract, leading to a varied degree of respiratory symptoms from a dry cough, fever, fatigue, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and death.
As COVID-19 is a novel virus, nobody in the world is immune to it. Only those who recover from the virus and develop antibodies (immune proteins) against it can be considered immune. This is the entire premise of a vaccine: the introduction of a foreign compound (pieces of inactive virus or genetic template) to prepare the body’s front-line immune soldiers with ample ammunition (known as antibodies) to wipe out the foreign invaders. There are exceptions to this immunity rule of course, like when the virus mutates and re-infects you, causing all hell to break loose while your body tries to defeat the new enemy in disguise (P.S. this was how many people died in the “second wave” of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic).
Is there a cure? Right now, scientists across the globe are scrambling to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 at a pace like never before. Still, a major limitation for developing a vaccine, like everything else in life, is time. Therapeutics do not pop into the market in a couple of weeks or months. Believe it or not, the regular timeline from pre-clinical to clinical trials is roughly 10 to 15 years. A promising vaccine needs to be well-researched, backed up by valid experimental data, proven for safety and efficacy, approved by ethics committees, and mass-produced in large enough quantities before it can be jabbed into the arms or glutes of a person. For now, many hospitals are using existing drugs that effectively treated other viral infections to see if they might stand a chance against COVID-19.
Dr. Li Wenliang was a Chinese physician at Wuhan Central Hospital who initially warned his colleagues about the new SARS-like outbreak circulating in Wuhan in December 2019. A few weeks later, he was shunned and admonished by Chinese authorities for producing “false claims” and spreading rumours. A month later, in February, Dr. Li Wenliang succumbed to the very illness he had been warning about. The sudden death of Li provoked public grief and outrage against the government, starting an online movement for freedom of speech. The hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech gained over 2 million views and over 5,500 posts before it was removed by Chinese censors. Li was proclaimed as an “ordinary hero” and a national icon of the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating the importance of transparency and freedom of speech.
Unfortunately, the true number of reported cases and deaths (and the nature of the outbreak) was heavily downplayed in China. That is, until more and more whistleblowers followed in the steps of heroic Dr. Li Wenliang to spread the news far and as quickly as the virus was spreading to different parts of the world. It soon became undeniably apparent that the healthcare system and society itself was overwhelmed and that measures needed to be taken fast in order to stop its spread.
On March 11, 2020, The World Health Organization (WHO)’s Director-General declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. The number of cases outside of China increased 13-fold, with over 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 deaths.
Now, two weeks later on March 23, these numbers have grown exponentially: 381,521 cases and 16,553 deaths worldwide. China managed to stabilize their curve, with fewer local outbreaks, most of which are back-flow cases coming in from affected countries. With about 81,000 cases and about 3000 deaths, China’s peak has finally started to flatten thanks to intense authoritarian action, the incredible allocation of healthcare resources along with the collective action taken by the military and government to quarantine, test, and treat millions of people at unprecedented levels.
China stalled the spread of the virus and gave the world some time to prepare (*cue boss battle music*). Unfortunately, world leaders lagged behind, resulting in catastrophic events like healthcare system collapses, plunging economies, mass unemployment, hysteria, along with many, many preventable deaths. According to the WHO, Europe is now the new epicenter of the outbreak.
The hardest hit country to date is Italy. As of March 23rd, Italy has 63,927 cases and 6,077 deaths, surpassing China by a significant margin.
I will end with a quote made by the the WHO Director-General on March 11, 2020 that rings true to this day:
“The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can do the same – it’s whether they will
And most of all, people.
We’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable.”