The Simpler Option

Growing up, my brother and I slept in twin beds in a shared bedroom, an arrangement that worked well for the most part.  But both of us suffered from seasonal allergies, he more than I, and as little boys, those caused a few summertime disagreements between us.

As we were trying to fall asleep, I’d often hear my brother sniffing repeatedly in a vain effort to stop his nose from running.  I’d try to block out the sound, even burying my head under my pillow, but to no avail.

“Blow your nose!” I’d hiss.  Another annoying sniff would be my answer.

“Stop sniffing or I’ll smack you!” I’d threaten after a few more minutes.  “Just blow your nose!”  Another sniff would invariably follow, and then a few more for good measure.  My brother was stubborn, if nothing else.

So in a rage, I’d bound out of bed and follow through on my promise.  He’d yell angrily and punch back, and we’d end up rolling and thrashing on his bed until my father arrived to administer a small rat-a-tat-tat on our backsides with the short, leather strap kept for such occasions.

These episodes always ended with my brother and me, both crying, back under the covers, and my  father warning us there better be no more fighting.  “And blow your nose!” he’d order my brother, handing him a tissue from the box on the table between our beds.  Chastened, my brother would do as he was told.

Falling asleep a while later, I’d wonder resentfully why he’d never comply when I told him the same thing.  So much anguish and pain would have been spared us both if he had chosen the simpler option.

“He’s so stupid!” I’d tell myself.  Things seemed simple when we were little boys.

But almost seventy years later, I find myself wondering the same thing about our population at large with respect to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s been afflicting us over and over and over again since late 2019. Viruses like these evolve their genetic codes over time through mutations or recombination during replication of their structure, and COVID-19 is no exception.

SARS-CoV-2 variations have been grouped by medical trackers into four broad categories: variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern, and variants of high consequence.  The latest VOC lineages are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, with a newer one on the horizon, BA.2.75.  Epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists tell us these variants demonstrate transmissibility increases; more severe disease manifestation, as evidenced by increased hospitalizations or deaths; a marked reduction in protection from antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination; and a reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.

Sounds clear-cut to me—we’re becoming increasingly less-able to withstand the onslaught even as the viruses are mutating to avoid our defences.

Based on everything I’ve read from reputable sources—i.e. those whose mission is to present public health information based on evidence, as opposed to those who take a more relaxed approach based on political considerations—there are several practical measures we could be taking to mitigate the effects of the metamorphosing virus across the population.  Such measures require a degree of self-discipline and consideration for others, however—attributes that, so far, have been missing en masse.  Perhaps that’s why we have been singularly unsuccessful in reducing the disease to more a manageable endemic status.

Such simple mitigations have been grouped by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into three types: personal controls, administrative controls, and engineered controls.  The first type requires each of us to assume responsibility for our own health by obtaining vaccinations and keeping them up-to-date, masking when in large groups indoors, testing when symptoms appear, informing those with whom we may have been in contact when we test positive, and isolating for ten days once afflicted.

The second type includes such measures as government mandating of up-to-date vaccinations for people wishing to attend certain venues and activities where others gather, and mandating mask-wearing for those same venues and activities.  These measures do not force people to get vaccinated or wear a mask, but they do establish those actions as prerequisites for participation.  And that only serves to protect the general welfare, surely a primary objective for any elected government. 

Enacting minimum requirements for paid sick-leave among the work-force would be another example of how administrative measures could work to reduce the spread of the disease.  Also, a greater commitment to communicating information about such measures to the public, coupled with more effective methods of doing so, are surely measures any responsible government would want to implement.  No?

The third type, engineered controls, would include, among other things, improving ventilation in buildings where the public gathers; providing ample supplies of testing kits and masks to public agencies; maintaining and improving the supply chains that keep our economy running smoothly; and planning intelligently to forestall the inevitable rise of future pandemic diseases.

Which situation is worse, I wonder?  Is it one where an economy slows precipitously because small businesses have to shut down for want of customers objecting to vaccine and mask mandates?  Or is it one where an economy slows ruinously because too many customers, not to mention employees, of businesses, hospitals, and other essential services are absent due to sickness?

Both are bad, but the first less so, if the simple mitigations described earlier could be put in place to ensure a shorter period of deprivation for all of us.  We could take advantage of that option if enough of us would decide to adopt the preventive measures that will forestall an endless repetition of SARS-CoV-2 surges, one after the other ad infinitum.

It’s unfortunate that too many of us, like my stubborn brother so many years ago, will not follow the simpler option.  The long-term consequences of their intransigence will be far worse for our collective well-being than the short-term pain inflicted by that leather strap on our tender buttocks was for my brother and me.

Virus Redux

In 1993, the film Groundhog Day made its debut, a comedy about a cynical weatherman who is forced to relive his day over and over in an endless loop while covering the Punxsutawney Phil event on 2 February.

Punxsutawney Phil. of course, is the legendary groundhog who emerges from his den on that date every year, and if he can see his shadow, it means we’ll be having six more weeks of winter.  If the groundhog casts no shadow, it’s a harbinger of early spring.

Over the years there have been several generations of Punxsutawney Phil, just as there have been for some of his less-famous but esteemed brethren—Wiarton Willie, Jimmy the Groundhog, Dunkirk Dave, and Staten Island Chuck, to name a few.

There are two things I find surprising about this whole groundhog mania.  The first is that so many people appear to give credence to the animals’ weather forecasts year after year, despite an absolute lack of evidence to back them up.

If Phil or his brethren see their shadows, meaning six more weeks of winter, we are told spring will arrive on or about mid-March.  But in all my life in Canada, during nine decades from the 1940s to the 2020s, I have never seen an end to winter that early.

Conversely, if the groundhogs do not see their shadows, that portends an early spring, presumably sooner than mid-March, which I have also never seen.  I give more credence to the old adage proclaiming that if March comes in like a lamb, she’ll go out like a lion, and vice-versa.

In my experience, the groundhogs’ either/or dichotomy is a neither/nor.

The second thing that surprises me about Groundhog Day is that so many of the same people who rely on the animals’ weather advice pay no attention to medical advice from virologists, epidemiologists, and research scientists with respect to the Covid pandemic that has swept the world.

These people refuse to be vaccinated against the disease, despite knowing the success of vaccines against many other diseases—diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, rubella, tetanus, tuberculosis, smallpox, and yellow fever.  They cite a host of reasons for their opposition, such as—

  • the vaccines are experimental,
  • they alter a person’s DNA,
  • they use a live version of the coronavirus,
  • they contain a chip, or cause recipients to become magnetic, and
  • they cause fertility problems.

In fact, the virus that causes Covid-19 is related to other coronaviruses that have been studied for years, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).  They were not developed quickly.  

According to the US Center for Disease Control, none of the vaccines interact with anyone’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid); rather, they help the cells build protection against infection, but never enter the nucleus of the cell where the DNA lives.

None of the authorized vaccines use the live virus that causes Covid-19, and cannot give you the disease or cause you to test positive for an infection. Instead, they train the human body to recognize and fight the coronavirus by delivering a set of instructions to your cells to encourage your body to produce antibodies, or by using a harmless adenovirus that can no longer replicate to send a genetic message to your cells.

Contrary to rumours on social media, the vaccines do not contain metals or materials that produce an electromagnetic field.  They are also free from manufactured microelectronics, electrodes, carbon nanotubes, or nanowire semiconductors, as well as from eggs, gelatin, latex, and preservatives.

According to the CDC, there is no evidence that any inoculations, including the Covid-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men; in fact, vaccination is recommended for people who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or plan to get pregnant in the future.

Contrary to the trolls who perpetuate these myths—falsehoods so many people are duped into believing—virologists and epidemiologists do know how to bring this pandemic under control.  Covid-19 is an airborne disease that spreads mainly from person to person when an infected person—even one with no symptoms—emits aerosols when (s)he talks or breathes.  These infectious, viral particles float or drift in the air for up to three hours or more, allowing another person to breathe them in and become infected.

According to Harvard Medical School authorities and other experts, necessary steps to control the spread include—

  • getting vaccinated and boosted,
  • avoiding close contact with people who are infected,
  • wearing a properly-fitted face mask when in public indoor spaces,
  • avoiding large gatherings, even outdoors, especially if poorly-ventilated,
  • isolating if sick,
  • testing frequently if unavoidably in congregant settings, in order to prevent spread to others, and
  • engaging in contact-tracing efforts.

It is mind-boggling to me that so many of us wilfully ignore this informed advice from medical experts in favour of opinions from quacks and trolls.  Since 2019, we have been through four successive waves of Covid-19, each version morphing from its predecessor, yet many of us continue to resist the best medical advice in favour of others’ quackery.

My parents taught me early about the futility of doing the same things over and over again in any endeavour, and hoping for a different result.  They also taught me to listen to those who are knowledgeable, as opposed to those who are merely loud, to weigh what they are saying, and to make an informed decision based, not on emotion, but on logic and empirical evidence.

Alas, so many seem doomed to spend one endless Covid-19 Groundhog Day after another, wallowing in their own ignorance.  And that hurts all of us.

Virus redux.