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Credit: CNN

By Scott Mitchell

What’s going on with this coronavirus pandemic? There are some concerning developments, but there is also some cause for optimism. There are some things we don’t know. This may sound like it’s oversimplifying a very complex situation – or maybe this piece will offer comforting or useful information to some.

First, the bad: coronavirus is making people sick. It is sadly killing people. It is disrupting supply chains, getting flights cancelled and concerts and other large gatherings called off. A conference on coronavirus was canceled because of coronavirus. We might be told to calm down, and that the disease is only really likely to be a threat to people who are elderly, very young, or immunocompromised. Well that’s not very comforting if you are elderly, very young, immunocompromised, or if you care about people who fit into those risk categories. I’m sure this all sounds reductive and obvious, but we also don’t want to be cavalier about something that is leading to death, harm, and disruption.

And then there’s the way the Trump administration is managing the coronavirus: essentially a textbook case of how not to handle a pandemic. It’s important to be honest, provide consistent messaging, and strengthen the institutions and networks that help manage health crises. Losing public trust and not allocating necessary resources will spread the disease further.

So that’s all really bad! And we don’t want to minimize it.

There’s also some good. It is tricky to talk about these things without sounding like you are minimizing the bad. But here’s the thing: like all things, there is a level of concern about this coronavirus that is valid and appropriate. Some people might be “too” concerned” (I foolishly ventured into a Costco the other day – I know, I obviously should have known better – and I encountered many of these people). Other people are not concerned enough – you know, those people who are telling us this disease is a hoax and the people who believe them.

And as mentioned before, there’s uncertainty here. So when we talk about the ‘good,’ it is with the caveat that things can change.

But here is the good: first, it appears as though COVID-19 is not going to end civilization as we know it. I know, that might seem obvious to some people – but to others, maybe it is not that obvious, and therefore worth pointing out. There are going to be disruptions to our lives, for sure; and some of those disruptions (the canceling of large public gatherings) might seem scary. But they are also helping manage the disease.

Yes, the fatality rate for COVID-19 is worse than ‘regular’ seasonal flu. Here’s another interesting thing about that: for years, public health communicators have used those kinds of comparisons to try to put things in perspective and calm people down (seasonal flu killed around 80,000 people in the United States last year!) It’s certainly strange that now Trump is using that comparison to minimize the danger of this coronavirus.

Yes, the fatality rate for COVID-19 is worse than seasonal flu. It’s also a bit uncertain since it is hard to calculate these things precisely. Which leads to another point, that is a mix of good and bad: many people will have this disease and not even know it. That’s scary. They are spreading it around and we do not even see that happening.

But think about it: let us say the disease has spread among the world population more than we think it has. We probably have a more accurate idea of how many deaths are being caused by COVID-19, compared to the number of infections because deaths are inherently easier to detect. So, in a hypothetical scenario where the disease has spread further than we currently think, that is bad because… the disease has spread further than we currently think. But it also means the fatality rate is lower than we currently think – because the fatality rate is the number of infections, divided by the number of deaths.

The risk someone faces will also depend largely on where they are: some places have more cases than others, or have access to greater healthcare resources and effective leadership (all of which will impact the number of cases and thus the risk).

And to add a further note of optimism: COVID-19 will make us stronger in some ways.  Again, I do not want to minimize the loss of life and harm that is currently happening (and will continue to happen). But any situation like this is obviously an opportunity to learn how to deal with similar situations. Maybe the next pandemic will be inherently worse due to characteristics of the virus – and we will have learned some lessons here. Lessons about identifying diseases, infection control measures, communicating risk, and social distancing. There are lots of areas to learn about and improve upon.

On a more abstract level, what if this disease outbreak improves public understandings of hand hygiene? This is purely anecdotal speculation that might be interesting to study further, but I feel like I have seen more conversation around hand hygiene with this pandemic, compared to past situations. And then we have the social distancing measures being taken by certain workplaces (teleconferencing, working from home…etc.) What if these things become normalized in a way that is beneficial? Having less people travelling to work every day could have positive impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

And finally, maybe you, or someone you know, is wondering “Should I be scared of coronavirus?” The point here is that it’s not a simple answer. There is reason for some concern, but also some cause for optimism and hope. People need to have a sense of agency and self-efficacy to take the necessary steps that reduce both their individual risk, and the risk to the larger population. It is ideal to get information directly from health agencies, like The World Health Organization, or the Public Health Agency of Canada, or Ottawa Public Health (OPH). Many of these agencies, like OPH, have been putting out fantastic risk communication messages. Think about following them.

Look out for misinformation, which spreads rapidly in situations like this and can be difficult to spot, and remember: Wash your hands and try to stay informed – doing that will help yourself, and others.