It’s surreal. I’ve been isolating with Tegan and the critters since March. It was pretty easy, because nobody was hiring, and neither of us was able to get wage labor until Tegan got a minimum wage gig in August almost by accident. The animals both love having us around all the time, and we humans still enjoy each other’s company. It’s not a big apartment, and given the infectiousness of this virus, and the long period of asymptomatic contagiousness, we figured that if one of us got it, both of us would. Apparently not. I got tested yesterday, and my result was negative.
Even so, the evidence at this point is pretty clear – even if a mask and distancing don’t prevent you from getting the disease, they will make it far more likely that you’ll have a light case. For those who aren’t clear on why, here’s a basic breakdown:
When the virus enters your system and begins to hijack cells for reproduction, it starts a timed contest. The “goal” of the virus is to infect every cell it can, to reproduce as much as it can, and to spread to as many other people as it can before your body either wipes it out, or dies. The “goal” of your immune system is to develop antibodies that can destroy the virus before it infects you badly enough that you die.
Let’s say you got the virus because some science-denying asshole coughed and sneezed directly in your face. You got a huge dose – your starting population of the virus is in the tens of thousands, and its starting position is in your mouth, nose, and eyes. Viruses grow exponentially in the body – one cell produces many particles of the virus, and because those are starting inside your body, the odds are that most of them will infect other cells and repeat the process. You go from a population of 20,000 to 20,000,000 very, very quickly, and from there to the hundreds of millions, and then billions. By the time your immune system has the ability to really respond, huge portions of your body are infected, and with COVID-19 that means not just your respiratory system, but your circulatory system, nervous system, and multiple organs. Billions of your cells each pumping out thousands upon thousands of new virus particles. This isn’t great for your health, because the virus population is using your resources to do all of this, and those resources are then unavailable for normal bodily functions.
The virus is not what kills you, though. The problem is that the immune system doesn’t kill the virus directly, it targets the virus’s means of reproduction – infected cells. So, your body develops the ability to detect and destroy infected cells, some time after your initial exposure, and then it sets about doing that. The question then is – how many of your cells are infected? If the number is too high, then your immune system will basically be doing the equivalent of amputating a limb that has gangrene to prevent the rot from spreading to the rest of your body. It’s probably better than dying, but it comes with its own dangers. Specifically, it’s amputating one cell at a time, and it’s doing it in your lungs, your heart, your blood vessels, your nerves, and so on. The extent of your viral infection determines the extent to which your body destroys itself to purge the infection.
It’s a bit like doing a controlled burn to eradicate an invasive species like honeysuckle (in the US) – if it’s just in a small area, that method might well work, but if – as is the case in much of the United States – there’s honeysuckle throughout the forest understory, then you’re likely to destroy not just the invasive species, but the rest of the forest as well.
Now let’s say you contract the virus from your significant other or room mate, but you’ve had windows open and kitchen and bathroom vents running, you wear masks most of the time, you stay in separate rooms, and you never interact directly (can you tell I’m bitter about my current situation?). Now, instead of 20,000, your starting virus population is 1. Or more likely 100. Now your body has a better chance of developing and carrying out its response before the virus has infected too many of your cells. Now, instead of hundreds of billions of cells that need to be destroyed, there are just billions, or a few hundred million (out of hundreds of trillions in your body). Your body can take that hit pretty easily. It’s not good, and it’s not fun, but neither is it lethal, and depending on what cells are infected, it might not even have lasting effects.
By taking all those precautions, you’ve gone from your body melting down your lungs and veins, and killing you to eradicate your viral population, to doing pretty minor damage that you may not even notice, in an asymptomatic case.
So, back to my situation if I do catch the disease from Tegan, does that mean I get to interact with her again? No. Not while she’s still sick. See – you don’t stop being vulnerable to infection once you’re infected. It’s not an on/off situation. Let’s say I tested positive, but I don’t have any symptoms. Good. All of my caution has paid off, and my viral load is in the hundreds of thousands. I might get a bit of a cough or a fever, and if I’m unlucky I could have lasting damage to some parts of my body, but I’m not going to be in danger for my life.
And then, since I’m “already infected”, I go to take care of my wife, who’s worse off than I am. And every time I go into the bedroom, my viral population gets a boost. It might even get virus particles that have evolved to be better at invading cells (like the new variants now spreading across the globe). Now I’m going from a manageable, or even asymptomatic viral load, to a dangerous one, and at the same time, I’m adding to Tegan’s viral load, and increasing the odds that her immune system will do serious damage. I might even introduce a new variant to her.
And so I sit in a chilly room with wind blowing through the open door, and a vent running in the kitchen. I don’t go to comfort her, even though we could both use a hug. If I need to give her something, I leave it in the hall, and go back into my part of the apartment. If someone delivers a package, I tell them to set it outside the door, and wait till they’re long gone before I open it to get what they left.
Infectious disease is a numbers game, and knowing that, we can adjust our behavior to cut off the viral supply lines.
As I was writing this, I noticed that a great deal of what I was saying also applies to how countries deal with a pandemic. Fortunately, we’re not just killing everyone who tests positive, but the more people test positive, the more there are to infect others, and the greater the total amount of viral particles there are in any given location. A park on a breezy day may seem safe – and it is safer than an enclosed space – but if everyone in that park is infected, they’re giving off a cloud of viral particles, like cigarette smoke, that is more or less likely to reach other people, depending on how many are producing that cloud.
The lack of response in the US and the UK (probably other countries too, but I haven’t paid as close attention to them) has done just that. It has increased the viral loads of those countries, and consequently increased the viral load of infected individuals. Even now, isolation and masking are still saving lives, and helping to control the pandemic and many other infectious diseases. This basic math is the same for every infectious disease. COVID-19 is worse than most because, like with the honeysuckle I mentioned earlier, it’s an invasive species. It has no “natural predators” in our bodies to slow it down, and it has no “natural habitat” in our bodies that it will focus on and stay in. It’s in new territory, in every human it encounters right now, and so it’s going where it can, to the greatest extent that it can, and it turns out that it can go just about everywhere inside us. Eventually, the global population will have some level of resting immunity to this kind of coronavirus. I think it’s unlikely that it will ever go away completely – it’s going to be more like the common cold or influenza – but it will get less lethal, because it will be harder for the new variants to grow out of control as they do now, because we’ll have at least some defenses against things that look similar.
I’ll end by saying – not for the last time – that a pandemic like this is why it’s so important to have societies that understand and accept science, and that value the lives and wellbeing of the general population over, say, profit for the ruling class. Say what you will about Vietnam, but the evidence is clear – quarantining infected villages, and ensuring that those under quarantine had all the food, shelter, and entertainment they needed was effective. The leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam may be wealthier than the general population, but that gap is (a) not as big as it is in capitalist countries, and (b) did not lead them to put their own wealth ahead of the lives of their population. Doing the right thing in a pandemic is not profitable for the ruling class. It’s an investment in the population at large. It costs money to inform people they’re under quarantine, and to provide them with meals, and to ensure that they’re able to quarantine without losing their homes, healthcare, or food.
This is not likely to be the last pandemic in my lifetime (assuming I die of old age). This will come up again, and if most of the world is run by and for capitalists, we’ll go through all of this again, even though we know how to stop it. The same is true for climate change. We know what we need to do to both slow the warming of the climate, and to adapt our societies to survive the warming we cannot avoid, but doing so will not be as profitable for the ruling class as the status quo. As long as the profit motive is the primary guiding principle of our society, we will fail to adequately address climate change, and we will fail in our responses to every pandemic that comes along.
Stay the course. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Listen to the scientific and medical communities, and organize so that we can actually deal with the problems that face us.
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