A few weeks ago, before Covid-19 had really hit, my Facebook feed began filling up with Useful Advice on How To Avoid It. Almost all of it was rubbish: urban myths, given credence because they were repeated to the point where they had become ubiquitous.
My favourite was the one about keeping the mouth and throat moist by drinking water every 15 minutes. Apparently this was going to wash the virus down into the stomach before it could take hold, where the good old stomach acid was going to deal with it. The idea was rubbish, of course. The first thing a virus does when it enters the body, which most do via the mouth, nose or eyes, is to attack cells. Then you’ve got it. It’s in your system and you can’t wash it away. Nor will the digestive system deal with it: Covid-19 has been detected in stool samples.
Advice of the ‘wash it down the throat’ sort is in the same league as the ‘inhalation chambers’ that were popular as a ‘preventative’ during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Again, the idea was that the virus would be killed in the nose and throat before it could lodge in the lungs. Actually, all these public gathering places did was spread the disease.
Another funny one was the idea that you could, somehow, cook the virus to death inside your nose. Apparently a temperature of 133 degrees F (56.1 degrees C) suffices, if it’s sustained for a while. Setting aside the point that it’s going to be too late (see above), it turns out that this is also going to cook your nose and throat. Apparently a temperature of 112 degrees F (44 degrees C) over a period suffices to do mischief, so I have this vision of queues of people at emergency rooms, all with severe internal nose and respiratory tract burns. (How can people breathe in hotter air temperatures, you ask? Well, the nose cools the incoming air, so it isn’t so hot when it hits those sensitive mucus membranes).
What’s the answer? Well, it’s the obvious one. Ignore Facebook and social media, except where it tells you to listen to the government health authorities. The messaging from government health authorities is scientifically backed. It’s also up to date. We’re early in the learning curve about Covid-19, and new information will arrive, which health authorities will reflect.
So go check out your local health authority’s advice. Check it out now, and follow what they say. Here’s New Zealand’s.
All this, to me, is no-brainer stuff. Virus transmission mechanisms are well understood. A virus can be inhaled if you walk through an airborne cloud of micro-droplets, so keeping your distance is sensible. Personally I think 2 metres isn’t enough, especially downwind, but maybe that’s just me. People should wash their hands reasonably if they’ve been out, or before eating or preparing food, anyway, because there are plenty of viruses doing the rounds normally. It’s surprising how many don’t, or who give their hands only a cursory rinse. I can think of people who don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet. (Ewwwwww). The messaging about Covid-19 reinforces the point. I expect that following the advice of health authorities, reliably and to the letter, will be necessary until a vaccine has been produced in quantity. That’ll take at least a year, maybe 18 months.
General virus transmission mechanisms are so well known that it’s been surprising to me that so much woo woo has emerged about how to avoid or cure it. And there’s more. According to my social media feeds, for instance, Covid-19 is apparently a billionaire plot for nefarious purpose (just what purpose isn’t defined); it’s reputedly a fraud designed to give government total control; it’s just fake news; or the lock-down reaction is unnecessary because according to Scientist X or Y, the virus is apparently not serious. Well, quite. On top of this has been the way social media has collectively seized upon one slight hint or another of drug treatment or a cure, often merely on the hint that a clinical trial might be conducted, or on preliminary results from a first trial.
What does this say about humans, collectively? There is are fairly clear messages, I think, about human nature – as expressed in society – through all of this. One is that there is a deep element of fear running through society, which is expressed in many ways anyhow, but which a pandemic has particularly focused. Another is that, by contrast with the neo-liberal concept of a society driven by ‘rational’ decision-makers, actually people are not rational at all; decisions are made at an emotional level and the rationality is a post-fact add on. Further, at collective level, society makes repeated and irrational lurches in one direction or another – ‘social panics’. There are many I can point to in history, big and small: witch-hunting, Robespierre’s ‘terror’, McCarthyism and, of course, the toilet-paper frenzy that followed the arrival of Covid-19.
The main message I get from all of this – which I think has a LOT of historical precedent – is that a scared society is likely to be its own worst enemy.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020