SARS-COV-2: Why Do We Have the Pandemic Now?

Someone recently put the “what do we think about 2020” question differently, and very nicely: Many book readers like to skip to the end of books, and read the climax first, as they can’t stand the suspense. Had 2020 been a book, what would you have thought when skipping ahead, and reading about the last few days in December, back in early January 2020? Empty streets; not celebrating Christmas or New Years Eve with friends or family; shops closed, and travel all but coming to a halt. I’m sure many of us would’ve put that book down as some fantastical novel, one that talks about apocalypses or zombie outbreaks, and doesn’t talk about our world at all.

And yet it was real. And it not only felt normal and natural to not travel or meet friends and family for events, it even felt normal to stay home for long periods of time through the year. That’s mainly because we learned of the seriousness of the pandemic as the days rolled by.

One question that bothered me a lot during this time was “why is this happening now? Almost every country, almost every person living is affected by this pandemic. It’s something most of the living population has never experienced. Why now? And what makes this virus so special that it’s become this widespread?”

The last known pandemic was the one that started just as World War I was drawing to a close - in 1918. That’s more than a hundred years back. Since 1918, the world has actually shrunk. Mobility of people has increased, people travel across the globe in a matter of days, and yet this is the first virus to become a pandemic. SARS-Cov-2 was in fact already present in Italy and the USA in Dec 2019-Jan 2020, much before the virus was even known in the scientific or medical communities. Much before the resulting disease, COVID-19, became known. Well, in a way, we still don’t know what the disease does. We do not know of the long-term effects of this virus, and we continue seeing new studies being published on the long-term effects of having contracted the virus.

It’s not to say we’ve not had serious viruses during our lifetimes. HIV is the most well-known that has spread quite a bit. SARS and MERS from early 2000s were common as well. HIV doesn’t transmit via the air or casual contact; so that’s a category of its own. But SARS, or SARS-COV-1 was a coronavirus as well. Why didn’t that become a pandemic?

The answer seems to be that SARS-Cov-2 is far less lethal than the others, and in fact doesn’t even result in symptoms in a large population that gets infected with it. SARS-COV-1 or MERS were different: whenever someone contracted it, they quickly developed symptoms and had to be bed-ridden and receive care. That resulted in immediate isolation for the infected, and the spread was contained to small bubbles.

SARS-COV-2, on the other hand, doesn’t even manifest itself in all its hosts. Some people may not know for a long time that they had been infected by it. This meant that people continued to roam around, spreading the virus wherever they went. And that ended up infecting others. That led to the virus spreading far and wide, infecting many more people than is reported. Folks with other conditions, and vulnerable people bore most of the immediate ill-effects of the virus.

What made matters worse is that influential people reported this to be “just a mild virus, like the flu”. And many people believed that. That led to more carelessness, and more spreading of the virus.

The virus’s lethality, the way it manifests in individuals, and transmissibility - all came together in the worst kind of “sweet spot” only now, leading to the pandemic, and the widespread social, economical, and humanitarian effects of the lockdowns.

This is certainly not going to be the last such pandemic.

The more we rearrange the way we work and live to be compatible with this reality, the faster we can get to a new normal. This doesn’t have to mean we stop hugging friends, or stop chatting with strangers on streets. But it may mean we have to design masks that we can live with for all our outdoor presence, and we get much more mindful of our hands and fingers touching random objects, as well as taking proper precautions when gathering in closed spaces - which could also perhaps include mask-wearing.