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A Pandemic Comes to the U.S.

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Part I -- Uncomprehending and Unprepared

On 10 March 2020 U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters in reference to the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), "It will go away, just stay calm." He added, "It's really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen." (This is also the president's attitude toward global warming.) When soon it became clear that things were not "working out" and "good things" were definitely not happening, he denied any responsibility. "I don't take any responsibility at all," and proceeded to blame the previous administration of Barack Obama. Actually, all of this was in character for President Trump. He has never shown any ability to think ahead and respond to events in a well thought-out fashion. His ability to own up to his own mistakes is like that of a 16 year old teenager.

He is also ignorant of what he is dealing with. But here at least he is not alone. Most people, including the vast majority of Americans, don't know much about Covid-19 or where it comes from. That is one reason why it is so easy to misidentify it is a "Chinese disease." Alas, diseases don't carry a nationality. Also, people are only vaguely aware of the exponential growth potential of this disease and why that factor justifies the kind of social distancing policies that many governments are now adopting. So below, I will give some details on these factors.

I confess I am not an expert in any of this, but if my anecdotal experience is at all accurate, I know more than my neighbors. I will strive for accuracy and, If I make some notable mistake, I am sure someone out there will let me know. If an error is confirmed, I will send out a correction or elaboration.

Part II -- What is Covid-19?

Covid-19 has the label of a Pandemic disease -- one that is spreading through large areas of the globe. "Mere" epidemics are more localized. Covid-19 is also a novel or new disease which in this case means that it is a mutation of a virus that already existed in nature. Such terms as pandemic and epidemic do not say anything about the severity of the disease, and so they can run the range from relatively mild to deadly. Flu epidemics and pandemics are good examples of this -- thus the annual flu season can vary in its intensity. On the other hand, the infamous Spanish Flu of 1918 (which wasn't Spanish in origin) was a pandemic that is estimated to have killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide. Coming toward the end of World War I, the victims included hundreds of U.S. and Allied soldiers and sailors confined to transports and other ships heading to and from France. Those vessels, like today's cruise ships, served as incubators for the disease.

As noted above, Covid-19 and its kin are viruses. Viruses are different than the bacteria that cause many infections. Antibiotics take care of most bacteria-caused diseases, though the overuse of such drugs can, and have, produced "superbug" bacteria that are resistant to most antibiotics. In fact, in the realm of warfare against bacteria causing illness, it is a constant struggle between the bacteria's ability to mutate and production of more effective antibiotics.

Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. The best way to fight them is through vaccines. Most vaccines work by taking an inert sample of the disease agent and using it to safely stimulate the body's immune system, thus creating a ready ability to produce the proper antibodies to the illness if it is contracted. Unfortunately, a vaccine cannot be developed overnight, if one can be developed at all for a particular microbe. So, often there is an interim period between the appearance of a truly novel virus -- such as Covid-19 -- and the production and distribution of an adequate vaccine. Even when available, vaccines are not 100 percent effective as can be seen with the annual flu vaccines. This is because, like bacteria, viruses mutate.

In the case of most viruses and bacteria, you catch the disease in the following ways: 1) close contact with an infected person or animal, whose microbe-laden body fluids are spread through sneezing, coughing, sweating, excreting, and so forth; 2) Touch surfaces that has the virus or bacteria on it due to previous contact with an infected person or animal: the survival time outside the body of any particular disease agent varies. Covid-19. seems to be able to survive between 3 and 72 hours depending on the nature of the surface, such as a door knob, computer keyboard, box of cookies, etc.

These facts speak to the usual list of dos and don'ts: hand washing, not touching your face (but covering your mouth and nose with the inside of your elbow if you have to cough or sneeze), and keeping your social distance (a sneeze can shoot out the bad bugs some 10 feet). These are familiar recommendations (if often ignored) because they also apply to the common cold. Community lockdowns enforcing social distancing, on the other hand, are really new and can be life-altering requirements. Where does the need for such extreme measures come from?

Part III -- The Threat of Exponential Spread

New infectious viruses are often mutations of existing ones and/or animal-based viruses that somehow manage to jump from their animal hosts to humans -- the latter kind being referred to as zoonosis diseases. Ebola and HIV (Aids) are diseases that made this jump. Bats are one ready source of coronaviruses that do occasionally jump to humans. Bats are hosts to multiple strains of such viruses which often get spread via intermediate hosts (civits, pangolins, and camels) which in turn can pass them on to humans. Conversely, as in the case of Ebola, some viruses have made the bat-to-human jump directly.

No one really knows where Covid-19 originated. We do know that there was an initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, among people who worked in a market that sold wild animals, but some of these animals were imported into China, so the Covid-19 strain that is causing all this trouble could well have originated further afield.

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Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign
Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest
; America's
Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli
; and Islamic Fundamentalism. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.

His blog To The Point Analyses now has its own Facebook page. Along with the analyses, the Facebook page will also have reviews, pictures, and other analogous material.

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