The Social Consequences of Coronavirus

Questions on responding to a novel threat.

Posted Mar 12, 2020

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This post was written by Gabriel Banschick.

Overview:

Coronavirus, which first hit the United States at the end of January, will continue to affect Americans for some time, according to the CDC. No one knows for how long. In the meantime, the justifiable concern about getting infected is having an impact on our social structure and sense of mutual responsibility.

Here are some facts:

1. So far, it seems that coronavirus is transmitted mainly by droplets between infected people or carriers, although it also survives on surfaces for quite a while.

2. Because of its long incubation period, we can’t identify carriers early enough, although it seems that people are most infectious when they show symptoms.

3. The mortality rate has been estimated to be more than 3 percent, but these numbers are probably skewed because we don’t know how many people are actually infected. Most likely, there are many more infected people who do not show symptoms. In that case, the mortality rate is probably much lower.

4. The disease seems to spread exponentially. In Italy, the first case was discovered on January 31, 2020. By March 8, there were a total of 7,350 confirmed cases and 360 deaths. This is now considered a worldwide pandemic. That is what worries health administrations worldwide and leads to the preventative measures that are being implemented in various places.

So how do we handle this situation as communities? What are the psychological challenges of dealing with a potential pandemic?

Here are some scenarios that can illustrate the complexities of the situation.

Scenario One:

You find yourself suffering from mild flu-like symptoms. You don’t know if you’ve been exposed. Since it is still flu season, it is most likely just the flu. Yet, given the public health situation, should you get tested or self-quarantine? This may mean missing a work day, at the very least, even if you are not actually infected. You may also be asked to do a 14-day quarantine without having a definitive indication that this is the coronavirus. Here is what the CDC recommends:         

If you have been in China or another affected area or have been exposed to someone sick with COVID-19 in the last 14 days, you will face some limitations on your movement and activity.

Scenario Two:

A child in your son’s school has returned from Iran, which is considered a high-risk country. He shows no symptoms, but after a few days, he is asked by the school to stay home for the 14 days of recommended quarantine time. If he is indeed a carrier, he had several days to infect other people, who may still not show signs of illness. Do you still send your child to school?

When a New Rochelle, New York man was confirmed to have the coronavirus, three schools closed, including the school in the Bronx attended by one of the man’s children. The other schools closed because their students came in contact with the children from the first school.

Scenario Three:

Your job requires that you interact with many people. It is a new job, and you are still in the test period. Somebody you know has come down with coronavirus. She sat in front of you in church the other day. Do you inform your boss that you have to stay at home? Do you get tested?

Discussion:

These are only three out of many possible scenarios that illustrate the practical and ethical issues brought about by coronavirus. What is our communal responsibility, and how far do we need to subordinate our personal needs to the good of the community?

The answer to these questions can determine how well we, as a community, can ward off a pandemic, and whether it is already nearby or will come in the future.

I welcome comments and discussion.

Gabriel Banschick is a third-year medical student at Tel Aviv University. He has been conducting research and contributing to this blog for the past several years.