Disease is a naturally terrifying occurrence. Disease kills most people, with the three deadliest diseases (heart disease, cancer, and respiratory infections) accounting for half of the deaths in America (1). Even during times of conflict, disease is generally the biggest threat to human life. For example, in the Civil War, the deadliest war in American history, two-thirds of casualties occurred due to disease, not the incredibly efficient implements of death that proliferated in the conflict (2). Fear of disease is among the most rational fears one can have.
It is especially terrifying when a new disease appears on the global scene. We all remember the global panic during the 2013-2016 Ebola epidemic, which triggered a massive international response and ended up killing over 10,000 people (3). This fear was informed by the incredible scale of tragedy surrounding the rise and proliferation of HIV/AIDS, which has, since the outbreak began in the 1980s, infected over 75 million people and killed 32 million (4).
We have been shocked and saddened as a new threat, the novel 2019 coronavirus, has spread in Hubei Province, China, and around the world, with likely tens of thousands infected and hundreds succumbing to the disease. We were further shocked to hear that a member of our UMass Boston community has been confirmed as infected with the disease, so naturally many students naturally have questions about the virus and its current threat to our community. The University has informed us that the student drove to the school, wearing a face mask, and went straight to University Health Services in the Quinn Administration Building, where he was immediately isolated, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health was contacted.
Despite this seemingly imposing threat, there is much less to fear while facing down the novel coronavirus in the modern day than we faced in the tragic rise of HIV/AIDS. For one, the coronavirus is simply less threatening to the infected when compared to these other infectious diseases. Ebola and HIV/AIDS kill at a much higher rate than coronavirus, killing half of the infected and having significantly more deleterious effects in comparison. Coronavirus is dangerous, but only kills about one in fifty infected persons, mostly the young and infirm, in a similar manner to other respiratory infections, like SARS and influenza (5).
Furthermore, all except for one of these deaths and 99 percent of cases thus far have occurred in China, a nation that, despite a rapidly growing economy, is still relatively poor and has vastly inferior public health infrastructure in comparison to developed economies like America. The government response to this outbreak, both in America and worldwide, has been rapid and impactful. The federal government has issued orders banning foreign persons who have been to Hubei Province in China—the center of the outbreak—in the last two weeks from traveling to the United States, and have ordered a two-week quarantine of any Americans returning from China, as part of a declaration of a public health emergency in response to the virus. Two weeks is the infectious period of the disease, which informs these guidelines (6). Global public health infrastructure, in response to the failures surrounding the HIV/AIDS pandemic, has amplified, with the World Health Organization effectively coordinating a worldwide response to attempt to stymie the disease’s spread. Researchers have been working incredibly fast to create a vaccine against the virus.
It appears that the world is prepared to face down this virus, as robots in Boston are already manufacturing a new potential vaccine to fight the disease (7). It seems this is one area where humanity has learned from past mistakes, with government and private authorities working behind the scenes to develop strategies and capabilities to enact a process that used to take decades in a matter of days. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health holds that the risk of infection to any resident of the state remains extremely low, and the case of the UMass Boston member has been effectively quarantined, with any who came into contact with the student under close scrutiny to make sure the disease did not spread from this initial case (8).
As for what private citizens can do, authorities recommend continuing the steps you should already be taking to prevent the spread of a far more dangerous disease: influenza. Wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap for at least twenty seconds, be sure to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and stay home and isolate yourself, to whatever extent possible, if you are feeling sick, as the New York Times reports that the disease can be transmitted from person to person through the air within a six foot radius and is twice as contagious as the flu at this stage (9). If you have recently travelled to China or know someone who has and feel symptoms such as severe coughing, frequent shortness of breath, and fever, please see a doctor as soon as possible. Clinicians have been instructed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on how to best respond to the coronavirus and trained and practiced for decades against influenza, so they will be able to instruct you on next steps (8).
So don’t panic, we are in good hands, with the force of the entire world cooperating to keep us safe from this new disease. We offer our thoughts and prayers to the student infected, as well as their friends and family. For more information, you can call the hotline the University has set up for the disease at 617-287-5400, or visit the websites of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Center for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization.