COVID-19: Attitudes, Frustrations, and Perspective

Since I’ll be talking about COVID-19, variants, and the pandemic, clarifications may be in order.

I had COVID-19 vaccinations in May and June, because I thought it was a good idea.

Politicos, partisans and crackpots have been throwing accusations and assertions about the pandemic at each other.

I’ll be talking about that, but I’m not ‘political.’ I’ve neither been proclaiming that one political party is in league with the Antichrist, nor denouncing another as a tool of fascists and racists.

And, although I think the COVID-19 pandemic is real, I haven’t been dreading America’s impending doom and destruction.1

There’s quite a bit in this week’s piece:


Apocalypse: Now?

Detail of Albrecht Dürer's 'The Revelation of St John: 12' woodcut. (ca. 1497)
(From Albrecht Dürer, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(From Dürer’s ‘The Revelation of St John: 12’ woodcut. (ca. 1497))

Oddly enough, I’ve yet to see a pandemic-themed End Times Bible Prophecy get traction. Can’t say that I’m disappointed, but won’t wail in despair if some doomsayer cashes in on grassroots fears. Or tries to.

About that, a quick Google search yielded a few clickbait headlines and a Journal of Religion and Health article.

The latter, happily, acknowledged that not all Christians are crackpot fundamentalists. What really jumped out at me, though, was this:

“…Secular Apocalypticism
“Unlike religious apocalypticism where the future is determined by divine intervention, in secular apocalypticism natural events such as the current Covid-19 pandemic are the cause of the impending doomsday….”
(“Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives,” Simon Dein, Journal of Religion and Health (October 30, 2020) via US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health)

At any rate, pandemic peril has become routine in news and views:

About that first item: I agree that dismissing or denouncing someone’s death isn’t helpful.

And, although I see the ‘poetic justice’ angle of last weekend’s ‘COVID-19 Smites Anti-Vax Unbelievers‘-themed headlines, I wouldn’t willingly jump on that bandwagon.

Attack of the Mutant Virus!!!

Illustration for 'How Viruses Evolve,' Bob Holmes, Knowable magazine; via Smithsonian Magazine. (July 17, 2020)
(From Smithsonian Magazine, used w/o permission.)

'Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!' (1978)SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been mutating.

Nothing unusual there.

That’s what viruses do.

I gather that, based on what we know about viruses and SARS-CoV-2, we know it will change: but not how it will change.

Maybe it’ll mellow out, becoming a minor annoyance to a very few folks.

Or the virus may stay as dangerous as it is, but keep changing enough to require updated vaccinations: sort of like my annual flu shot.

On the other hand, maybe SARS-CoV-2 will jump species: infecting America’s tomato patches, corrupting the benevolent berries, unleashing a tidal wave of tomato terror upon this fair nation.

No. I don’t think so. I most very seriously don’t think so. Although that could be the premise for “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes II.”

I strongly suspect that one problem scientists have, trying to predict how SARS-CoV-2 will change, is that the we didn’t know about the virus until around December of 2019. And we’re pretty sure it didn’t exist until a month or two before that.

We’re almost certain SARS-CoV-2 first showed up in or near Wuhan, China. The odds are good that its immediate ancestor was making bats, or some other animal, sick.

Exactly when, where and how the ancestral virus changed into SARS-CoV-2? Scientists don’t know.2

If we lived in an idea world, then the folks running China would have been cooperating with other regional leaders, backtracking the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But, as I keep saying, we don’t live in an ideal world.


COVID-19 Origins: WHO Wants to Know


(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Search for Covid’s origins stalled, scientists say
Victoria Gill, BBC News (August 25, 2021)
“…A team appointed by the World Health Organization to find the cause of the outbreak say the process has stalled.
“And further delay could make crucial studies ‘biologically impossible’.
“In an article in the scientific journal Nature, they call on political and scientific leaders to expedite those studies ‘while there is still time’….”

Covid: China rejects WHO plan for second phase of virus origin probe
BBC News (July 23, 2021)
“China has rejected the next stage of a World Health Organization (WHO) plan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The WHO wants to audit laboratories in the area where the virus was first identified.
“But Zeng Yixin, deputy health minister, said this showed ‘disrespect for common sense and arrogance toward science’.
“WHO experts said it was very unlikely the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, but the theory has endured….”

I don’t know why China’s decision-makers aren’t cooperating with foreigners, but that won’t keep me from guessing.

Paranoia and Xenophobia in Retrospect

'At the Sign of the UNHOLY THREE' cartoon, warning against fluoridated water, polio serum and mental hygiene. And 'communistic world government.' (1955)I could be wrong, but the Chinese government’s attitude reminds me of America’s self-appointed guardians, back in the ‘good old days.’

The Great Flag Flap
San Bernardino Sun (July 6, 1969) via California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research; University of California, Riverside.
“…Eventually, some viewers — with — alarm become convinced that a plot to communize the moon was afoot, in furtherance of which an International emblem would be erected there. This view was expressed In a newspaper editorial quoted by Rep. John R. Rarick (D-La.) in support of the Roudebush proposal: ‘There is a persistent rumor … that the spider flag of the United Nations will be planted on the moon by the American astronauts.’…”

I’d better clarify that.

Back in the days of my youth, self-identified ‘real Americans’ seemed convinced that foreigners in general and the United Nations in particular were embroiled in communist plots.

They almost had a point, since some countries were run along communist lines, and were acting against my country’s interests.

“Running Dog” Diplomacy

Wiley Miller's 'Non Sequitur' comic, Captain Eddie and spoof of Harold Camping's rescheduled rapture. (June 13, 2011)But what I mostly remember from their rants is their deep and abiding loathing of communism, Catholicism and suchlike foreign threats.

That, and End Times Bible Prophecies based on numerology and Bible trivia.

Which eventually and indirectly led me to become a Catholic, and that’s another topic.

At any rate, I see that “running dog” is still part of China’s diplomatic vocabulary. Likely enough because it resonates with the folks back home.3

“…’Boy, your greatest achievement is to have ruined the friendly relations between China and Canada, and have turned Canada into a running dog of the US. Spendthrift!!!’ pic.twitter.com/qWCfJH4bYb
— Li Yang (@CGChinaLiYang) March 28, 2021…”
(“China calls Canada America’s ‘running dog’ as tension grows,” Shweta Sharma, MSN (March 30, 2021))

Next, an excessively long and technical look at why scientists are running out of time.

SARS-CoV-2, Scientists and China


(From Aly Song/Reuters/Alamy, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(The World Health Organization, WHO, seeks understanding of SARS-CoV-2’s origins.)

Origins of SARS-CoV-2: window is closing for key scientific studies
Marion Koopmans et al., Comment, Nature (August 25, 2021)
“…The possibility of a laboratory origin for the virus’s introduction into the local human population — what has come to be called the lab-leak hypothesis — was not part of the WHO’s original terms of reference for the team….
“…Scientific discussions between the international and Chinese teams during this mission were lively….
“…We found the laboratory origin hypothesis too important to ignore, so brought it into the discussions with our Chinese counterparts. And we included it as one of the hypotheses for SARS-CoV-2 origin in our report….

Before I talk about this, and you read it, still more clarifications.

I do not have an enduring, unthinking faith in WHO, the United Nations General Assembly, America’s Congress, the CDC and BBC News.

But I don’t assume that any or all of them are out to get me.

And I think assuming either that China’s government can do no wrong, or can do nothing but wrong, is silly: at best. The same goes for America’s government, and all the other major players in our current mess.

I do think that learning where the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from is a good idea. Even if what we learn embarrasses someone; or interferes with international negotiations regarding the price of paperclips, peanuts or poultry.

Enough of that. Now — about science, time and foolishness.

Wuhan: SNAFU


(From Wei Liang/China News Service/Getty, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(Collecting COVID-19 test samples in China’s Shanxi province.)

“…The Chinese team was and still is reluctant to share raw data (for instance, on the 174 cases identified in December 2019), citing concerns over patient confidentiality. … The legal and possible other barriers could not be addressed in the short time frame of our visit. Also, by then, it was clear that the 174 cases were not likely to be the earliest ones, so we considered them less urgent for understanding origins.
“It was therefore agreed that a second phase of studies would address these concerns and review these data….
“…Crucially, the window is rapidly closing on the biological feasibility of conducting the critical trace-back of people and animals inside and outside China. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns. Chinese wildlife farms employ millions of people (14 million, according to a 2016 census) and supplied live mammals to cities across China, including Wuhan. In response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, many of these farms are now closed and the animals have been culled, making any evidence of early coronavirus spillover increasingly difficult to find….”

I’m still willing to accept evidence that “the lab-leak hypothesis” isn’t how the SARS-CoV-2 virus got loose.

But each time Chinese officials keep foreigners from investigating the Wuhan SNAFU, that explanation looks more likely.

I have no idea why China’s powers-that-be seem so determined to look like bureaucrats desperately trying to cover up a world-class blunder.

What a Mess

'A busy stacking room in the opium factory at Patna, India,' lithograph after W. S. Sherwill. (ca. 1850)Maybe they fear that this is the Opium Wars all over again, and that they’re defending their land from foreign influences.

Or maybe they’re simply doing what bureaucrats do: keeping non-bureaucrats from doing their jobs.

I don’t know.

I’m pretty sure, though, that folks in China have had a tough row to hoe, ever since the Qing dynasty meltdown.4 And that’s yet another topic.

Whatever motive or motives Chinese officials have, they may succeed in keeping scientists from learning how and where the COVID-19 pandemic started.

That’s not good news.

Partly because it will likely encourage fans of assorted crackpot ‘it is the fault of the Jews or Muslims or Canadians or Americans’ stories.

And partly because I’m as sure as I can be, that this isn’t the last time we’ll be dealing with a new and occasionally-lethal disease. The more we learn about this one, the better prepared we’ll be for whatever’s next. My opinion.

Recapping, scientists from the World Health Organization have been trying, none too successfully, to pry useful information out of Chinese bureaucrats and scientists.

Business-as-usual delays may succeed in keeping the foreigners from learning where COVID-19 actually started, and how. Ironically, we might have learned that the disease didn’t start in Wuhan and wasn’t connected with a lab there. Or we might not.

More delays may make tracking COVID-19’s origins “biologically impossible.” That’s partly because of the way antibodies in our bodies fade over time.

My view of the COVID-19 origins investigation is that, basically, it’s a mess.


Antibodies and frustration

National Human Genome Research Institute's schematic illustration of an antibody, colorized by Fvasconcellos. (May 6, 2007)I’ve forgotten something.

Let’s see, where was I? Covid-19 and pandemic peril in the news, viruses and bureaucrats, scientists and antibodies.

Right. Antibodies.

Antibodies are Y-shaped bits of protein with an antigen-binding site at the tip of each branch. The antigen-binding site has a specific paratope that fits one particular epitope on an antigen — it’s complicated, like most of biochemistry.

An antibody ‘tags’ a specific molecule on a pathogen; then either another part of the immune system takes over, or sometimes the antibody simply keeps that part of a virus from working.

Our immune system ‘remembers’ antigens it’s dealt with before. That’s why we have lifetime immunity to some diseases, once we’ve endured and survived. But there’s a sort of expiration date for our immunity to other diseases. Like I said, it’s complicated.5

And, since our immune systems probably don’t have the SARS-CoV-2 on the ‘never forget’ list, collecting data from folks who may or may not have been affected is time-sensitive.

Hence the frustration expressed by WHO scientists.


Statistics, a Little History, and Attitudes

Community Transmission in the US. (August 31, 2021)
(From COVID Data Tracker, CDC, used w/o permission.)
(Community transmission of COVID-19 in U.S., by county.)

COVID-19 hasn’t killed me, and none of my family has caught the bug.

Embracing the ‘it didn’t happen to me, so it doesn’t exist’ principle — I could join that fractional faction who say the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t real. That strikes me as silly.

Or I could take one look at that “community transmission by county” map and panic. Which also seems silly.

Instead, I’ll have a shot at explaining why I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious problem, but isn’t humanity’s worst crisis ever.

Life and Health, Death and Percentages

COVID-19, American deaths. (August 31, 2021)
(From COVID Data Tracker, CDC, used w/o permission.)

For starters, COVID-19 isn’t killing Americans nearly as fast as it was earlier this year.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that COVID-19 has killed upwards of 600,000 of us so far.

That, and the four-million-plus folks this disease has killed to date, is a lot of dead people.

But I’m one of more than 332,000,000 Americans,6 and I’m still alive. So I could shrug off losing less than one percent of my country’s population as acceptable loss.

I could, but I won’t.

That’s because I think human life is precious, sacred. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258, 2260)

Life and health are “precious gifts” from God. Getting and staying healthy is a good idea. Within reason. (Catechism, 1506-1510, 2279, 2288-2289, 2292)

I’ve said that before, a lot. You’ll find links to ‘more of the same’ near the end of this post.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota

Minnesota COVID-19 testing, cases, deaths and hospitalizations. (September 2, 2021)
(From Minnesota COVID-19 Situation Update, used w/o permission.)
(COVID-19 Minnesota statistics, from Minnesota Department of Health.)

Minnesotans are still dying from COVID-19, but nowhere near as many as in January.

Good news, right? But some of us are still dying. Including someone in my county, within the last week:

As I keep saying, I’ve got options.

I don’t know who “Stearns County resident” is, so I could try trivializing the death.

That doesn’t strike me as reasonable. Neither does panicking. So I’ll try making sense.

Life is precious, but sooner or later we die: from accident, disease, old age, whatever.

Someone who dies from COVID-19 isn’t either more or less dead than an accident victim, but that’s cold comfort for that person’s friends and family.

Since I think human life matters, and since COVID-19 is killing a measurable fraction of my neighbors, I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious problem.

But it’s nowhere near the worst disease-related problem we’ve had.

Perspective

Hans Holbein's 'Dance of Death' woodcuts. XI, The Queen
(From Hans Holbein, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(From Hans Holbein’s “Dance of Death:” XXVIII “The Rich Man,” XI “The Queen.”)

Take the Black Death, for example. By 1353 that disease had killed half of Europe: 45% to 60%, actually, depending on who you listen to. Even lowball estimates, though, make it the worst pandemic yet, in terms of body counts.

COVID-19, by comparison, has killed maybe 0.01% of the world’s population. That’s still a lot of deaths, but not even close to the 14th century pandemic’s kill rate.

The two pandemics aren’t entirely different, though.

Both kept and are keeping folks from making and trading stuff: either by killing workers and traders, or encouraging survivors to be careful about moving goods and people.7

Maybe we’re feeling COVID-19 more than the Black Death on an ‘impact-per-death’ score, because we do more international trade now. And that’s yet again another topic.

But we survived the Black Death. I don’t see why we can’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Particularly since we know what causes it, and have vaccines that give a measure of protection from the disease. Considering that viruses of any sort were unknown until a little before 1900, that’s remarkable.


Viruses, a Hasty History

Scripps Research's diagram of a SARS-CoV-2 virus.
(From National Institutes of Health; Scripps Research, via Almay Stock/MedlinePlus, used w/o permission.)
(Scripps Research’s diagram of a SARS-CoV-2 virus. (July 29, 2021))

Maybe someday I’ll devote most or all of my weekly article/essay/post to what we’re learning about viruses, but today I’ll keep it short and sketchy.

Louis Pasteur literally couldn’t see what caused rabies. He figured the ‘rabies bug’ was too small to be visible in microscopes of his day.

In 1884 — don’t bother trying to remember these names and dates, there won’t be a test — Charles Chamberland invented the Chamberland filter. Its pores were smaller than any (known) bacteria.

Chamberland filters let scientists remove (known) bacteria from solutions. In 1876, Adolf Mayer showed that his “Tobacco Mosaic Disease” was infectious: and was either a chemical toxin or a teeny tiny bacterium.

Dmitry Ivanovsky did pretty much the same thing. Martinus Beijerinck followed up on A. Mayer’s research in 1898, and said that the tiny infectious agents were liquid.

Beijerinck’s “contagium vivum fluidum” (soluble living germ) is where we get the word “virus.” Maybe. I’ll need to check into that before I’m sure.

Fast-forward to late 2019. Folks in Wuhan got sick and scientists spotted a new sort of coronavirus. By the end of January, 2020, they’d confirmed that SARS‑CoV‑2 could pass from one human to another.

A year later, scientists had developed something new — mRNA vaccines.

Some folks were setting up production and supply process.8 Others were having conniptions over something new.

We Don’t Know Everything, But We’re Learning

SPQR10's illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. (March 20, 2020)If you think that’s a sketchy overview, wait until you see what I do with SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Very briefly, biological variants are critters that are sort of like every other critter of their species, only not quite.

If you think that sounds vague, you’re right. It is. There isn’t, as far as I can tell, a well-defined and consistent definition for “variant” in that sense.

Some lineages of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are different enough to warrant being called “variants,” and this lot are currently the most worrysome ones:9

  • Alpha (lineage B.1.1.7)
    • 5.1.1 B.1.1.7 with E484K
  • Beta (lineage B.1.351)
  • Gamma (lineage P.1)
  • Delta (lineage B.1.617.2)

Monikers like “5.1.1 B.1.1.7 with E484K” don’t exactly roll off the tongue, which I figure explains why we see “delta variant” in headlines.

There’s a great deal more to say, but I’m running out of time.

So here are a few none-too-well-organized thoughts:

I’d vastly prefer living in a world where politics, panic and paranoia were less prevalent. But I’m impressed at how much scientists and others have accomplished.

Uncertainty isn’t my favorite condition, but with a disease that almost certainly didn’t exist before late 2019, it’s inevitable.

The good news, as I see it, is that we’re learning. Fast.

Enough of that. Time for the usual link lists:


1 “Raving politics, never at rest:”

2 Science and silliness:

3 I don’t miss the ‘good old days:’

4 Remembering history:

5 Antibodies and all that:

6 Dealing with reality, or not:

7 Yes, it could be worse:

8 Viruses, in (very) brief:

9 Various variants:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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