By Merlie Figura Hammer
Chemist & Retired Medical Underwriter
Some basic definitions: an epidemic is when a disease affects a large number of people within a community, population, or region. A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread over multiple countries or continents. As Covid-19 began spreading in Wuhan, China, it became an epidemic. When the disease spread across several countries and affected a large number of people, it was then classified as a pandemic.
The last deadly pandemic we had was in 1918 with influenza, now more commonly called the flu. It caused the deadliest pandemic of the 20th century, killing 50 million lives all over the world (by comparison, World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives). Transmission of the disease was from person to person through airborne respiratory secretions. The influenza pandemic lasted up to two years due to a second, mutated wave of the virus spread by wartime troop movements.
Just like what is happening today, not everyone complied with regulations about wearing face coverings and masks during the influenza pandemic (even though they were also widely used). Note that there were no effective vaccines or antiviral then; the first licensed flu vaccine appeared in America in the 1940s.
Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020 and by the end of that month, the world saw more than half a million people infected, with nearly 30,000 deaths. Humans had no way to defend themselves from the virus because it was new to them and their immune systems were not ready to fight it yet.
The “novel” coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans, as the word “novel” implies. MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV are also caused by the coronavirus. The name ‘coronavirus’ has to do with what the virus looks like under a microscope. Corona means crown because of the spikes that surround it. Covid is the term that stands for Corona (CO), Virus (VI), disease (D) and “19” stands for the year 2019 when it was first identified. Biologically speaking, those spikes are critically important: they are literally the point of contact that our own vulnerable lung cells have with the virus, SARS-CoV-2. Like a key cut for a specific lock, the spike slides neatly into the matching sites of receptors found on cells that line the airways of our lungs. Once secured, this connection allows the entire ball-shaped virus to slip into the cell. Inside, it makes thousands or millions of copies of itself. Thusly, the potentially lethal infection begins.
In simple terms, a virus is a microscopic parasite that can infect living organisms and cause disease. It can make copies of itself inside another organism’s cells. Viruses are simple compositions that can multiply only in living cells of animals, plants, or bacteria. They are a small collection of genetic code, either DNA or RNA, surrounded by a protein coat, and that is the reason that handwashing with soap is effective in destroying the virus. Once the soap destroys or washes away the protein coat, the DNA or RNA inside is destroyed.
A virus cannot replicate alone. Viruses must infect cells and use components of the host cell to make copies of themselves. They are inactive when not inside a living cell, but are active when inside another living cell.
The virus reproduces by “commandeering” a host cell and using its machinery to make more viruses. They come in different structures and have different kinds of genomes. In China when the disease started, Chinese scientists were able to sequence the genome of Covid 19, meaning they were able to know the genetic data about the disease. They sent this information to all scientists over the world so that every one of them can study the virus and find a cure and/or vaccine.
The Initial Struggle
The normal reaction to any new disease is for doctors to try all the existing medications and/or antibiotics until they find one that is effective in curing it. While doing this, scientists try to identify the source of this infection – which could be something never heard of before or a mutation of an existing virus – in order to create a cure and a vaccine.
When Covid 19 first spread, there were many reactions as to whether it was a real disease or just a story concocted by people for personal gain or reasons. Many conspiracy theorists came up with stories that were so unbelievable that anyone with a background in science or simply common sense would either dismiss, argue, enlighten, or simply laugh at. However, these conspiracy theories spread like wildfire and many gullible ones – especially those with no science background – believed and spread them in turn.
One of the many theories that cropped up was that Bill Gates is the one who created the virus, and then created the vaccine for financial gain; another theory is that he created it to kill more people to depopulate the earth. It is worth mentioning that Bill Gates is a major philanthropist who, after seeing deaths due to non-access to medical care and/or lack of funds to finance medical necessities, created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with his wife Melinda. They help millions of small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — most of whom are women — grow and sell more food as a way to reduce hunger and poverty. They donated medicine and provided medical help to people with no access to such. He initiated and funded research for vaccines to at least minimize (if not stop) the spread of many diseases especially in remote parts of the poorest countries.
While research for a cure and a vaccine was in full swing, people continued to die all over the world, and people took the opportunity to sell unknown products for money. There were also denials of the disease, mainly for two reasons – that it was created by the Chinese, or that it was created by the pharmaceutical companies to promote a drug and/or vaccine. Both of these assertions are incorrect; people without any science background are the ones most gullible for these stories and they became strongly opinionated and opposed the masking and distancing rules. Sadly, the church didn’t help at all. There are churches who wanted their church services to continue, and who up to this day either don’t recommend any vaccines or recommend only a specific vaccine.
With the misinformation spreading like wildfire and seemingly unstoppably, the pandemic ravaged the whole world with millions dead. How did people react? Some simply took care of themselves and their families; many moved to the countryside where there are fewer people with residences fairly distant from each other, and others simply isolated themselves. Some people blamed the government for not controlling the spread of the virus, not considering that people are in fact the number one spreader of the disease. Some started thinking outside the box and found the chance to be useful and helpful.
Where humanism comes into play
Whilst scientists were working day and night to find a cure and synthesize a vaccine… humanism had the chance to spread with the spread of the virus, although not as fast.
Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasizing common human needs, and seeing solely rational ways of solving human problems. Humanism is defined as an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to humans rather than divine or supernatural matters.
Humanists prefer critical thinking and evidence over a superstition or acceptance of dogma. They don’t believe in anything without proof. They will question until they find solid proof that supports a statement, and they will look for the scientific fact that supports a statement.
Humanists became activated to do what they do best. They started educating others about viruses and diseases. They tried to disseminate scientific information. They tried to help the food banks, food distribution, donated whatever they could to provide for their neighbors and countrymen.
They explained the reasons for the masks and distancing and why we must not touch any part of our face. They tried to make people understand that vaccines are not designed to kill, that they are safe, and designed to help mankind to survive; after all, it is science that really saves lives, not the Church.
Questions about the safety of the vaccine made some people wary of taking it: naysayers wondered how it was created so fast when in the past it took years to create a vaccine and have it fully tested and approved. Yes, the vaccine was created faster this time because scientists have been working on a vaccine against a family of this virus for many years. The initial research was not specific for the Covid strain we have today, but it is part of that family of viruses that caused the SARS and the MERS. Humanists tried to relay this information to people to help them understand the disease and the vaccines we have today.
Humanism is a system of thought that attaches its prime importance to humans rather than to a divine or supernatural being. Humanists believe in the natural goodness of people. It emphasizes common human needs and seeks only rational ways of solving human problems, humans saving human lives.
In the time of pandemics, there is no space for arrogance nor superstitions and conspiracy theories. There is no place for errors, especially major ones; these will cause the loss of lives. We should start learning something about the disease, the grief, the outcome, the way of life that has been shattered and most of all the basic science behind it.
As American President Joe Biden said, there are nights when we turn around in bed and the person who used lie down next to you is no longer there. There are times when we say something out loud thinking that the person we love is there to respond. There are times when you look out of the window thinking it is time for a loved one to be home by now, but that loved one is gone.
The Covid pandemic killed millions worldwide. If the deaths around the world don’t convince people that Covid is real, what will? More deaths, more pain, and suffering? Are people content with not seeing love ones in their hospital beds, not being able to hold their hands, and allow them to die without seeing them? With Covid, patients who die of it, die alone. No family member could hold his/her hand, nor wipe his forehead, nor whisper words of encouragement, nor gently massage a congested chest. No relative is allowed inside the hospital room of a covid patient.
Science is extremely important to understand many things. A questioning mind, a sponge-like brain that could absorb information and open to discuss assorted ideas is a necessity at this time of a pandemic. Masters of economics can’t talk about pathogens. A doctorate in sociology can’t talk about immunology. A person has to have that basic understanding that there are viruses around us that could mutate into something deadly and it could happen anywhere, anytime. To blame the Chinese people is a political argument that demonstrates a lack of understanding about what viruses are.
During this pandemic where many families lost loved ones, let’s drop the arrogance. Let’s open our minds to learn more about the disease through science because it is science that saves lives. It is the scientists who work day and night to create a cure, a vaccine for mankind, not a supernatural being. Let’s adopt humility and learn to listen to science. Let us practice humanism at its best.
Humanism and pandemics! While we cannot prevent a pandemic, we can promote and spread humanism so that mankind can deal with another pandemic armed with knowledge, wisdom, and kindness to one another.
Yes, we are human, and as humans we make mistakes, but we also have the capacity to realize that we made that mistake and try not to do it again. In this era, arrogance could cost us our lives and those of our loved ones.