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Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo

Mar 23, 2020

The need for physical (not social) distancing

On my first night in self-quarantine, one of my classmates — Dr. Melvin Sanicas, a physician and scientist working as medical director, dropped me a personal message in Facebook: “Anna, What happened? Hope it’s not serious. Get well soon.” It was a start of a conversation that I needed to hear. He was after all a digital health expert for the World Health Organization and a fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

And like a tap in the back —he said “Don’t worry, this is not going to be like the Black Death.”

The Black Death is a pandemic that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351 and killed at least 25 million people or about 1/3 of Europe’s entire population.

Fortunately, science is way more advanced today. Melvin then told me that when the first cases of AIDS were described in June, 1981, it took over two years to identify the virus (HIV) causing the disease. With COVID-19, the virus SARS-CoV-2 was identified and the genome was available in less than two weeks after the first case was identified in December 31, 2019. Moreover, a test kit to detect the virus became available and the protocol shared with the rest of the world.

81% of the cases are mild

The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team of China CDC (Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention) published a paper on their analysis of a total of 72,314 patient records, which included: 44,672 confirmed cases. The study reported that the disease causes no symptoms or is mild in 81% of the cases, results in severe pneumonia in 14%, and is fatal or critical in 5%. In the 60-69 age group, 1 in 36 died. In the 70-79 age group, 1 in 12 died. In the 80 and above age group, 1 in 6 died.

Citing the report, Dr. Sanicas said severe forms of COVID-19 are usually developed by people who smoked or had pre-existing illnesses (heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases like asthma and COPD).

Handwashing is the best tool

But there was an effective defense against it — hand washing. Dr. Melvin then explained that SARS-COV-2 causing COVID 19 are viruses which possess an envelope composed of a fat-like substance that is water insoluble. This type is the most susceptible to environmental disinfectants. In other words, soaps can incapacitate enveloped viruses. The virus can be easily disinfected in just one minute.

Lessons from the flu pandemic

We then discussed the 1918 flu pandemic — the most severe pandemic in recent history —and how the response of Philadelphia and St. Louis resulted in fewer deaths in the latter.

When the first case of the Spanish Flu — the H1N1 virus — was first reported in Philadelphia in September, 1918, authorities pushed through with a planned Liberty Loan Parade to promote government bonds that were being issued to pay for World War I. In a matter of days, at least 600 had the virus. By the six-month mark, about 16,000 had died and there were more than half a million cases. On the other hand, St. Louis, who cancelled the parade and institutionalized social distancing interventions early on, recorded a far lower death toll of 700 people.

Physical (not social) Distancing

There was a lesson that needed to be learned — “physical (not social) distancing”. While there can’t be close contact between humans — social connections must still be maintained.

We must come to the table knowing that there is no barangay, city, province, government, or country that can solve the COVID-19 crisis alone. More than ever, human collectivism is key. We have prepared for wars even before they happened. Maybe this time — we ought to work together, collectively and purposively, regardless of race, ethnicity, political affiliation, and religion, in finding a solution to a threat that has shaken our very definition of civilization.

While there is a need for community quarantine, there is no better time to come together than now.

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