The word “apocalypse” conjures up images of burning buildings, panicked masses, and the end of the world.
This isn’t a particularly new development. Since the beginning of time, people have been preparing for the end of time. Volcano eruptions, meteor showers, and virulent plagues were all once perceived as harbingers of Armageddon.
But, in the original Greek, “Apokalypsis” meant something completely different.
The Greek word Apokalypsis actually means “to uncover and unveil,” “to make known what was once hidden,” or “the disclosure of truth.”
Instead of “end of the world,” a better English equivalent would be “exposé.”
Therefore, an “apocalyptic event” is an occurrence that should change our perception of reality and force us to grapple with our new understanding of the world.
And this is why the COVID-19 pandemic should be viewed as an apocalypse.
Just not for the reasons you expect.
Anatomy of a Pandemic
On March 12, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. A pandemic is a specific designation given to a disease that’s and generating multiple self-sustaining outbreaks.
The Coronavirus (or COVID-19) is a result of a “Spillover,” or a cross-species jump from an animal to a human. A spillover virus is a near-perfect example of evolution. A spillover event occurs when a virus mutates just enough to survive inside a human host.
In Spillover, David Quammen writes,
This form of interspecies leap is common, not rare; about 60 percent of all human infectious diseases currently known either cross routinely or have recently crossed between other animals and us.
Following a cross-species transmission, the virus begins rapidly reproducing within its new host. Sometimes, this can make the host very sick. Fever, sweating, sneezing, coughing, and diarrhea are all ways in which the human body attempts to combat and expel the virus.
At this point, the “goal” of the virus shifts. It needs to acquire a new host. A lot of people think a “good virus” is one that keeps its host alive. This isn’t necessarily true. A better metric for what makes a successful virus is whether or not it spreads before the host dies. The health and safety of a host are irrelevant to a virus. In true evolutionary fashion, the goal becomes simple: Survival.
Different viruses have different modus operandi for spreading. Bodily fluids tend to be the most popular. Blood, sweat, mucus, stool, salvia, and the tiny water droplets you expel when you cough or sneeze are pretty good vehicles for infectious particles.
Based on the available data (admittedly, not much), a person with Coronavirus will probably infect 2–3 other people. (This is called the “R naught” or R0 number: Seasonal Flu: R1.8; Ebola: R2; Measles: R15).
Within the lifecycle of a pandemic, a virus will mutate multiple times (often just one genetic letter at a time). These tiny mutations are often meaningless. But, occasionally, it can make the virus deadlier and more resistant to treatment. And, when these mutations stack up over time, you end up with a new strain. This is the reason you have to get a flu shot every year.
(For the record, COVID-19 has already mutated into a different strain at least once since the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China).
Multiply this process across a few dozen hosts, and you have an epidemic. Multiply it a few hundred times and mix in international air travel, and you have a recipe for a pandemic.
Sometimes a spillover virus is innocuous; other times, it can be incredibly deadly. The so-called Spanish Influenza of 1918 infected ⅓ of the world’s population and killed between 50 million and 100 million people. Some other infamous spillover events include SARS, Bird Flu, Ebola, and HIV/AIDS.
Because of their high rate of mutation, spillover viruses sometimes burn out and disappear for a while (like Ebola), or they can hit the genetic mutation jackpot and become a constant presence in our virosphere (like H1N1 or HIV/AIDS). In the midst of an epidemic, it’s not always clear how a virus will adapt and spread in a new environment.
Within the next year, it’s likely you’ll catch COVID-19. However, 80% of those who catch the virus only experience mild flu-like symptoms. It’s totally possible to catch COVID-19 and not realize you even have it.
Thankfully, unlike other Coronavirus and influenzas, young children appear remarkably resilient to COVID-19. Those most at risk from the virus are the elderly, those with already compromised immune systems, and people with chronic diseases like diabetes, lung disease, and heart disease.
The mortality rate of seasonal flu is about 0.1%. Currently, exponentially more people catch the flu, so more people die from the flu. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is estimated to be between 2% and 3% – or 20 to 30 times more deadly than the flu.
However, it’s entirely possible the mortality rate could be lower given the number of mild cases that undoubtedly go unreported and unconfirmed. But, even if the mortality rate is 1% and 30 million people in the U.S. contract the disease, that’s still 300,000 deaths.
In Mark Manson’s thought-provoking article “Coronavirus: The Real Risks and Human Biases Behind the Panic,” the New York Times bestselling author explores the consequences to our public health infrastructure if we don’t stem the tide of new cases.
Currently, about 15% of those infected need to go to the hospital. If 30% of the US becomes infected in the next year (a conservative estimate), that means 15 million people out of that 30% will need a stay in the hospital. The United States only has about 925,000 hospital beds.
Couple that with the fact that 60% of Americans don’t have enough personal savings to weather an unexpected medical expense, and you have a crisis that extends far beyond dying from the virus.
The rescheduling and cancellation of events where large groups of people gather are in the best interests of all Americans – regardless of one’s personal risk to the virus.
And this isn’t an unreasonable request. If you want to know what it looks like when a country fails to “flatten the curve,” look at the horrific situation unfolding in Italy right now.
Because, here’s the deal, this thing is contagious. Most of us struggle to comprehend the concept of exponential growth (as opposed to linear growth) – it took 3 months for us to reach 100,000 cases worldwide; it only took 12 days for us to reach the second 100,000. And the fact that so many cases are mild creates a different sort of public health risk, in that people may have it (and spread it) without even knowing they’re infected.
In New York, 50 cases were traced back to ONE attorney. The epicenter of the South Korean epidemic was ONE religious gathering. And most of the deaths in Washington state are linked to ONE nursing home facility.
And, in the (must-read) article published in The Atlantic ( “How the Pandemic Will End“), writer Ed Yong deconstructs the three grim solutions (vaccines, herd immunity, and symptom treating) facing our country as we attempt to reign in COVID-19 – and the inevitable carnage that will ensue by choosing any of the options.
Yes, the odds are overwhelming in your favor that you’ll survive the COVID-19 pandemic – even if you happen to catch it. But, as “social distancing” becomes the new cringe-worthy buzzword to describe our best shot at curbing the spread of the disease as to not overwhelm our health system, a storm of criticism and YOLO braggadocio has followed in its wake.
It’s not about you.
It’s about your grandparents.
It’s about other people’s grandparents.
It’s about your co-worker’s children who have compromised immune systems.
It’s about your family members undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
It’s about people with pre-existing upper-respiratory issues or heart disease.
Just because you’re not at risk,
or just because you’re more likely to recover,
or just because you’re not frightened by a pandemic,
doesn’t mean there aren’t more vulnerable and less privileged people who have more to lose than you do.
Expand your sphere of awareness beyond your immediate wants, needs, and biases.
Dismissing the threats posed by COVID-19 or shaming people who won’t make you a cooler or more enlightened person. Downplaying a crisis is just as harmful (and selfish) as overreacting to one.
There are more pressing consequences beyond not being able to attend a concert or watch a basketball game on television.
And here’s what’s really frustrating: When cases of COVID-19 begin to level out (as they’re doing in China right now), a specific type of person will say something like, “See? I told you it wasn’t a big deal! It didn’t even kill that many people!”
When (not if) coronavirus cases begin subsiding, it won’t be because COVID-19 wasn’t serious or dangerous. It’ll be a result of our modern society leveraging its unprecedented scientific knowledge and medical resources while we simultaneously make dramatic sacrifices for the betterment of the common good.
In a sense, the COVID-19 Pandemic may, in fact, be an apocalyptic event in that it rips the veil between what we know in our hearts to be true and what we’ve held on to for far too long.
Just consider the advice and recommendations flooding from our media, politicians, pastors, and scientists:
Put the needs of the weak ahead of yourself. Make personal sacrifices for the betterment of society. Be more empathetic. Don’t hoard wealth and resources. Check-in on your neighbors – especially the widows and single mothers. Make sure children kept from school have food to eat and a safe place to stay. Listen to experts. Trust the scientific community. Avoid crowds and go outside to appreciate nature.
And this may be your first exposure to pressing questions like, “How can we standby in a modern society in which people literally cannot afford to take a day off or get sick?”
Just as “wash your hands” shouldn’t be revelatory advice, the lessons and questions above shouldn’t be dependent on a pandemic.
As COVID-19 spreads in the United States and around the world, viewing the pandemic as an apocalyptic exposé has revealed three crucial truths about :
- The Trump Administration has gutted our pandemic preparedness resources and emergency response capabilities. The White House has repeatedly tried to cut $15 billion in national health spending and slashed the disease-fighting operations of the CDC, NSC, DHS, and HHS. The $30 million disease crisis fund was also eliminated. Additionally, in 2018, the Trump Administration fired the U.S. Pandemic Response Team. Couple all of this with the President’s inaccurate public statements about the COVID-19, and you have a recipe for a true leadership nightmare. In an article for Foreign Press, Laurie Garrett writes, “Public health advocates have been ringing alarm bells to no avail,” and “large and small, America’s localities rely in times of public health crisis on the federal government.”
- Our current U.S. healthcare system disincentivizes seeking medical help. The most prevalent reason people avoid going to the doctor is cost. Even with health insurance, preventive care and checkups can be prohibitively expensive — especially when compared to other developed countries (and don’t even get me started on ER visits). Couple that fact with America’s unhealthy relationship to work (Americans are far less likely to take sick days to avoid appearing less committed to the job), and we’re primed for outbreak aided by our cavalier avoidance of the doctor’s office.
- We’re scientifically illiterate and proud of it. A not-insignificant portion of the U.S. population believes the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and dinosaurs and humans co-existed, so we’re already off to a pretty rough start. In recent years, we’ve seen Flat Earth become a “movement,” climate change dismissed as a hoax, and controversies erupt around the safety of vaccines. A prideful dismissal of the “scientific establishment” has taken root in some pockets of American culture (that’s also fueled a bogus wellness movement) that definitely won’t make a unified pandemic response less problematic. So, no, your essential oils won’t save you.
Additionally, please stop blaming “The Media” for the pandemic-related panic we’re seeing in our grocery stores and supermarkets.
The Media didn’t create a panic. People responding irrationally to what The Media reported created a panic. As far as I’m aware, no major news outlets told people to stock up on toilet paper and bottled water, hoard an entire pharmacy’s supply of hand sanitizer, and rush supermarkets like it’s Black Friday
That shit’s on us and our inability to properly assess risk and make rational decisions in the midst of a crisis.
On the contrary, it’s been “The Media” that’s been telling people NOT to panic, NOT to overreact, NOT to overbuy, and has been sharing best practices on how to stay safe while keeping us abreast of the extent of the outbreak. Blaming the media is lazy scapegoating for our own irrationality and a dog whistle for a certain kind of American.
The pandemic has unfolded pretty much as predicted in early January by the scientific community. Ironically, it’s been our President whose been spreading “fake news” by making grossly uninformed statements like saying the virus would “disappear on its own” (two months ago), that sick people were safe to go to work, and the threat posed to the public was a hoax amped up by his political rivals.
And some media outlets –like Fox News – have intentionally been downplaying the virus (or pushing conspiracy theories) to potentially catastrophic results (which is doubly ironic, given the vast majority of Fox New’s viewing audience represents the most at-risk demographic for COVID-19).
We’re in the midst of what may be the largest and most effective public health campaign in the history of humankind. We’re privileged to have the technological capability to disseminate massive amounts of information to the general public. A hundred years ago, our ability to communicate so efficiently today would’ve been considered miraculous.
So, please don’t confuse “reporting what is happening” with “how people react to the news being reported.” Those are two completely different concepts and indicative of completely different systemic problems.
Pandemics are a part of our past, and they’ll undoubtedly be a part of our future. It’s vital that we learn from the present so we’ll be better prepared to combat a potentially far deadlier threat. Important lessons are rarely acquired without hardship.
In response to the pandemic, social anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari writes,
“To defeat an epidemic, people need to trust scientific experts, citizens need to trust public authorities, and countries need to trust each other. To prevent a catastrophe we need to regain the trust we have lost. You cannot defeat a global epidemic through propaganda and isolation. The real antidote is scientific knowledge and global cooperation.”
Let’s not waste this opportunity to learn how our government, media, economy, public health infrastructure, and the general public interact with one another during periods of sustained crisis. And if we choose to learn the wrong lessons (or ignore them completely), we’ll be paying for them dearly.
Our early human ancestors evolved in small tribes in which trusting and looking out for one another was a matter of life and death.
In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, activist Rebecca Solnit writes,
“Disaster doesn’t sort us out by preferences; it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living.”
In one sense, the COVID-19 pandemic is a little bit like the end of the world, in that it opens up the possibility of a new way to begin seeing (and responding to) what’s been in front of us the entire time.
So, every now and then, a little apocalypse may be a good thing. Just don’t waste the opportunity to become a better people.
I recommend periodically checking in on the CDC’s official website for the COVID-19 pandemic for the most accurate and up-to-date information, including their helpful FAQ guide on the virus. Additionally, Politifact’s Coronavirus page is a great place to debunk common myths and viral hoaxes about the virus.