Corona QnA: How can I make sense of it? A material explanation
In the last article I explained the need for Christians to understand and reconcile both the physical and the spiritual facets of God’s creation. Many segments of Christianity have had a superstitious, mystical and even dangerous response to the present pandemic which is far from glorifying to God. False prophets and false teachers are described by Peter as “like irrational animals, creatures of instinct” (2 Pet 2:12). It does not glorify God for Christians to be ignorant of the material facts as best we can understand them. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the glory of kings is to search out a matter (Prov 25:2). It is a reflection of God’s glory that He alone knows and understands all things and a testimony that we are made in His image when we “search out” what God has created in order to understand, appreciate, subdue, worship, and serve God through His creation. Since the “heavens are declaring the glory of God” (Ps19:1), we understand something of God’s glory as we better understand what He has created.
So how can I make sense of what is happening from a physical, material, medical perspective? In what follows I have sought to provide answers, in layman’s terms, to some important questions relating to the Coronavirus pandemic.
What is the Coronavirus?
The Coronavirus is the name given to a particular kind of virus. Viruses are extremely small parasites, more than 10 000 times smaller than a grain of salt. Viruses are all around us and we breathe millions in every day. Most of them are harmless, but some kinds are able to enter the cells of our bodies and reproduce themselves, often damaging and killing them in the process. These are the kinds of viruses which give us a “viral infection” and make us sick. Chickenpox, Ebola, Swine Flu and the common cold are all caused by viral infections.
Is there a cure or vaccine?
There are no medicines which are able to kill or eradicate viruses. Fortunately, our own bodies have an immune system which is able to do just that. The white blood cells in our body produce “antibodies” which are protein molecules a thousand times smaller than a virus particle. Antibodies help to kill viruses by attaching themselves to the virus, which then helps the white blood cells to identify, engulf and destroy it. We have more than 10 billion different kinds of antibodies, each with different “claws,” uniquely shaped to enable it to attach to the many different kinds of viruses. Vaccines exist for specific viruses such as Smallpox. They work by injecting a dead, weakened, or slightly different version of the virus into your system thus stimulating the body’s immune system to reproduce more of the correct kind of antibodies. When the actual virus enters the body, the immune system already has a great army of antibodies that can attach to the virus and eradicate it before it spreads to the rest of the body. Given how vaccines work, it is essential that they be carefully developed and thoroughly tested before being widely used. Unless an existing vaccine is effective against the Coronavirus, it is thus unlikely that a vaccine will be available within the next year
How dangerous is it?
The “danger” of a virus should be considered in relation to 2 major factors:
1) Reproduction Number/ Transmission rate (R0): a Number indicating how many people will catch the virus from a person having the virus, thus indicating how readily it spreads. The reproduction number of Covid-19 has been estimated between 2-3. This indicates that 2 more people will catch the virus from every person who has been infected. However, this rate will vary greatly depending on the living conditions, movements, behaviour of people and other environmental factors.
2) Case Fatality/ Mortality Rate: Percentage of infected people that die from the virus. The World Health Organization initially estimated a fatality rate of 3,4% for Covid-19, but it is apparent that the actual number of people infected is far higher than the number of cases which have been confirmed by testing for the virus. The mortality rates among countries which have high testing rates and adequate medical treatment are less than 2% (South Korea < 1%). Mortality rate varies greatly depending on age, health, environmental conditions, etc.
The most deadly virus would be one which is easily spread to many people and causes the death of most of the people it infects. Eight out of ten people who contract Covid-19 have very mild symptoms and recover within two weeks. Although the reproduction number and fatality rate can only be estimated and varies greatly in different contexts and among different population groups, a rough comparison of the Coronavirus to other known viruses is instructive:
R0 Fatality Total Deaths
Seasonal flu 1-2 0,1 % 500 000/year
Spanish flu 1-3 10% 40 million
SARS 2-3 10% 774
MERS <1 34% 858
Measles 12-18 0,1% 140 000
Covid-19 2-3 1% ?
Covid-19 has a higher fatality rate than seasonal flu, but is still much lower than many other diseases that have been brought under control. Measles, which is significantly more infectious than other viruses, has been controlled by the use of vaccines. SARS, which is significantly more fatal, was eliminated by rapid human intervention which arrested the spread of the virus. By contrast, the Spanish flu claimed many more lives because of the absence of these. If individuals and governments do nothing, then Covid-19 could infect a large portion of the world’s population in a short space of time and cause more deaths than any other disease yet.
Why is our government concerned and what is being done?
Our government is rightly concerned because many South Africans have poor immune systems, pre-existing health conditions, poor living conditions, and limited access to health care. The mortality rate among South Africans could be higher than in other first world countries and if the virus spreads too quickly, medical resources will be overwhelmed, further increasing fatalities.
The present lockdown, along with social distancing and improved hygiene (hand washing) is aimed to reduce the speed at which the virus is spreading through the population. This is popularly spoken of as “flattening the curve.” The body itself must fight the virus off, but medical intervention can alleviate symptoms and assist the body to do so. Without such medical interventions the fatality rate will certainly increase and many more lives will be lost. Hence the need to try slow the spread of the virus down so that medical support can keep pace with the medical needs created by new infections. Given the global spread that has already occurred, it is unlikely that these measures will be able to contain Covid-19, but they will certainly help to slow it down.
Let’s take a moment to make this more tangible by using the reproduction rate and mortality rate in a crude mathematical model to predict what the effect of the Coronavirus might be over the next year. If we assume that an infected person infects 2,5 more people over a two week period and that 1% of those infected will die. After 2 weeks we now have 2½ people each infecting 2½ more, and so on. (In reality, a half a person would be dead already, but in maths he can go on to infect others – go figure!) After 12 months the virus will have infected 2,4 billion people and killed 24 million of them. The World Health Organization (WHO)recommends 5 simple measures in order to reduce the spread of the virus 1) Stay home as much as possible 2) Keep a safe distance 3) Wash your hands often 4) Cover your cough 5) When sick, stay home. If these simple measures can reduce the reproduction rate in the above example from 2,5 to 2 – what will the effect be if the mortality rate of the virus stays the same? Over a year the virus will infect 16,8 million people killing 168 thousand of them. Over 23 million lives could be spared over the next year by implementing these simple measures!
What’s all this maths and science doing on a church blog page?
Some might find these medical and mathematical facts fascinating, others might find them confusing, some are wondering what they have to do with God or the Bible. In Scripture, ignorance is never praised (2 Cor 2:11; 2 Tim 2:23; 2 Pet 2:12, 3:16) except when it comes to being ignorant of the ways of sinners (Prov 4:14-15). Ignorance leads to mysticism, fatalism and a host of other “isms” which are not praiseworthy. In the first chapter of the Bible God exhorted humanity to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28). It is our God-given mandate to preserve human life and further human flourishing and take dominion over God’s creation as those who are made in His image in order to represent and rule under Him. To do anything less than apply our minds, our technology, our wills, our governments and our social influence to subdue this “creature” which threatens so many lives, would be a derelict of divine duty. Yet Christians cannot stop there because the Bible doesn’t end at Genesis 1. There is so much more Divine Revelation, which provides divine insight into the problem and how God would have us respond. It is to this that we will apply our minds in part 2 of this min-series.