Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, and especially since it began to make its mark as the shelves of nation after nation were cleared of toilet paper, there has been one constant: the internet has been a greater spread of dangerous misinformation than any other source. One wonders how the virus managed to achieve such mastery of social media in such a short time. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The internet, or more specifically the global network of gps satellites and mobile phones, can do something extremely positive.
When the Hove Superspreader returned to Sussex via Italy, there was a moment of panic. Who, they asked, had he been in contact with? Well, there were those guys in the ski chalet, the EasyJet flight, maybe the health centre, but what about the skilifts, the bars, the trains, the buses, the waiting rooms? With a virus contagious before an individual is symptomatic, the potential for exponential growth is not only present, but almost inevitable, as the situation in Italy and other countries have shown.
The problem of tracing the contacts of each individual that has tested positive for covid-19 is seemingly impossible, but we have a secret weapon: our mobile phones. It is a simple matter to track an individual’s movements to a high degree of accuracy if necessary, and from there to track those interactions most likely to have resulted in transmission. This information would surely increase the efficacy of self-isolating. We could probably even get google maps to find a route avoiding major clusters.
This use of technology alone could make an appreciable difference to our efforts to contain the coronavirus – and it’s already used in far more complex arenas, such as tracing potential terrorists through analysis of likely connections. Yes, there are major drawbacks, especially with regards the use of personal data, and these will make the most paranoid of the conspiracy theorists shiver with fear, but in times of crisis, all weapons must be at least considered.
Currently we are in the realm of best-guess worst-case scenarios, and estimates of potential deaths in the UK vary wildly, but none appear to take into account the way in which the virus necessarily spreads itself: in clusters. A mortality rate of 2-3% sounds low, but it’s almost 1 in 30. And that’s just the mortality rate amongst the infected. If you consider that a substantial number of those infected will become seriously ill for a number of days, then the picture changes quite dramatically. The Thirty Years’ War is reckoned to have accounted for somewhere between 30% and 60% of the population, but only a small percentage actually died in battle: the majority fell to disease and famine. Consider what happens if, for the sake of argument, 20% of frontline hospital staff in the UK are infected with the virus. Each one will have to be quarantined for several weeks, and some will never return to work. With the NHS dangerously overstretched at the best of times, losing such a large body of individuals when demand has rocketed will mean deaths beyond those we can attribute directly to the virus. We run the risk of the deaths that covid-19 contributes to being as substantial as those it causes.
As a person with Parkinson’s disease, a disease which all-too-many dismiss with the phrase ‘you don’t die from Parkinson’s, you die with it’, this is a serious concern. If the firms that manufacture the drugs that allow me to function with any sort of ability are hit by the virus, then my supply may be badly disrupted. A lack of levadopa will have a serious impact on my wellbeing. I will find walking very difficult, I will likely fall over quite regularly, quite possibly damaging myself in the process and thus increasing both my own vulnerability and the strain on the emergency services. I will also have serious trouble swallowing. I will choke repeatedly when eating (on those mouthfuls that I manage to get from plate to mouth without spraying the food all over the table, of course).
Obviously, many people face worse privations than I if meds are suddenly unavailable – people will die before they have a chance to contract coronavirus. But think on this. Those whom covid-19 kills often die from pneumonia. The most common ‘cause’ of death amongst Parkinson’s sufferers is, you guessed it, pneumonia.
When Boris Johnson says (and let’s face it, this is what he means) ‘some of you are going to have to take one for the team’, he has obviously been given a beermat which has this sum written on it:
Covid-19 x (elderly + chronically ill + disabled) = fewer non-economically productive scroungers
That is, he and his cronies will save loads of money that they can use to buy the next election. (And the more vulnerable in society are perhaps less likely to vote Tory.)
But we do all need to pull together, and intelligently so. Don’t panic buy as those less able (either financially, physically or logistically) will suffer, and these are most likely to be from the expendable classes. You know, the vulnerable. And share information, not gossip, not panic, not guff about garlic and washing the virus into your stomach with regular glasses of water (unless, of course, you are going to gargle the national anthem with a mouthful of soap every time you hear someone cough).
Many people with Parkinson’s and other chronic conditions use apps to track the progression of their disease, ensure they take their meds on time (a serious problem for those hospitalised as meds are almost always delivered at the wrong time in hospital which seriously affects their efficacy), and so forth. In times of national and international crisis, the more coordinated our response, the more efficient it is.
When Francis Bacon (almost) wrote scientia potestas est, ‘knowledge is power’ in 1597 he was talking about theology, so it doesn’t count). In 1620 he repeated his maxim, but this time he actually wrote scientia potentia est. Knowledge, he said, gives us the potential to wield power, but we must still choose to wield it ourselves. And wield it wisely.