Coronavirus outbreak exposes need for scientific literacy
The coronavirus (officially named COVID-19) has now affected more than 85,000 people in at least 56 countries and killed close to 3,000 of them. Serious and sometimes unprecedented measures are being taken in many places, including the quarantining of entire cities and the cancelations of numerous flights and events.
People are scared and, in such cases, rumors of all kinds spread fast and add to the confusion and the irrational behavior. One of the most dangerous ideas being shared on social media is the (falsely claimed) efficacy of some seeds and other “traditional” treatments. Others are dismissing the epidemic as much less dangerous than the flu and recommend to just “keep calm, be rational and let the storm pass.”
This is where the importance of “scientific literacy” manifests itself. Scientific literacy is the minimum scientific knowledge that all citizens need to have in order to deal with today’s world, where it is important, sometimes vitally so, to know the difference between a virus and a bacterium, what type of radiation is dangerous, what genetic modifications do to organisms, the characteristics of vitamins, vaccines, the nuclear, and many more such topics.
For many years I have been campaigning for the dissemination, promotion and study of scientific literacy in our part of the world. There are regular, extensive studies in a number of countries, mostly in the West but also in places like Malaysia, but very little, if any, work has been done on this subject in the Arab world.
The coronavirus has just exposed the public’s lack of basic knowledge and understanding of viruses, bacteria, vaccines, prevention measures and treatments, etc. Let me offer some essential information in this regard.
First, what is a virus? It is a biological “agent” that invades a cell and reproduces inside it (making numerous copies of itself) at a very high rate. Because a virus doesn’t reproduce by itself, it is usually not considered a living organism. In contrast, a bacterium (the plural is bacteria) is a single-cell organism that does not have a nucleus but does reproduce by splitting into two identical daughter cells. Most importantly, bacteria that invade our bodies and organs can be killed using antibiotic drugs, but these cannot be used against viruses, which are dealt with using antiviral medications.
If the virus starts to spread more widely and quickly across the globe, our lack of an available and effective treatment may lead to calamitous consequences.
It is also important to know that our “immune system,” which is a complex system of cells and proteins in our body, naturally combats foreign and dangerous infections, whether bacteria or viruses. It keeps track and records information about past “invaders” so that it can quickly and easily destroy them the next time they invade our bodies. And that is how almost half of the people who have so far been infected by the coronavirus have recovered, as there are as yet no drugs that can effectively be used against COVID-19.
Now, how different is the coronavirus from the flu? Both are viruses that attack our respiratory system (lungs, throats, noses, etc.) and produce similar symptoms (coughing, sneezing, headaches, etc.), but the flu is rarely so severe as to require hospitalization, whereas the coronavirus is much more potent.
But here’s what is confusing people: It is widely reported that the flu kills tens of thousands of people each year. In the US, the 2018-2019 flu season affected 35 million people, led to 490,000 hospitalizations, and killed 34,000 people. Looking at the flu hospitalization and death numbers, the coronavirus looks like a much smaller disaster. However, the ratio of flu deaths to infection cases is very small (0.1 percent), likewise for hospitalizations (1.5 percent), whereas the coronavirus death rate is about 3 percent and the hospitalization (severe symptoms) rate is between 10 and 20 percent.
The moral of the story is: The coronavirus is much more potent, and the death numbers are still much lower than the flu’s only because, so far, it has been relatively contained. If, however, the virus (God forbid) starts to spread more widely and quickly across the globe (a bona fide pandemic), our lack of an available and effective treatment may lead to calamitous consequences (in fatalities, economic activity and other areas of society).
It is hoped that the coronavirus will be contained and most people will either not catch it or have their immune system successfully overcome it. In that case, the spread will slow down and the crisis will subside and die down within a few months. In the meantime, everyone should follow the basic hygiene prescription to prevent further contaminations: Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; not touching one’s eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; avoiding contact with people who exhibit characteristic symptoms; cleaning and disinfecting objects and surfaces that are frequently touched by many people, etc.
To go back to the importance of scientific literacy in general, and particularly in such cases, I call upon experts (physicians, biologists and scientists) in our region to participate more in the efforts that must be made to inform and educate the public. Surely we can spend, say, a few minutes a day on Twitter or Facebook, or one hour a week on YouTube or other media, to spread correct information and dispel misconceptions. It is not only our role as scientists, educators and members of humanity, it is our responsibility in such times of need.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum