Can COVID-19 (coronavirus) help us stop Polluting?

The entire world is feeling the effects of COVID-19. Containment protocols have restricted millions of people at home and China’s economy has all but ground to a halt. Being one of the biggest consumer markets and producers in the world, that means the global economy has also significantly slowed.

But despite all the negative consequences, there may be one silver lining, a cleaner environment.

Image provided by NASA

China and the Environment

Like many industrialized nations, China has had issues balancing economic growth and environmental welfare. China is the world’s largest manufacturing economy, a popular choice for outsourcing labor, and is the single largest national contributor to global carbon emissions. Annually, China produces 30% of the world’s carbon emissions.

China is the largest producer and consumer of coal which powers its heavy industries and is the main source of heat for much of the country. The CREA estimates that in just the brief time since China enacted its general lockdown, the country has saved 200 tons of CO2 emissions. Much of that comes from the massive drop in energy demand.

“As a measure that took place effectively overnight, this is more dramatic than anything else that I’ve seen in terms of the impact on emissions,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA.

Other Hotspots

But China isn’t the only one experiencing cleaner air. Italy, the second hardest-hit nation and New York the biggest hotspot in the US have also enacted containment protocols such as shutting down travel and social distancing. Both locations have seen a big drop in pollution as a result.

Neither Italy nor New York are huge centers of industry like China is but they do have a lot of transportation related pollution. New York has already reported a 35% drop in transportation after just a few days of enacting containment protocols.

Exact numbers of how much pollution has reduced are not yet known but it can already be seen in cleaner waters, satellite imaging, and a reduction in pollution related illnesses.

Will This Last?

To be realistic, this reduction in pollution is most likely temporary. Similar cases where pollution has gone down after an economic downturn such as the major recession in the early 2000s has always been met with a flurry of economic activity after to compensate for the down economy.

Especially with China, the same is expected to happen again. Once the lockdown affecting much of China is lifted, manufacturing and in turn pollution is expected to rise back to normal levels if not increase to make up for the economic deficit.

Many environmental advocates believe implementing policy changes to reduce pollution during this time would be the most effective. Many programs and policies have a hard time taking hold because of the disruption it would cause. But enacting them during containment while their lives are already disrupted would make it easier to adapt to such changes.

COVID-19 has provided us with a window to reduce pollution for the long term but with most people struggling just to handle the virus, it is unclear whether or not we can capitalize on this chance.

Image by Ralf Vetterle from Pixabay

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Scientists are Testing Potential Treatments for COVID-19 (coronavirus)

The seriousness of COVID-19 cannot be understated. Multiple countries have implemented full lockdown policies and millions of people are confined to their homes to prevent the spread of this virus. There is a global effort in finding an effective treatment and vaccine to the virus but best estimates indicate we won’t have a vaccine we can mass produce until late 2020.

But through some clever problem solving, scientists are trying to repurpose treatments originally designed for other diseases for COVID-19. Of the 69 potential treatments discovered scientists are currently focusing on 24 of the most promising.

To be very clear, this idea is still very early in testing and there is no solid evidence that any drugs on this list will have any positive effect on COVID-19. But, the possibility exists and repurposing a drug will be significantly faster than trying to create a treatment from scratch.

Why these 69?

Scientists identified the 69 treatments by “mapping” SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19 as well as other coronaviruses.

By studying the genes in the SARS-VoV-2 responsible for targeting human proteins, scientists identified 69 already existing drugs that may affect the same proteins that COVID-19 targets. Of the 69 possible treatments, 24 FDA approved drugs were chosen to focus on.

These 24 drugs treat a wide variety of conditions such as cancer and hypertension. But the drug that is making its way around the internet is chloroquine, a drug that primarily treats malaria. Chloroquine is now in the spotlight because anecdotal evidence indicates it may be effective against COVID-19. There is currently only anecdotal evidence and no scientific evidence yet.

Doctors are urging people not to take chloroquine at this time unless your physician prescribes it. There are serious potentially toxic side effects associated with chloroquine and no evidence that it can help against COVID-19.

Many doctors also advise against it because it created a shortage of the drug for patients who need it. In addition to malaria, chloroquine also treats lupus and many patients are already complaining they either cannot get it or the prices have been severely marked up.

When Can We Expect Results

It is difficult to say how long it will take before we have concrete data. Rigorous testing is required to see if any of these drugs will have significant if any effect on COVID-19. We must be very careful about testing drugs not designed for COVID-19. But there is a huge push for this idea. In addition to multiple public and private labs, the World Health Organization and New York City will also be running independent drug trials. If any of these drugs prove to be effective it may be the shortcut that the world desperately needs.

There is a possibility that none of these drugs will be effective against COVID-19. If that is the case there are still many labs that are taking the traditional route and creating vaccines and treatments from scratch. Those should be ready for mass production within a year.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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Essential Frontline Workers Must Decide Between Health and Paycheck

Medical workers are some of the most important people right now. From research to testing and still dealing with broken bones and lacerations there is no doubt we need them now more than ever. But there are still others who keep the economy going and make the lockdowns that reduce infections possible.

Postal workers, package delivery, grocery workers, and food delivery workers are all classified as essential. In these uncertain times, they act as our lifeline and allow people to get the food and goods they need to survive quarantine. They also act to bring a sense of normalcy, what little there is to be had, and some level of confidence in this frightening situation. But, how are the workers that are on the frontline handling the situation and being treated?

Postal Workers and Package Delivery

Postal workers are continuing to work across the country despite over 20 postal workers with a confirmed case of COVID-19. In many cases, the offices took over a week to track down anyone who came in contact with the infected workers. Workers are also reporting that their local administration has little to no plan to combat the virus. Most facilities cannot be shut down for thorough disinfection because they afford the downtime.

But, management is quick to point out that the virus cannot live on surfaces like boxes for very long so it’s not necessary to disinfect as thoroughly as other sectors despite the danger of infection.

Package delivery like UPS, FedEx, and XPO as well as federal postal workers are faced with heavy pressure to keep working even if they’re feeling sick. The country’s reliance on delivery is at an all-time high and companies are under immense pressure to push past their functional capacity to meet demand.

Many delivery drivers and warehouse personnel like those who work for XPO do not get paid sick leave at all and have the implicit threat of unemployment if they miss too much time from work.

Grocery Workers

Grocery workers are so essential that many states now classify them on par with medical workers and law enforcement. This gives them the ability to bypass roadblocks or still move in emergency lockdowns.

Grocery workers and big-box retailers like Target and Walmart are especially vulnerable because they come in contact with a large number of people regularly. Depending on location, it is common to work up to 70 hours a week around hundreds of shoppers to keep up with demand.

Despite the danger, most retailers do not allow workers to wear face masks and provide limited protection. Even Costco, normally considered the gold standard for employee treatment failed to allow workers to work from home despite an employee testing positive and dying from COVID-19.

One of the common reasons cited by businesses for lack of protections is that they need to inspire confidence in shoppers. During a time when fear causes panic shopping and police intervention in disgruntled shoppers, projecting confidence is extremely important.

While most industries are reporting record layoffs, companies like Walmart and Dollar Tree are adding tens of thousands of employees to meet demand.

Food Delivery Workers

Perhaps the most vulnerable of the still active workers are food delivery workers. The rise of mobile app food orders like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub have made food delivery workers a staple in the gig work economy.

By definition, most food delivery workers part of the gig economy are not employees and do not have health benefits. Additionally, wages can be inconsistent and relatively low. Most food delivery workers cannot stop working even during this crisis. Thus they must decide between their health and being able to afford a living.

One worker succinctly put it, “You can make money anytime, but without a healthy body, nothing exists… Besides, the money you earn won’t be enough to cover medical bills if you get sick.”

Demand for deliveries continues to rise with entire cities encouraging residents to stay home. Food isn’t the only thing being delivered by gig workers. Medicine, household supplies, alcohol, and Walmart/Amazon orders are all being fulfilled by gig workers only highlighting how necessary they’ve become for effective social distancing.

To assuage doubts, companies like Uber Eats and DoorDash have told workers that they would provide up to 14 days of financial assistance to any workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19. Other than DoorDash who provides workers with gloves and hand sanitizer restaurants and other companies provide workers little support to prevent infection.

A Necessary and Vulnerable Workforce

Low wages, little to no benefits, and systems that force workers to choose between a paycheck and their health have always been there. But now that a luxury has become a necessity during social isolation, the normally invisible force that keeps our lives moving is made apparent as are the failures to the vulnerable workforces We can use this example to better structure our workforce in the future to take care of people, not only in times of crisis. Making basic benefits a right and not a luxury, giving workers more than basic protections, and expanding your workforce to give workers more breathing room can go a long way to making a better economy for all of us. Let this serve as a reminder for all the people that need help as they help us.

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How Social Distancing & “Flattening the Curve” are Saving Lives

You may have seen aggressive measures being taken to try and contain COVID-19. Entire cities are banning large gatherings, shutting down restaurants, and strongly encouraging businesses to allow employees to work from home. While these measures are certainly designed to limit the spread of the virus, as a pandemic, full containment is extremely difficult if not impossible.

Social Distancing

Social distancing refers to the practice of putting distance between yourself and others, ideally at least six or more feet. In major cities that may be difficult so people are encouraged to avoid crowded situations as much as possible. That means, avoid going into the office, public transportation, restaurants, and any other areas that force you in close contact with others.

This is especially important because even if you’re young and generally not in danger of severe symptoms you may become a carrier and potentially spread the virus to people who are most at risk.

Source: CDC, Drew Harris

Flattening the Curve of the Pandemic

The term flattening the curve references how a chart of infections would look like without precautions like social distancing. The number of infections and severe symptoms would skyrocket in just a few days making a chart look like a steep hill. This sudden and severe uptick would cripple the current American healthcare system. The number of patients would exceed the number of hospital beds and mechanical respirators very quickly.

Italy is currently experiencing the crushing weight of COVID-19 and they are faced with choosing who lives and who dies because of the lack of medical equipment.

We want to flatten out the curve and delay serious cases as long as possible so we don’t overwhelm the healthcare system all at once. While that means the pandemic might last longer, it would ensure that everyone who does get infected gets proper medical treatment leading to an overall lower mortality rate.

We already know flattening out the curve works in lowering overall mortality. We have solid historical data from the 1918 flu pandemic. Some US cities adhered to containment protocols while others did not. The cities that did not adhere to containment protocols suffered eight times more fatalities than the cities that did.

While all these containment protocols might seem extreme or even unimportant, precautions like social distancing and washing your hands often will definitely help lower the overall mortality of this virus.

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All of India is now under Lockdown

Tuesday night the Indian Prime Minister Sh. Narendra Modi decreed “There will be a total ban of coming out of your homes… Every state, every district, every lane, every village will be under lock-down.”

An estimated 1.3 billion people are ordered to stay in their homes for 21 days except if you’re an essential worker, the largest and swiftest action taken against COVID-19 in the world. The television announcement was so sudden that people found themselves with just four hours before they were under lockdown. There are reports that police are taking drastic action against anyone who breaks the lockdown. Modi’s announcement promised essential services would continue and people would receive food, water, and necessary supplies but made little mention of how these policies would be implemented.

“If you can’t handle these 21 days, this country and your family will go back 21 years,” Sh. Modi said. “The only option is social distancing, to remain away from each other. There is no way out to escape from coronavirus besides this.”

This is a stark contrast to just a week ago when India seemingly miraculously escaped the worst of COVID-19. While other nations had outbreaks numbering in the thousands, India to this day has 500 confirmed cases with no community transmission. All known infections came from tourists or citizens that traveled abroad.

Before the Lockdown

India just a couple weeks ago seemingly was untouched by COVID-19 as the world scrambled to contain outbreaks. Even now, there are less than 600 confirmed cases in the entirety of India all of them appear to be from direct contact with tourists or traveling abroad.

As it turns out, despite having a poor health care infrastructure, India has had a good track record with effectively handling influenza outbreaks in the past. When COVID-19 first began to spread, India was one of the first countries to restrict travel and limit social gatherings. The government was also very vigilant in tracking potentially infected people. Using GPS, CCTV, and mobile phone records they were able to track down a family coming from Italy believed to be the first infections in India and were able to contain almost 1,000 people who came in contact with them very swiftly.

Other advantages of India include being the largest manufacturer of generic medicine in the world accounting for about 1/5th of the world’s volume. As we now know, COVID-19 also disproportionately affects elderly people. India’s median age is 28 which very young compared to other countries like Italy where the median age is 45.

India’s Only Hope

While the situation is currently holding steady, India knows the situation is extremely precarious. As the second densest populated country in the world, disease can spread rapidly. India also has the largest slums in Asia, home to millions of destitute and millions more who live in unhygienic areas. But most dangerously is the density, it is common for families in impoverished areas to sleep 6-8 people per room. Many believe that they will likely starve to death waiting out COVID-19.

Enforcement on such a huge scale will also prove to be a challenge. There are already reports where police are taking drastic action, beating and humiliating anyone breaking the lockdown to serve as examples. Many businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies which are supposed to remain open as essential services are being closed down by police despite government guidelines. One chief minister, in Telangana State, threatened to issue “shoot on sight” orders if people disobeyed the lockdown orders.

Though these measures seem extreme for a nation with just a few hundred confirmed cases, it would not be an exaggeration to say these extreme measures may be India’s only hope to have any kind of control over this pandemic. India’s public health sector is woefully ill-prepared even in ideal conditions. There are an estimated 0.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people compared to Italy with 3.2 and China with 4.3. Both China and Italy’s healthcare system has been ravaged by COVID-19 with far more resources than India. There is simply not enough infrastructure or resources to handle this without suffering.

There is no easy way out for India. At this point, the few advantages they have are few and meager but they are making the hard choices that other countries were hesitant to make until it was too late. Hopefully, the personal initiatives laid out by the Prime Minster Sh. Narendra Modi to take these measures on war footing are going to work to prevent the worst-case scenario.

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The Truth About the New Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Tens of thousands are infected in more than 50 countries leaving thousands dead. The new coronavirus now labelled COVID-19 is more infectious than SARS during the 2002-2003 epidemic. Extreme measures are being taken in the most intense areas with cities locked down, airports shut down, and even reaching global emergency status.

This is understandably one of the scariest threats in recent memory. Fearmongering, constant media coverage, and misinformation all feed into our fears, ultimately dividing us. We are a global community and we all depend on each other, all the more during frightening times. We can’t forget our humanity in the face of an inhuman threat.

I want to emphasize that news is non-stop and facts are constantly changing. COVID-19 is so scary because so much of the situation is unknown. It is imperative that we rely on credible sources like the World Health Organization or the CDC for accurate and up-to-date information.

What we do currently know is that the World Health Organization has said the global impact of COVID-19 is “very high.” Director-General Dedros Adhhanom Gheberyesus of the WHO was adamant that COVID-19 is not yet a pandemic. This indicates that there is still confidence that the disease can be contained despite the high infection rate.

It is important to keep in mind that, while the disease is highly infectious, the death rate is relatively low. For comparison, SARS had a 10% death rate while COVID-19 is currently around a 2% death rate. Most people suffer only mild symptoms similar to a cold.

It is important to remember that there are things we can do to protect ourselves. General tips to prevent COVID-19 are similar to steps to prevent the flu.

You should avoid dense crowds and sick people. If you are sick, please work from home to prevent the spread of disease. Similar to staying home, try not to travel if possible. Lastly, washing your hands thoroughly and often remains the most effective preventative measure. You may also see man people wearing face masks. There is limited evidence that face masks actually prevent diseases like COVID-19. But experts say it might help as long as the mask fits tightly around the face.

We also have tools that can predict and analyze infection patterns. The Canadian firm BlueDot has accurately predicted COVID-19’s path allowing global authorities to concentrate their efforts where it’s most needed. DARPA is also testing out a Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) to act as an emergency defence against COVID-19 and any infectious disease.

Most importantly, there are thousands of health care workers and researchers tirelessly working to treat the infected and find a solution to keep us all safe. The dedication and compassion is what we should be concentrating on, not the fear that continues to divide us.

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The Cost of Vaccines for Coronavirus and Why Nobody Wants to Make Them.

The new coronavirus or COVID-19 as it is officially called is a global health crisis. One of the reasons why COVID-19 is so scary is the fact that it has no vaccine. Without a vaccine, we have limited control over the spread of the infection.

Moderna Therapeutics, a biotech company based in Cambridge became the first to create a potenial vaccine for COVID-19. Unfortunately, Moderna is a relatively small company and the vaccine must go through human trials before it can be mass produced. The truth is that none of the big industry leaders are currently investing much in COVID-19’s vaccine.

Drugs, especially vaccines, take potentially billions of dollars and years to develop. Drugs must first be synthesized which is a long process, then it must be extensively tested for effectiveness and safety. Due to its long development, if a health crisis subsides before launch or is less severe than initially thought, companies can potentially lose billions of dollars.

The SARS epidemic back in 2002-2003 was so short-lived that no vaccine even passed testing. There is still currently no protective vaccine for SARS as a result. The much more recent Ebola epidemic faced the same issues. Ebola has a high fatality rate, more than 50%, but has difficulty infecting a large number of people.

Johnson & Johnson, the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, worked to create a vaccine for use in the Congo. While no solid numbers have been released, Johnson & Johnson certainly lost a huge amount of money developing and manufacturing the vaccine.

It’s not difficult to see why large pharmaceutical companies would be reluctant to create vaccines with so much uncertainty. There are arguments that they should be trying to save lives regardless of the cost, but others will argue that these companies need to stay profitable in order to survive, grow, and be ready to create other drugs that people need.

Experts say that a viable mass produced vaccine for COVID-19 is still at least a year away and that’s assuming a big pharmaceutical will be ready to manufacture the vaccine. We can only hope that this trend will be broken and we can have the full cooperation of the entire industry when we need it.

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Huge Economic Impact of COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Headline after headline focuses on COVID-19 infection rates and deaths. It’s impossible not to pay attention to the human cost of the disease but some are already looking ahead to the economic impact COVID-19 will have on the world.

The country most affected by COVID-19 is China, where the disease originated from. In order to try and control the spread of the disease, the Chinese government initiated a lockdown for most of the country. The vast majority of the population is advised not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. The result is empty factories, offices, and shops.

Like the US, China relies heavily on small and medium-sized businesses. They comprise over 60% of China’s GDP and the taxes they generate contribute over half of the government’s revenue. But businesses are haemorrhaging money because they’re still required to pay employees during the lockdown. As a result, many businesses have already permanently closed with many others soon to follow suit. A survey indicates that as much as 80% of China’s small and medium-sized businesses will not survive three months of the lockdown.

Stimulus packages are already being deployed to try and keep businesses afloat but huge impacts are already being felt. Many companies rely heavily on Chinese customers. China is the largest global manufacturer which means almost every supply chain is now interrupted. As the largest manufacturer, China is also a huge importer of raw materials like crude oil and copper.

There are many indirect ripple effects as well. The tourism industry has already lost an estimated $1.5 billion because Chinese citizens cannot travel. Schools are shut down and will have to push back their schedules which affects local businesses. Even Apple is warning that their quarterly earnings will be weak because of COVID-19.

Many are comparing COVID-19 to SARS from 2002-2003. Long term effects of SARS are best estimated at 1% less economic growth. Economists estimate COVID-19 may result in 2% less growth. That may not seem like a lot but that would result in the slowest growth rate since the great recession.

Despite huge negative media coverage, China’s government acted much faster and more efficiently for COVID-19 than SARS. As a result, experts are optimistic that long term negative effects can be kept at a minimum if they can contain the disease. Ultimately, it’ll come down to time, preparation, and a little luck.

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