There ain’t no Sanity Clause

So, here we are, in the throes of insanity as Covid-whatsit (I think the virus may have reached the age of majority right about now) accompanied by what I read is panic buying of toilet paper and Lysol wipes and now food. Various grocery store shelves bare. Then there’s the conflation of Corona beer with the corona virus. The mind boggles.

Incidentally, “corona”, in viral terms, simply refers to the shape of the virus, which looks a bit like a crown – it isn’t anything especially dire. The common cold is a coronavirus.

The other day I dashed into Canadian Tire and whatever it was I was trying to find (and didn’t) was right next to a large display of masks. Now these weren’t those little white medical ones you see everybody wearing (which means you can’t understand a damn thing they say, their voices being muffled and all) but, well, closest I’ve ever seen to these are from old movies from around 1920, those weird gas masks they had to protect against chemical warfare. The ones that made wearers look like aliens – and not the nice friendly kind either. Good grief. It’s come to this. Browbeating some poor little Somali kid who works at Canadian Tire because the store’s run out of surgical masks that won’t protect anybody from anything.

Marx Brothers, here we come.


[From the 1935 movie, A Night at the Opera, where Groucho attempts to explain a business contract to Chico, who rightly points out there ain’t no sanity clause.]

Phantom of the Opera?

So, in response to one of the questions I get asked: will a mask help? No it will not. Surgeons wear the damn things to protect the patient they’ve just cut open (the skin, as you might recall, is our largest organ and keeps us safe from marauding germs pretty much all the time) and don’t want to get the bacteria from their mouths and noses into the patient who’s just been cut open. Otherwise, your grubby fingers on that mask will probably do more harm than good. Try not to touch your eyes. If you don’t want to listen to me, listen to this York University prof. 

The sky was falling with SARS (it didn’t – 800 people died). World was ending with H1N1. Didn’t happen. As for the Spanish flu, I’ve already told you times were different in 1918. And that was ten years ago.

What perturbs me somewhat is that there are all these experts out there, expounding, yet nobody really explains what a virus is or how it works. Because without a host organism, in this case you, a virus is just a harmless little chunk of protein.

A bit like a SIM card sitting on your desk. Useless. Until it’s inserted into that phone, it’s just a chunk of useless metal. Viruses are like that.

Immunology 101

Viruses are small. Very very small. Somewhere between 20 and 250 nanometers in diameter. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. I have no metaphor to help you visualize this. Try to think of it in terms of billionaires or something.

Viruses were discovered, or rather deduced, in 1886 by two different scientists in two different parts of the world, when something was found to infect tobacco plants that didn’t seem to be bacteria, since those had been filtered out. (Bacteria are some 100 times larger than viruses which is why they were observed long before, in the 1600’s.) Nobody actually saw a virus until the 1930’s when viruses finally became visible with the electron microscope.

[Officially the first microscope was developed by the Dutch draper van Leeuwenhoek who observed what he called “small animals” in a droplet of rainwater. Bacteria in other words. Of course van Leeuwenhoek wasn’t always reliable – he maintained he had seen a complete little man, a humuculous, in sperm. Still, the man was brilliant and was the only non-scientist to be invited to join Britain’s prestigious Royal Society.)

Viruses are not cells and aren’t alive, at least not in any conventional sense since they cannot reproduce, grow or metabolize. A virus can only replicate within a living host; it does this by co-opting the host’s cellular genetic “machinery”. So, without a living host, a virus is just a chunk of protein. Analogous to that SIM card sitting on the table.

And it’s not that easy for a virus to gain access to that host since we are all encased in this large immune organ called the skin, which is pretty much impenetrable unless there’s a cut or burn or wound. (That’s why bacteria, which are living cells and can survive on surfaces can infect any part of the skin that is open.)

The skin also contains enzymes like lizozeme (I think I spelled that right) which further repel microbes.

The fact that a virus can only exist within a host cell explains why anti-viral drugs tend to be toxic; anything that kills a virus will also damage the cellular environment, i.e., the host. That’s why antibiotics, that kill self-contained bacteria, work really well and anti-viral drugs do not. Anti-viral drugs like Zithromax tend to be toxic and often don’t work very well. Which is why we haven’t “cured” the common cold.

The odds of your immune system actually responding to a virus are slight if you are a normal healthy human being (since it’s the immune response to the virus that causes symptoms, not the virus itself). True, if you are elderly and/or immune suppressed or ill you are at greater risk. But if you are elderly or sick or undergoing treatment for cancer, well,  you are at risk for all sorts of things.

Damn lies/statistics

I am perplexed as to where these dire statistics that are being hurled about willy nilly are coming from, particularly since hypothesizing about the future is not science, It’s speculation. And that, in turn, is affected by one’s agenda.  After all, if I am trying to convince you of something it is to my advantage to make my point seem as dramatic as possible. Since the people who are putting out these stats have a vested interest in making them sound important  … well, I rest my case.

Has it not crossed anybody’s mind yet that if we were to graph, map or pie-chart the regular flu the numbers would be far, far greater? If we followed normal winter deaths from flu or flu-like illness things each year we’d see the same type of pictures?

Don’t forget keeping us indoors is good for a lot of people, not least those who peddle e-sports and on-line courses and such. Just saying. On the flip side, who will graph and chart the fallout, all those stores and cafes that will have gone out of business, all those people who will have lost their jobs, all the attendant misery this nonsense will end up causing? No, that won’t make the front pages, I guarantee you that.

Knowing how a microbe will behave within a human immune system is .. tricky. To put it mildly. Largely unknowable. Debatable. And it’s not like such predictions were especially accurate with SARS or any other of those pandemics that were going to kill us all.

In any event, this virus doesn’t appear to be especially virulent given the numbers. Yes, the numbers. Think about it. On a planet with 7.7+ billion people (so really close to 8 billion), some 198 thousand are thought to have the virus, of whom close to half have recovered. Some 7900 as of this writing, globally, have died, pretty much half of those in China where the, er, outbreak began and most of the rest in the two hotspots, Italy and Iran. Contrast that to the 1.5 million people who die of TB every year. Or the tens of thousands who die of the regular flu. (The CDC estimates that some 3500 Americans died of the flu in 2017-18.) Never mind poverty and cancer and war and whatnot.

Now I am sorry for those individuals’ families and friends, but for heaven’s sake people. When the weather is cold, people get flu or what’s called flu-like illness. That’s the people who get sick with symptoms they think are the flu but when tested don’t actually have the flu. They’re still sick.

(I suppose someone will respond that the reason these numbers aren’t so bad is because of all the measures taken. Which reminds me of one of those elephant jokes I used to like as a kid. Why do elephants have little red eyes? So they can hide in cherry trees. Have you ever seen an elephant in a cherry tree? No. See how well they hide! You can’t win.)

A foolish consistency, said Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds.

In BC,  as of today’s newspaper, four elderly people – in a province with over  3 million people – have died. Again, I’m sorry for their families and friends, but honestly. Does this really warrant panic and hoarding not to mention all the doom and gloom? Serious faces? Empty streets? Good grief. According to Worldometer in  Canada, the total number of cases is well under 600. What’s 600 out of 35 million?  I tried to calculate the percentages in terms of global population but none of my calculators have enough zeroes and then I got confused and gave up. You do the math.

Calm down. And remember that a virus is not a bomb, it’s not anthrax, in and of itself it has no power to do anything. And frankly, this one doesn’t appear to be all the virulent.

Cause of death isn’t as easy to determine as most people think it is. Particularly with those who are older and have several things wrong with them it’s bloody difficult to determine a single cause – which is all the form has room for. The writer Calvin Trillin’s wife died of heart problems some years back; I know this because he wrote a beautifully moving tribute to her. She had had breast cancer some decades earlier; the treatment (radiation notably) badly damaged her heart muscle. So, 20 years later, did she die of heart disease, breast cancer or the treatment for that cancer? See, not so easy.

Um, you needed to be told to wash your hands?!

Yes, wash your hands. Because it’s a good idea generally since the world is full of microbes and if you’re especially tired or sleep deprived or stressed or it’s cold outside and you get gunk on your hands and touch your eyes you could get infected. Or not. Mostly not. Wash your hands not because it will protect you against this apparently killer virus since viruses can’t survive on an inert surface for very long; wash your hands because practicing basic hygiene is something you should just do. Duh.

Here’s a thought. Live a little and splurge on a nail brush. Wet it, run it on the soap, scrub your hands, nails, fingers …  Now you can scratch your eye.

Stop stressing. Turn off the news. The end is not nigh.

And if it is, all the toilet paper in the world won’t save you.



[Thanks to my friend, science blogger Maryse,, for links and for helping me focus my thinking.]


6 thoughts on “There ain’t no Sanity Clause

  1. Lucy

    Wish people could just wisen up.
    Look what this virus has done to our hard earned money! It is not the fault of the virus!

    1. susan Post author

      The social and cultural concerns seem to be multiplying much faster than the virus. Rather surreal.

  2. Jan Lashbrook Green

    Thank you to my friend Cathie for sending me to your blog. I agree with everything you say and have said more or the less the same things myself, albeit, less convincingly. My greatest fear is that the massive, unending response by governments, health authorities, etc. have permanently damaged our personal ability to discern real threats. I’m a retired librarian and university professor who spent many years trying to get students to examine information for reliability and truth so they could make appropriate life decisions. I believe very strongly that while the Internet can be a cause for good, it can and as our current situation has clearly shown, be a terrible source of misinformation. But the bigger issue is people no longer have the ability to carefully and rationally consider life circumstances and make decisions based on not only their own past experiences but community situations. History is there for a reason – it can help us determine appropriate responses based on comparative situations. Our world will never be the same again, except we will face similar threats and how will we respond to them? We simply cannot use this as a pattern for future responses. The world cannot afford the personal and global economic, cultural, emotional toll we are experiencing.

    1. susan Post author

      Thank you so much for your insightful comment. (And thanks to Cathie as well.) I couldn’t agree more with respect to what you say about history. Context matters – but we seem to have lost all sense of that in this panic, Chicken Little sky-is-falling discourse. I’m sure your students appreciated you. What you were teaching them was genuine critical thinking,which even in the academy appears to have become vanishingly rare. What perturbs me most is that once this is over, two months, three months from now, there will not be any graphs or charts or daily updates mapping the lives destroyed; jobs and businesses, lost; children left living in poverty … That doesn’t have the cachet of a pandemic after all. Hopefully it won’t be as bad as I fear.
      Again, thanks for reading and for commenting.

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