From the September 2020 issue

Learning the hard way

Next time, let’s listen to the scientists, OK?
By | Published: September 18, 2020 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
COVID-19 virus
The spikes that adorn the outer surface of the COVID-19-causing coronavirus are clear in this illustration. Under an electron microscope, the spikes appear as a halo, or “corona,” giving the virus its name.
A few months ago, a virus began circulating in China’s Hubei Province. The virus attacks lung cells that produce surfactants, chemicals that reduce surface tension and help make tissue pliable instead of rigid. From the beginning, epidemiologists understood that the virus had the potential to become a global pandemic of unimaginable scale. For some nations, the U.S. in particular, there was ample warning and plenty of time to act.

But Wall Street doesn’t like that kind of news; talk of a pandemic might hurt the stock market. Sure, the bodies were piling up in China by the thousands, but here, the powers that be and their cable news lackeys spun COVID-19 as a “mild flu.”

Because no one on the planet was immune, the virus responsible for COVID-19 found fertile ground in every new person it encountered. As humans carried armadas of these little molecular machines around the world on airliners and cruise ships, scientists spoke of “when” — not “if” — the virus would arrive in the U.S.

But for powers that be, that didn’t compute: “COVID-19 is a hoax!”

When cases of COVID-19 started showing up on American shores, scientists and public health officials sent up every warning flare they could. If we acted immediately, they said, we could still save untold thousands of lives.

But those who might have prevented the carnage had long ago decided that scientists were just a bunch of party poopers who say things nobody wants to hear. A year before, they had fired the very scientists who might have stopped COVID-19 in its tracks. Why should they start listening now? Instead of taking action, they proclaimed, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

There is no miracle to be had. Viruses aren’t evil. Viruses aren’t even alive. They are just little packages of RNA that tell a cell to stop what it’s doing and start making more virus particles instead.

Interestingly, COVID-19’s real danger comes less from the virus itself than from our own immune systems. When white blood cells start showing up to clean up destroyed cells, they signal that there is a battle afoot by releasing small proteins called cytokines. In response, nearby blood vessels swell and release fluid into their surroundings, causing inflammation.

Inflammation can help with infection, but in this case, it backfires. All of that fluid dilutes surfactants even more, further robbing the lungs of their elasticity. Increased pressure causes the tiny air sacks called alveoli to collapse and also fill with fluid. Secondary infections can make it worse.

Cytokines do more than trigger inflammation. High levels of cytokines activate additional white blood cells, which release more cytokines, which activate more white blood cells, and so on. As the resulting cytokine storm rages on, chemicals released by white blood cells to fight the virus destroy healthy tissue instead. The lungs become useless. Each breath takes more and more work, but brings in less and less oxygen. The patient is suffocating.

If you get to this point, it’s unlikely that you are coming back. Deprived of oxygen and awash in the chemical maelstrom of the battle, organs throughout your body start shutting down.

I deeply apologize to those readers who have seen this agony themselves at close range. I almost didn’t write this for fear of adding to your pain. But what happened needs to be laid bare, and there is no painless or pretty way to do that.

I suppose people can throw rhetoric, ideology and wishful, magical thinking at physical reality if that’s what they choose. But it’s as pointless and irresponsible as it is unforgivably stupid. If you try to fight physical reality with demagoguery and propaganda, reality spits in your face and then stomps your hide into the ground every time.

Such is the lesson of COVID-19.

If you’ve followed my writing for Astronomy, you know that I frequently talk about the nature of scientific knowledge and the ways it is under attack. This — what we are going through right now with COVID-19 — this is why that matters!

If this pandemic has a silver lining, it is that we might start to show physical reality the respect it demands, and accept that reality doesn’t give a rodent’s hindquarters about beliefs, ideology, convenience, or anything of the sort.

And maybe, just maybe, we will start listening when scientists say there’s a problem.

At the moment, the reality that can’t be tweeted away is spelled C-O-V-I-D. But there are other deadly realities, some of which are easier to ignore because they move more slowly. One such is spelled C-L-I-M-A-T-E. If we don’t start believing scientists about that reality very soon, the consequences will make COVID-19 look like a warm spring day in the park.