COMMENTARY: A primer on the coronavirus


As a recent public health graduate, I have found it surreal to watch a major public health crisis unfold before my very eyes. I was taught about pandemics in my public health classes, but I never thought I would witness one during my lifetime. I think many of us have been programmed to believe we are part a progressive society that is impervious to such disasters. However, the reality is that life is fragile and there are always impending threats in our midst, regardless of global advances.

I clearly remember learning about viruses in my microbiology class and being fascinated by these microscopic infectious agents that could wreak such havoc on our bodies. I had the privilege of learning about viruses. However, I think many people are overwhelmed and confused due to a lack of understanding. In my opinion, the best way to conquer the fear associated with this virus is to educate oneself about it.

Viruses are microscopic organisms that carry the blueprints to make copies of themselves once they invade a host, they stealthily use the structures in the host cell to multiply, killing the cells in the process and infecting others.

There are a wide variety of viruses on Earth and developing treatments for them can be tricky. The COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus, which is a family of viruses that causes other diseases such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome. Coronaviruses are not new but COVID-19 spreads more easily than others. Coronaviruses have protein spikes, which give the virus a crown-like appearance and attach to cell receptors in our airways in order to enter our cells and use their machinery to make copies of themselves. This is why people infected with the virus may display respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath. Many of the fatiguing symptoms we experience from these infectious microorganisms such as fever and inflammation are actually the effects of our body trying to fight them off. Our bodies attempt to defeat these unwelcome guests, which is quite remarkable!

The difficulty in creating an antidote for a virus is that scientists need to ensure that the drug does not interfere with human physiology and cause more harm to our bodies. This is especially challenging since the structures keeping the viruses alive are contained in our cells. Vaccines aim to introduce a weakened version of the virus into our bodies in order for our cells to develop immunity toward it.

While I know this all sounds overwhelming, we mustn’t panic because we are surrounded by plenty of knowledgeable public health professionals, researchers and physicians.

This pandemic has also demonstrated the fact that many people tend to undervalue the contribution of public health workers in our country and around the globe. Epidemiologists, biostatisticians and infectious disease specialists work around the clock to promote the health of their communities and they rarely receive the praise they deserve. Their services are especially pertinent in this current situation, but they constantly address public health concerns in order to keep us safe.

We must remember that health care is not solely performed by physicians but by a team of knowledgeable health professionals. Nurses, technicians, engineers and scientists all work together to cure illnesses and promote the well-being of the public. Let us take the time to appreciate the contributions of these individuals and work together to ease their burden as much as possible! While it might not feel like it, we can all play a part in beating this virus!

While many people are giving into fear and panic, it is important to remain calm and practice good hygiene. It seems a bit

strange to be reminded how to wash our hands, how to cover a sneeze and how to avoid touching various surfaces, but these actions are the ones that will truly make a difference.

Washing our hands is an effective way of destroying the virus because soap disrupts the structure of this membrane and its interaction with our hands, removing it before we can transfer it to another part of our bodies such as our mouth or nose.

The reason experts recommend using hand sanitizer is that the alcohol it contains also interacts with the lipid (fat) bilayer membrane of the virus, thereby destabilizing its physical structure and killing it.

It is also important to understand that infectious diseases have a period between being exposed to the infectious agent and exhibiting the first symptoms, known as the “incubation period”; this normally lasts 1-14 days. So, when people say you may be a “carrier,” this is what they are referring to. One can still spread the disease before he or she starts feeling ill. This is the reason that social distancing and self-isolation are so critical during this time. We must all come together to protect the most vulnerable in society. It might be difficult to grasp why we need to take such serious measures to defeat this minuscule enemy, but the virus has shown that it can spread at a rapid rate and we can unite to reduce that speed.

It has been especially devastating to witness the ways in which the virus has affected all aspects of society. It has affected social, political and economic facets of life and it allows us to reflect on the importance of health. Health is the foundation of society; if it is compromised people cannot perform to their full potential. Everyone plays a unique role in society and without each person’s contribution it cannot succeed as a whole. Just as each organ plays a unique role in maintaining the human body, so too does each individual in maintaining an efficient society.

Many places have shut down as a result of the pandemic and the guidelines of this shut-down have asked non-essential businesses to close. While these businesses are labeled as “non-essential,” they bring us joy and have become a part of our daily routines.

I often take these businesses and services for granted, and being deprived of them has given me a new sense of appreciation. It is important that we recognize the efforts of various members of society such as grocery store workers, small business owners, and restaurant employees.

I would personally advise people not to obsess over the numbers that are discussed on the news every day. While it is important to stay informed and up-to-date about the virus, you should focus on playing your part by practicing social distancing and paying attention to your health.

I understand this is a scary, confusing time for many of us, but life contains many unknowns and we must learn to adjust to them as they come.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s OK to be frustrated and there are going to be days that are harder than others, but we must try our best to stay positive and take things one day at a time.

People are saying that the world may change forever as a result of this virus. I am not sure if that is true but if it is, I truly believe that it will be for the better. In many respects this pandemic has taught us many valuable lessons. It has taught us to look out for one another, it has given us time to reassess our priorities, and it has reminded us to count our blessings!

Nura Salhadar of Olmito holds a bachelor’s degree in public health from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.