The Masked Man

For much of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis, I have been thinking even more than usual about human immunology. I have, over the years, read with fascination about smallpox, polio, plague, ebola, hantavirus, dengue fever, malaria, Spanish flu, tuberculosis, and on and on.

Along comes coronavirus in an age in which we should be able to handle it. Or, now that I type those words, maybe the idea of an extremely technologically sophisticated society being able to hand difficult problems is a conceit.

Wearing a mask is simple and can help stop disease, but will it have long-term consequences?
Wearing a mask is simple and can help stop disease, but will it have long-term consequences?

We all have concerns, but I have yet to talk to anyone who shares my own exact perspective. Some of scared to death of getting sick. Some think the whole thing is a scam. Others express suspicions, but are on board with measures being taken. Almost everyone seems to understand the economic and social consequences of shutting down the country again like we did in March.

In my thoughts, there is another consequence: overall immunity in humans. We build our immune systems through exposure to pathogens. Who will we be, immunologically, in six months or a year of obsessive mask-wearing and hand washing? Will we be more and more disease-naîve, until one day we will have to gown up just to survive the common cold?

Where would we be today if a less-lethal version of this virus made its way through the nursing homes and daycares three years ago, instead of being killed again and again by bubblegum-scented foaming hand sanitizer?

It is entirely possible that humanity’s difficulties with coronavirus is a consequence of obsession with not getting sick. Commerce is full of hand sanitizers and antibacterials. They interrupt the path of germs into the immune system. I would love to hear from an immunologist about this idea.

I will immediately concede that I am not a doctor or a researcher, and that I don’t have the answers, but now, nearly seven months into this crisis, no one seems to have answers.

3 Comments

  1. I hadn’t even thought of this, so thanks for that. I *have* seen that no one is getting colds and flu at anything like normal rates, so at least our theories about known infectious disease transmission appear to be holding up.

  2. “Where would we be today if a less-lethal version of this virus made its way through the…”

    It’s an interesting question. And maybe someday researchers will conclude that something similar *did* happen, thus explaining why some of us get the virus without lethal consequences (because there was already some built-in immunity). An idea like that is in rough drafts of a story I was working on *before* Covid-19 – before a killer virus wiped out 95 percent of humanity, 5% of us had already been sick with it (the weaker, early version), and thus survived the final wave.

    I too have observed what Nicole said: my kids used to get sick every couple of months, from birthday parties, etc., with strep, flu, colds, etc., but since the pandemic has kept them home, they’ve been fine.

  3. They mapped the RNA very early on. It’s a novel coronavirus, one that hasn’t been in circulation before. There have been other coronaviruses, but this one seems to be highly contagious as well as dangerous, targeting heat, lungs and kidneys.

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