Sh*t is Real: A Coronavirus Conversation Guide for Loved Ones Who Don’t Quite Get It Yet

Lead Photo: Cardi B yelling at our abuelas and/or performing onstage during Universal Pictures Presents The Road To F9 Concert and Trailer Drop on January 31, 2020 in Miami, Florida. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Cardi B yelling at our abuelas and/or performing onstage during Universal Pictures Presents The Road To F9 Concert and Trailer Drop on January 31, 2020 in Miami, Florida. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Read more

For most of us, it hit like a ton of bricks: there is no way to plausibly deny the severity of the coronavirus and the fact that it will require drastic changes and sacrifices from all of us in order to mitigate the loss of life. Our girl Cardi nailed it: sh*t is real.

An illness we first heard of late last year from what to many of us was a distant manufacturing town in China has now made its way across the world—first ravaging through Europe until it finally reached the Americas.

As of March 18, there are 7.783 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the United States, which now has confirmed cases in all 50 states less than two months after the first case was reported on US soil on January 22nd. Just four days before, there were 2,727 cases. To be clear, those are only confirmed cases. It is impossible to know the actual numbers—due to severe lags in test availability in the United States—but experts believe they are much higher.

Because of a delayed and frankly incompetent federal response that downplayed the threat despite warnings from public health officials, experts are expecting patients who show severe manifestations of COVID-19 to overwhelm hospitals, which are not remotely equipped to handle the volume of patients predicted to require intensive care and respirators.

As this global pandemic sweeps through the world, many of us have found ourselves needing to have difficult conversations with our family members in order to educate and inform them of the gravity of the pandemic. But with so much information out there, where do we even start?

Whether you find yourself trying to convince reticent elders about how serious this is, battling the conspiracy theories in your family WhatsApp thread, or just trying to wade through a sea of information and recommendations that seem to shift by the second—things can get overwhelming real quick.

It’s all incredibly confusing, so we spoke with Dr. René F. Najera, an infectious disease epidemiologist at John Hopkins University, about the main points you should cover in any conversation with your loved ones—from your viejos tercos who are making every excuse they can think of to leave the house to your vecina who really doesn’t seem to be taking things as seriously as the situation requires. Here are some guidelines:

Don’t panic, but understand that this is serious

El chapulín colorado might have gotten a lot of stuff wrong, pero one piece of advice he always got right: do not panic. Easier said than done, perhaps, but panic leads to irrational behavior and we all need to keep our heads straight if we’re going to get through this. You don’t need to buy out all the toilet paper in your area or get into a brawl over a can of tuna, but you do need to understand the risks.

Here’s the deal: The coronavirus strain is extremely contagious and far more deadly than any normal flu. And while elders and people with compromised immune systems and other underlying health conditions are particularly vulnerable, younger people are not invincible. In fact, recent data shows severe infections among young adults. 

Know the terms

There are coronaviruses (plural), the novel coronavirus and COVID-19… What does it all mean?

“This is one of seven viruses all called coronavirus,” Dr. Najera explains about the novel coronavirus—that is, this current strain that is making the rounds and is causing the current global pandemic. “Four of them are normal head colds. The 5th was SARS, and the 6th MERS,” he explains. “This new one is the one that causes COVID-19.”

Catch that? COVID-19 is the disease caused by this new strain of the coronavirus (i.e, the novel coronavirus). Just as HIV is the name of the virus that causes AIDS, this new strain of coronavirus causes COVID-19.

Take steps to avoid spreading illness

The good news is that there are ways we know work to prevent the spread of illness. 

“You have to follow the guidelines,” Dr. Najera explains, “because not following them means more deaths.”

Part of that is basic hygiene: Wash your hands frequently and with the right technique —scrub your hands with soap for a full twenty seconds, every time you come into contact with any surface that anyone outside your household may have touched. Use hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands immediately. Avoid touching your face. But possibly the most effective way to slow the spread of disease is to put distance between yourself and other people. If and when at all possible, stay home. Stock up on food, prescriptions and everything you need so you leave your home as little as possible. Any interventions that you might be able to take—from working from home if you are able to avoid all other non-essential physical interactions—reduces the risk of transmitting illness. If you must leave your house, put at least six feet of distance between you and anyone who is not a member of your household. And if you are showing any signs of illness, for the love of all that is good, stay home unless you require emergency care.

This is about our social responsibility

You may have heard the phrase “flattening the curve,” which is epidemiology for “we gotta slow this sh*t down.” The fact is that there simply are not enough intensive care hospital beds or respirators to treat massive quantities of people with respiratory complications at once. 

“We don’t have a vaccine,” Dr. Najera explains. “Nobody has defenses for this. We are all susceptible, there is no medicine and we don’t have the infrastructure for a lot of people to get sick suddenly.”

By doing our part and taking all the precautions our lives allow for, each of us can slow down how quickly this spreads, which slows down how quickly people get sick, which in turn will slow down the rate at which people show up to the hospital requiring intensive care. Taking precautions literally means saving lives. 

“This is already out of control” Dr. Najera says. “Many people will get sick. But if we can put the breaks on it as much as possible, we can prepare to have hospitals that can actually treat people.”

Make a plan

This is the part that can be hard for people because it can be disturbing to think about and make plans for a terrible possible scenario like getting really ill. But having a plan in place means you can act quickly without being in the position to make decisions during what can turn out to be an incredibly stressful situation.

Know what hospital you would want to go to should you get ill. If you have any of the risk factors that make COVID-19 especially dangerous for you, find out if you have a loved one who is less vulnerable that can run your essential errands so you don’t have to come into contact with anyone outside your household. Figure out a plan for getting the care you need if you live alone.

Take care of each other

The painful truth about this global pandemic is that its effects have been and will continue to be brutal for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 will claim the lives of many and will make many more seriously ill, but it does not end there. Already, especially in cities that have made the important yet difficult decision to close non-essential businesses, many workers have lost their employment and important sources of income, leaving people anxious, precarious and afraid. If you are lucky enough to have a steady income during this time, pay for that service you had to cancel for the gig worker you would usually rely on. If you are young and healthy, help out someone who might be more vulnerable. Join a mutual aid project in your city. The only way forward is kindness and solidarity.