March 16, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Why You Should Care About COVID-19 as a Cornell Student

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In the days following the decision to suspend in-person classes by university leadership, I have witnessed a shockwave of complaints from fellow Cornellians and friends regarding this decision. Currently, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation circulating within the Cornell community, causing students to place blame on the university for making the correct decision. I will respond to many of the fallacies I have heard from my peers in recent weeks by making it very clear why you should care about coronavirus as a Cornell student.

○ “The flu kills more people every year than coronavirus.”

Your statistic about the lethality of the Influenza A or B is not relevant to the COVID-19 conversation for a number of reasons. According to the most recent research from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, COVID-19 is ten times more lethal than the flu. While the current death toll is considerably less than the flu, the virus is spreading at a pace that statisticians consider to be “hyper-exponential.” Additionally, clinicians and researchers are able to prepare populations to combat the flu virus through the flu vaccine; the flu vaccine (“flu shot”) creates antibodies that block the flu virus from infecting the body. Given the current lack of a vaccine for COVID-19, our bodies do not have antibodies to the virus and are vulnerable to infection. Further, humans do not have any sort of immunity to the virus given that it is a new virus; this greatly differs from influenza, which many humans have developed antibodies to during prior exposures. All things considered, you should not minimize the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

○ “There are no reported cases of COVID-19 at Cornell.”

While Cornell currently has no reported cases of the COVID-19 virus, you must consider that 80 percent of infected patients either show mild symptoms, or are asymptomatic altogether. These cases go unreported, for in mild cases, patients do not seek care. Additionally, test kits for the COVID-19 virus are not widely available in the United States yet due to governmental strategy, in tandem with the fact that kits have not been voluminously produced. Given the frequency with which students travel between Ithaca and large hubs like New York City, it is inevitable that the virus will reach campus in some way, if it is not already there.

○ “I am going to survive because I am young and healthy.”

While you may be fortunate to be young and healthy, recognize that COVID-19 is more dangerous for older adults and people who have chronic medical conditions or are immunocompromised. This means, the person sitting next to you in class who is anatomically typical but living with a chronic autoimmune disease that you cannot see could be at greater risk of succumbing to the disease. Or better yet, the professor of your class who also has a life and a family just like you may be at higher risk. The virus can live in your body for more than fourteen days (in some cases) without you realizing it, where along the way you may transmit the virus to others asymptomatically. This underlines why it is critical that Cornell students do not return to campus after traveling even if asymptomatic, and imperative that students practice social distancing immediately. 

○ “Cornell ruined my year.”

This is the most baffling of all fallacies I have come across because it demonstrates a selfishness that belies the founding principles of our very education. On one hand, every person reading this is absolutely justified in his/her/their current feelings of disappointment, confusion and loss. The virus has impacted Cornell traditions in many important ways, especially for seniors. However, it is absolutely imperative that as citizens of the world, we acknowledge the global implications an event like this causes. The science behind the virus aside, humanity at this stage does not have the infrastructure to treat the hundreds of thousands of patients that might be infected (this is evidenced by the situation in Wuhan, where makeshift hospitals were erected to treat patients, or Italy where doctors are currently being forced to make snap decisions on who to treat for the illness and who to let die because of volume restraints). Cornell’s proactive approach to retarding the community transmission of the virus is an act that not only protects students and faculty from potential and inevitable community transmission, but exemplifies a greater care for the wellbeing of humanity. Global emergencies like these create devastation in the lives of every individual around the world, not just Cornell students. This is written by someone who was just evacuated from his study abroad program in Paris.

Obviously, this situation has impacted students in tremendous ways and with varying severity. But I ask my fellow students to look outside of your immediate circumstances and realize that Cornell is making humanitarian decisions that transcend spring campus traditions. It is my hope and expectation that Cornell University will continue to make proactive decisions on how to act in this crisis state, prioritizing student wellness while being reasonable and fair in logistically coordinating remote learning and campus departure. In this time of global emergency, the immediate actions taken by Cornell students will impact the rapidity of the spread of COVID-19.

Elias Sabbagh is a junior in the SC Johnson College of Business. Comments may be sent to Guest Room runs periodically this semester.