Coronavirus. COIVD-19. It’s consumed our lives, whether we accept it or deny it. Maybe you don’t even want to read this post because you’re sick of hearing about it! In fact, my parents have introduced a ‘no ‘C word’ day’ (not that C word) once a week where they don’t mention anything about the coronavirus in order to keep themselves sane. And although we are hearing about this pandemic every day, do we really know what it is? (Like what even is a virus? Did you know that SARS is a coronavirus too?). It’s like that one friend you meet and never quite catch their name, and then for some reason one year down the road you need to call them but now it’s too late to ask them for their name…
Luckily for us though, we don’t have to go through that awkward stage because I’m going to look up a little science about the coronavirus for us to go through. Then I want to tackle that question of why we are behaving strangely. Why do we feel the need to hoard toilet paper or risk breaking quarantine? Why do some of us need to go to the crowded beach, cough on produce, or congregate in churches? One ‘millennial’ concept that I think applies here and to many decisions we make – especially those fueled by fear and misinformation – is FOMO, the fear of missing out. We just can’t stand not knowing or participating in what others are doing, sometimes to our own detriment!
Part one: biology & (some) chemistry
Firstly, let’s go back to biology class and look at what a virus is. Since I have ample time to peruse my textbook library because of the quarantine, I cracked open my first year bio textbook. The first chapter on viruses says: ‘viruses are not cells’!
In fact, they are small little particles (virions) made of a core of nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) and a protein shell called a capsid. We can classify viruses based on their nucleic acid core, and it’s general shape, whether simple or complex. A virus is also not a bacteria, as bacteria are singled celled organisms which are generally harmless, and can actually be quite helpful (e.g., gut microbiota) unlike the invading viruses. Therefore, since viruses do not have a typical cell wall like bacteria do, they are unaffected by antibiotics and instead must be treated with anti-viral drugs or vaccines.
Viruses cannot survive without a host and they do this by reproducing inside the cells of living things. Viruses can even reproduce inside of bacteria (called bacteriophage)! They do this by invading the host’s cells and using the host’s DNA replication and protein synthesis system to replicate themselves, and then destroy the host’s cells in the process.
Dare I say, eww! Proteins in the capsid of the virus bind to the receptors on the cell wall and then the nucleic acids burrow into the cell. They may replicate immediately or alter the genome of the host cell and lie in wait until times are favourable for replication. When the cells die, they release the replicated progeny viruses which then go on to invade more cells.
What does a coronavirus do then? Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that generally cause respiratory tract infections in humans (e.g., SARS, MERS, COVID-19) and lead to symptoms like coughs, difficulty breathing and the associated fever and tiredness. Coronaviruses are named after their shape which resembles a crown (Latin: corona), a spherical shape with many surface projections formed by spike glycoproteins which make up part of the surface. The core of coronaviruses is a single strand of RNA.
Coronaviruses invade host cells when the spike proteins bind a receptor on the cell membrane. The virus then fuses with the cell membrane which allows the virus RNA to enter the cell. The RNA then attaches to the cell’s ribosomes and begins translation of proteins which inhibit the cells’ immune response, ultimately killing it.
COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) is the name for the current illness we are facing as a pandemic right now, and it is caused by SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) which used to be called 2019-nCoV (2019 novel coronavirus). SARS-CoV-2 is the virus first discovered in Wuhan, China (oh no my hot dry noodles!) and is genetically similar to coronaviruses found in bats. This indicates that it may have been transmitted through bats to an intermediate animal which was being sold at a wet market (place where people can buy live and exotic animals). Since bats were not being sold at the market, it was not bats themselves who infected humans (so no, people in China did not consume bats!) but bats may have likely been the origin of the virus.
In terms of pathophysiology, the reason why COVID-19 is mostly a respiratory illness is because SARS-CoV-2 gains access to cells by using the spike proteins on its surface to bind to enzymes (angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2)) on the cell membrane. ACE2 is most strongly concentrated in the alveolar cells of the lungs. That is why when the virus starts to replicate, cells are killed and lungs do not function well anymore as they are overcome with an inflammatory immune response.
All of this is terribly dismal news, and I’m sure we are all aware of the situation right now with regards to transmission (don’t cough on people and do social distancing), severity (as of today there are >1.3 million cases and ~74 thousand deaths worldwide), and the burden on our healthcare system (flatten the curve!). We may not know much about treatment yet because the illness is still quite new and vaccines and anti-viral medication may take over a year to develop.
However, one interesting chemistry-based task that we can all tackle is washing our hands with soap. While researchers are working on ways to deal with SARS-CoV-2 once it is inside of people, washing hands with soap is an extremely effective way to deal with the virus outside of our bodies. Soap molecules are cool because they have both polar and non-polar properties. The polar end (ionic, has electric charge) is hydrophilic and soluble in water, whereas the non-polar end (no electric charge) is hydrophobic and repels water. When soap comes into contact with dirty things (which for us is usually oily) the non-polar ends bind to the oils and polar ends are pushed away towards the water, trapping the dirt inside of a micelle (a cluster).
This then gets rinsed away with a stream of water. SARS-CoV-2, with it’s protein shell made also of a hydrophobic lipid bilayer, is essentially like the oil molecules. When the polar ends of the soap molecules come in contact with the lipid bilayer of the virus, they bind tightly and effectively destroy the integrity of the virus’s shell by pulling it apart! So we can kill the virus by using soap to wash our hands and flush it down the drain.
Part two: FOMO
Speaking of flushing, lets talk about the empty shelves of toilet paper which are still present in the stores. While diarrhea has been been found as a common symptom of coronaviruses in cows and pigs (Zhou et al., 2018), the same cannot be said for humans. If COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory illness, then why do we need so much toilet paper!?
Something quite motivating to us can be fear. Fear can compel us to do all sorts of things that we might not normally rationalize, but in times of crisis become almost ordinary. Many people tend to blame the media who’s constant reporting, which can sometimes be misinformed and sensationalist, tends to amplify fears and incite flame wars. There’s no doubt that we are surrounded by media exposure about the virus, and can find it difficult to have even a few hours pass without hearing about the ‘C word’.
All of this exposure and fear leads behavioural economists to attribute our need to hoard toilet paper, shake hands with the pastor, and risk infection, to the bandwagon effect. The bandwagon effect (also called the contagion effect) describes the phenomenon whereby people join trends, behaviours, and endorse ideas that they perceive to be the majority (Scimtt-Beck, 2015). This effect builds upon itself in that the rate of spread of these positions or behaviours increases as the rate of adoption by other increases (Veit, 2020).
So it seems that the more people talk or worry about buying toilet paper, the more toilet paper will end up being bought. And then the more toilet paper being bought, the more others will feel the need to buy more! It’s cyclical because the effect depends simply on it’s own success, it is self-propagating.
Stores may have had a hard time adapting to the speed of the effect and overwhelming demand for goods in the beginning of the outbreak which is why so many shelves remained empty. But what are the underlying behavioural reasons on why we are likely to endorse the bandwagon effect? Some have suggested that our need to follow others stems from an evolutionary need, that as a species we generally understand that if other members are participating in something and there are a number of members present then that must impart some significance to that event or behaviour (Veit, 2020).
It reminds me of when I am at the Chinese supermarket and hover too long over some oranges, all of a sudden 2 or 3 others will flock to the container and question me on whether there is a sale or if the oranges are sweet etc., when previously they might have just walked on by. Then a few more people come and I squeeze by and run away because it’s just oranges?? I understand this as FOMO, the fear of missing out on some really good oranges. There must be some inherent social proclivity that we have and find extremely hard to dismiss when we see others gathering near something, even if we don’t know what exactly it is that we are supposed to be excited about.
It’s scary to think that even without immediate importance (e.g., when will you ever use that much toilet paper or hand sanitizer!?) we are still likely to adopt trends simply because we are afraid we will not get what others are getting. Another reason why FOMO may exist is due to game theory. In a market, there must exist equilibrium between ourselves and others when buying products. When there is no COVID-19 situation we buy a normal amount of toilet paper and so do others, so we achieve equilibrium. But when we are in a panicked situation like now, to maintain equilibrium and engage in the optimal purchasing strategy, when others are buying toilet paper we must buy toilet paper as well (Paloyo, 2020)! So perhaps we are motivated buy an underlying statistical urge to balance the system, and FOMO exists to help us maintain economical balance.
Regardless where our FOMO stems from, what should be done when others begin to engage in behaviours that may even be undesirable (e.g., congregating outside instead of practicing social distancing)? Perhaps increasing the price of products will dissuade us to purchase them, but in the case of essential or medical goods this is not always a fair solution. Is seeing others being punished for their transgressions a good idea? The government has introduced fines and sentencing for people who engage in things like price gauging of hand sanitizer, hoarding face masks, and ignoring social distancing. Might we fear being punished and subsequently reduce our behaviours motivated by FOMO? I believe that external measures need to be put in place that can also appease our internal fears. For example, companies may limit the number of packages of toilet paper that we are allowed to buy, which prevents hoarding but also lets us still buy products. Then we can go home with something tangible to quell our panic. Some external guidance may provide us with rationale other than ‘I’m going to do it because others are doing it’ which can reduce the bandwagon effect.
And with that, communication about the reasons behind our actions, I hope it can keep us balanced in ways that are healthy. FOMO doesn’t have to be negative, jumping on the bandwagon can lead to fun discoveries like new tv shows, friend groups, and other activities that we never would have enjoyed otherwise. It’s just when you realize that you’re about to risk it all and reduce our economy to a barter system, that it may be time to stop and reflect.
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