Expert webinar discusses COVID-19 impact, signs of resilience
By Mason Adams
A team of Virginia Tech professors with expertise spanning public health, virology, epidemiology, psychology, and economics discussed the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, during a webinar on April 7.
During the hourlong session, moderated by Laura Hungerford, professor of veterinary public health and epidemiology, director of the Master of Public Health Program, and head of the Department of Population Health Sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, the panel of five faculty experts took questions and discussed a variety of the pandemic’s aspects.
Here are five takeaways from the webinar.
1) The novel coronavirus is part of a wave of viruses that started in animals and jumped to infect humans.
The majority of viruses emerging in humans are zoonotic, which means they came from animals. The list includes SARS, MERS, swine flu, bird flu, Ebola, and now COVID-19.
XJ Meng, University Distinguished Professor of molecular virology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, said he hopes that scientists and policymakers will take a closer look at studying how these viruses move between animals and humans and promote best practices to curb activities that expose humans to viruses from animals.
2) The COVID-19 pandemic affects people differently based on a variety of socioeconomic and other factors.
The pandemic is stress-testing societal institutions and infrastructure. Pregnant women, prisoners, undocumented workers, and other people with lower social economic status, limited health care, and few transportation options tend to be more at risk, not just from the virus but from its economic consequences, said Charlotte Baker, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Population Health Sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
Individuals can help by observing social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. If hospitals and other health care providers see a trickle of cases rather than a flood, they’ll be able to provide better care to all their patients.
3) We can better face the pandemic by focusing on our mindset.
COVID-19 isn’t creating stress so much as distress, said Scott Geller, Alumni Distinguished Professor of psychology and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the College of Science. Stress involves factors that one can control, but distress is the perception of an utter lack of control.
By shifting that mindset to look for people actively caring for others, distress can be replaced by a focus on finding success and win/win solutions. “The message today is, we are all in this together,” Geller said.
4) We can look forward to life after the pandemic.
COVID-19 is stressing the health care infrastructure and the global economy, with its full effects yet to be felt. Sudipta Sarangi, professor of economics and head of the Department of Economics in the College of Science, compared the pandemic to a power failure, with public officials asking people to stay home so as not to overwhelm the medical system — similar as to how electricians manage electricity that’s generated so as not to overload the power grid. The longer the shutdown continues, however, the more the economy will be disrupted.
Yet Sarangi sees reason for hope, even among new graduates facing a bleak economic situation.
“For every sort of sector that is collapsing, there is a new sector growing,” Sarangi said. “So I think those that have graduated should not despair. There are going to be things to look forward to.”
5) Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) remains in full effect.
Virginia Tech’s university motto, expressing the Hokie service ethic, offers a path forward during the pandemic. Staying home and limiting shopping trips helps to protect service workers and those who are more vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. Wearing a mask lowers the risk that one will infect others. Donating to food banks keeps them supplied during a time in which they’re serving a rapidly growing number of people. Connect with people who are otherwise isolated through phone calls, emails, and streaming internet video.
“We are all in this together,” Sarangi said. “We are only as good as the weakest link.”