It was only three weeks ago that the hottest news story in Ontario was that of #Plategate. It brought our friend, #Acton host, and hobby elder-statesman Dave Steckley into the news to represent our hobby at large. He provided a collector’s perspective as the Ontario government released, promoted, investigated, stopped, and ultimately recalled its new blue plates. This was huge to collectors like me… the home-province hobby was basking in all the plate-related attention in the media. Google Image searching (for plates, anyway) had never been so fun!
And suddenly, the problem disappeared... only to be replaced by a real problem: COVID-19.
I’m a high school biology teacher, with a background in genetics, so I’m already familiar with the infection pathways of viruses. I had been following COVID-19 in the news, even creating a first-day start-up assignment for my grade 11 biology class about what was then referred to as “the novel 2019 coronavirus,” before the WHO had coined the name “COVID-19”. The rates of infection in Wuhan were alarming. If would only be a matter of time before infected persons would unknowingly bring the virus to the rest of the world.
There are some awful “information” sources out there that try to attribute the virus’ spread to various governmental conspiracies, or spread the rumour that it was artificially created in a lab, or claim an overreaction because “it’s just like the flu.” All of that is baloney.
Viruses are many times smaller than your cells. They’re so simple that they can’t reproduce on their own… they need a host cell. Quickly-reproducing life forms like viruses will eventually mutate-- which means they’ll incur a “spelling error” while duplicating their genetic material (in humans, that’s DNA, but for viruses, it’s the single-stranded and less-stable RNA). This “spelling error” might have no effect on the virus, never be detected, and never have any consequence.
You know those flower-like things that stick out from the spherical shape of a coronavirus? They’re called spike proteins, and they have a very specific 3-D shape. If they don’t fit properly into special receptors on the surface of a cell, the virus can’t “dock” with the cell, and it can’t infect. But: The genetic material (RNA) of a virus contains the instructions on how to build these spike proteins. A mutation (remember, just a “spelling error” in the instructions) can result in the spike taking on a different 3-D shape. By random chance, that could make the virus unable to infect anything at all. But also by random chance, it may suddenly be able to lock on to a different host cell than before. Such as, the cells in your lungs.
So if one virus in one animal mutates in the just the right way, and that virus happens to enter a human body, and has the ability to infect a human cell, then humankind suddenly has a new disease to deal with. But don’t automatically blame open-air meat markets in Wuhan. It could happen if your cat drags in a dead bird. It could happen at a petting zoo (which is why they have hand sanitizer for the kiddies). These things happen; it’s inevitable. Remember the H1N1 swine flu from 2009? Or avian flu? There’s no one to blame. Shit happens, no matter how angry or frustrated (or ill) you might be.
The problem with COVID-19 is twofold: It kills more people than influenza does, and the symptoms don’t show up for several days after you become infectious yourself. This is why it’s spreading like wildfire. Let’s say you catch the virus while your guard is down: You pulled a contaminated door open and then chewed your fingernail a couple of minutes later. Nail-biting is a habit. You don’t unconsciously “log” in your brain when you bite your nails. So, you go about your business for a while, feeling fine, but you unknowingly spread the virus to others in the meantime. By the time you feel ill, you’ve passed it onto a dozen more people.
This is why physical distancing is so critical. We’re trying to slow the rate of spread so that we don’t have thousands of sick people needing the limited ventilators that are available in a local hospital. The rate of infection continues to rise in most of the world. China is reporting that they may have seen the worst of it, but Italy is in the thick of it, and the USA has just overtaken them both as the nation with the greatest number of infections.
And so, licence plate collecting swap meets are dropping like flies, all being cancelled, due to COVID-19. Official word from #Acton organizer Dave Steckley just came yesterday that the plug has just been pulled on the meet scheduled for April 25. It’s not just us… hobby events are being cancelled world-wide. Don Goodfellow and I are moving the fall swap meet away from Grimsby to a different location in the Niagara region, but in this emergency, we’ll be lucky to host it at all. Some collector groups on Facebook have taken to doing online swap meets within a comment thread as a substitute for the real thing: Get some swap action going, while observing physical distancing. I might join in one of those sometime, but I’m a little too distracted as of early spring. The virus lasts a long time on metal, so make sure you wash your hands after handling your plates if they arrive in the mail!
There’s the pressing question: For how long will this outbreak continue? Well, if we look at the rates of infection around the world and extrapolate (a fancy term for “use math to project where things are going”), I think we can expect events to be cancelled through the summer. Life as you knew it isn’t over; it’s just interrupted. Whether we can expect a gradual return to normalcy through the fall, or sooner, or later, is best left to epidemiologists. In the meantime: #StayAtHome
Speaking of obtaining reliable information: Don’t get your COVID-19 information from elected individuals. Get it from neutral bodies that are staffed with actual medical professionals.
Direct links to COVID-19 info pages: World Health Organization Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center
Global Cases Map - Johns Hopkins University Ontario Ministry of Health Health Canada