A Video Guide to Understanding Covid-19 without Freaking Out

It’s a complicated time, and we’re all emotionally worn out.

Here at emptywheel we’ve covered the current pandemic’s scientific side in some depth. (see Jim White’s look at the origin of the virus, Rayne has done several very good updates on the science, politics, and misinformation,
and I’ve gone into the mechanisms of the disease and how it compares to other pandemics )

But we haven’t done as much for the overtaxed, overwhelmed reader who just wants some pretty pictures and gentle talking heads to make Covid-19 make sense. Even those of you who voraciously keep up with Marcy’s intricate political  and media analyses might like to give the emotional roller coaster a break, and still feel like you have some frickin’ idea what is going on.

The Modeling

Nothing is more calming yet informative than 3Blue1Brown’s soothing and surprisingly clear explanation of epidemic models. This 3Blue1Brown explainer uses SIR, a mathematical modeling system for epidemics. While simplified, it can give you a sense for how more complicated models work, and why policies like social distancing and contact tracing are important and effective.

SIR stands for:
S = the number of susceptible individuals
I = the number of infected individuals
R = the number of removed individuals (removed here means no longer infectious, and includes both immune and deceased.)

3Blue1Brown is also one of the most pleasant-to-watch Youtubers of all time. Even when you don’t have any clue about the math he’s describing, it all comes together and you feel smarter by the end. “It’s the mental equivalent of ice-skating,” my daughter says, “You’re a little bit worried about falling over, but it’s nice.”

The smartypants at minutephysics and Aatish Bhatia teamed up to visualize the progress of Covid-19 cases around the world. They use a visualization with a logarithmic map of total cases versus new cases to clearly show both how similar the track of the disease is, and what it looks like for a geographical area to get a handle on the spread. This video explains how it works, and here is the site where you can watch the model play with current data.
But why did this happen?

The why us and why now question is lurking in the back of everyone’s mind, and SciShow comes through on it. SciShow has a long and storied history of well-researched and approachable science education, and their video tackling the zoonotic source of Covid-19 (and other viruses) in bats keeps in the tradition. Bats have evolved different approaches to having a mammalian immune system, which makes them better at handling some of the viruses and worse at handling other pathogens we can overcome easily — this is why their viruses can be so rough on us. We have a lot to learn from them, but we should probably stop disturbing their habitats if we don’t want to keep catching novel viruses from them.

The Medicine

If you’ve heard a lot of terms and you don’t know what they mean, Dr. Hope’s Sick Notes goes through 26 of them with clear and non-technical definitions. Dr. Hope is an NHS doctor who teaches and works in an English emergency department as well as a YouTuber. (His ongoing Covid-19 vlog is great, but more stress inducing than the videos featured here.) He gives easy explanations of complicated concepts with handwritten flashcards, a nice soft focus, and some comforting quiet background music. At the end he hands it over to Dr. Sonia, an anesthesiologist at the same hospital, defining some of the more hardcore technical terms we’ve been hearing in the media, but with equal calming friendliness.

Dr. Sonia appears in our next video as well, as an avid AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego). Dr. Hope and Dr. Sonia discuss how the ICU and ventilation really work, demonstrating with a detailed Lego model built by Dr. Sonia in her day off. It goes over all of the scary terms and procedures and why and how they’re used, but with Lego, so it’s fine. My daughter confirmed this too.



There’s a lot of questions about immunity, herd immunity, and the potential for re-infection, and a lot of misunderstanding about what any of those terms mean. Dr. Seema Yasmin breaks it down on a spectrum from life-long immunity to HIV (The worst). Where and how Covid-19 might fit into this is yet to be found, but she lays down the situation and puts it in context.


And Finally, Something of Less Value

Watching night shows, comedy news, and Youtubers adapt to filming inside their houses has been some hits and a lot of misses, but there’s a few amazing hits. These aren’t so much information about Covid-19 as a few gems life in quarantine has generated. Relax, it’s what everyone’s therapist is suggesting we do.

Stephen Colbert interviewing fellow Daily Show alumnus John Oliver is somehow both unbearable and ten minutes of comedy gold. I wish all late night interviews could be like this, but I also think that would kill me.


Kate McKinnon takes to a spare bedroom to reprise her role as Barbara DeDrew, trying to get you to adopt a cat, any cat, all the cats, from Whiskers R We.




Last but not least: what would you say to yourself, if you could travel back to January?

Please feel free to add your own calming and informative, or just funny contributions in the comments, BUT NO STRESS INDUCERS!!!11!!!!!

Um, am I doing this right?

My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon. Thanks to H.alhajji for the featured image.

29 replies
  1. Tom says:

    Two things conspicuous by their absence this spring, at least in my neck of the woods: (1) garage sales and yard sales, which usually pop up along with the daffodils this time of year; and (2) jet contrails; I haven’t seen the skies this clear since 9/11.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        Re: 9/11. We finally had a nice sunny day with a big blue sky here (Connecticut) Tuesday. We’ve relapsed since into perma-March, but that day with its ominously empty sky it truly struck me: “9/11” is code for shared trauma, and we are experiencing something similar now except in slow(er) motion, which seems to allow it to compound in a way we would never have allowed those terrorist attacks to do. TV anchors keep saying more Americans have died of Covid than in the Viet Nam war. But all I can think is that we are now at twenty 9/11’s, and counting.

    • P J Evans says:

      Yard sales in my area disappeared when we got locked down – along with signs directing guests to kids’ birthday parties.
      Aerial traffic has dropped a lot in my area – that includes police helicopters. There are still some airliners going by.

      • arbusto says:

        Well it’s good to know some police are still on the job. My granddaughter Emily was walking her pot bellied pig Chewbacca and stopped by a policeperson, questioned and cited for keeping a farm animal in Santa Paula, CA. Life goes on whether you want it to or not.

    • drouse says:

      First: avoid stress inducing,right?. Second: it makes you wonder how many other statistics the CDC publishes suffer from the same problems.

  2. Raven Eye says:

    Yes Quinn…You’re doing it right. :-)

    I like the modeling video and sent it out to friends. It reminds me of work a post-doc friend was doing years back, a much more sophisticated take on the old computer game of “Life”.

    Less stressful things? I’m wondering when I’ll be able to walk into Target and see a nice selection of fashion and themed face masks. And maybe see some VERY themed masks as some of the more — shall we say — “socially innovative” shops (N95 leather?). I wonder if the US will adopt a more Asian approach to masks and public health. And I continue working to get my frittata recipe where I want it, and am reducing the time it takes to make and freeze 18 meals. The Tuesday 7 am (when the doors open) grocery shopping is making me more disciplined.

    Rationing time spent in social media and reading the news online helps too.

    • it's complicated says:

      Game of Life?
      John Horton Conway passed away from COVID19 complications on April 11.
      He was the father of Life, but by no way a one-hit wonder.

  3. Tracy Lynn says:

    Yep. The air has been aMazing here in Santa Clara County since the commutes virtually stopped. It has been a nice Spring, in that regard. I don’t remember 9/11 being like this, but I do remember after the ’89 earthquake when no one knew if the freeway overcrossings were safe — we had wonderfully clear air until the roads were considered safe enough to drive on.

  4. Tom says:

    This question may be naive or the answer so obviously apparent that it’s not worth asking, but I’ll put it out here anyway. With the warmer months coming and people wearing shorts, short-sleeved tops, sandals, and generally exposing more of their skin, will it become easier for people to shed and pick up the COVID-19 virus than it would if they were more fully clothed as in the winter? I can’t see the point of people greeting each other with elbow bumps if their arms are bare. Should we cover up for the coronavirus the way we’re supposed to do to avoid skin cancer? Just wondering.

    • vvv says:

      I had this discussion on-line recently (kinda a troll-fight) and so I have to ask: how/why is your elbow near your face? Or even, anyone else’s?

      • Tom says:

        I was referring to the practice of people bumping their elbows together as a form of greeting to replace the traditional handshake. Check out the news video of Pence’s recent visit to the Mayo Clinic for an example.

        • vvv says:

          Yes, I got that: “I can’t see the point of people greeting each other with elbow bumps if their arms are bare.”

          What’s the issue with (even bare) elbow bumps as an alt-handshake?

          • Tom says:

            The light bulb finally flickers on! Yes, we don’t want people shaking hands and then touching their face as they may infect themselves with the virus picked up from the other person’s hand. That doesn’t apply when bumping elbows. I get it.

            • vvv says:

              It *is* awkward. I graduated to fist-bumps a cuppla years ago after a bad flu, but then a good friend had some amputations after a bout with meningitis so I learned the elbow bump with him.
              Still not instinctive … but necessary.
              Stay safe!

    • Rayne says:

      The virus attaches itself to ACE2 receptors which are in soft, moist tissues like the lungs and small intestines. There haven’t been any reports of transmission from surface to skin or skin to skin — only inhalation and fomite (surface to mouth/nose/lungs).

      Sunlight will not kill the virus on your skin before your skin burns, even with sunblock on. Just wear clothing appropriate to the weather and heat, wash your hands, stay at least 6 feet from other people outside your quarantine pod.

  5. Savage Librarian says:

    Here are excerpts from an article about promising leads in virus research:

    “We found and tested 47 old drugs that might treat the coronavirus: Results show promising leads and a whole new way to fight COVID-19” – (April 30, 2020)
    “I’m happy to report we’ve identified some strong treatment leads and identified two separate mechanisms for how these drugs affect SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

    “It is incredibly important to remember that these are preliminary findings and have not been tested in people. No one should go out and buy these drugs.”
    “After testing them, we found two compounds that disrupt the translation of the virus.”

    “The two compounds are called ternatin-4 and zotatifin. Both of these are currently used to treat multiple myeloma and seem to fight COVID-19 by binding to and inhibiting proteins in the cell that are needed for translation.”

    “Plitidepsin is a similar molecule to ternatin-4 and is currently undergoing a clinical trial to treat COVID-19. The second drug, zotatifin, hits a different protein involved in translation. We are working with the CEO of the company that produces it to get it into clinical trials as soon as possible.”
    “Sigma receptors”

    “We identified seven drugs or molecules that interact with …receptors. Two antipsychotics, haloperidol and melperone, which are used to treat schizophrenia, showed antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2. Two potent antihistamines, clemastine and cloperastine, also displayed antiviral activity, as did the compound PB28 and the female hormone progesterone.”
    “Interestingly, a seventh compound – an ingredient commonly found in cough suppressants, called dextromethorphan – does the opposite: Its presence helps the virus.” (It caused the virus to replicate more easily.)

    “This is potentially a very important finding, but, and I cannot stress this enough, more tests are needed to determine if cough syrup with this ingredient should be avoided by someone who has COVID-19.”

    “All these findings, while exciting, need to undergo clinical trials before the FDA or anyone else should conclude whether to take or stop taking any of them in response to COVID-19. Neither people nor policymakers nor media outlets should panic and jump to conclusions.”


  6. Eureka says:

    Thank you, Quinn, for all of your science and other writing on this topic.

    Earlier this week, my dog alerted me to someone out front…and it was a turkey vulture on the ground! After it got up on a power wire, and spread-winged sun-groomed itself (I got photos! Had to stare into the sun* to do it, but somehow they came out. And I can still see), I saw why it had been on the ground: a rigored squirrel on the edge of the roadway.

    It was trying to wait-out the passers-by, vehicles and such, but a big dog was apparently the last straw and off it flew, soaring.

    That is my happy-gram content for the week.

    I shall return to being mind-blown that we are living in a bottleneck +/- extinction event.

    *yes, I effectively did a Trump

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