Coronavirus Hysteria Sheds Light on Best Practices to Keep Yourself Healthy

Driven more by panic than by scientific advice, people are stockpiling huge amounts of hand sanitizer and facial masks in the hopes that it will protect them from the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. The frenzy has emptied supermarket and pharmacy shelves worldwide and spawned an extortionate secondary market online—small bottles of hand sanitizer have been selling for as much as $200 on Amazon.

It’s also causing serious knock-on effects—to the extent that the U.S. Surgeon General actually had to warn the general public not to buy any more masks. By buying masks which are unlikely to stop them from getting the flu-like disease, people are creating a shortage for health providers who desperately need the protective gear.

While the obsession with masks may be misplaced, the troubling spread of the coronavirus has shone a spotlight on some best practices to ward off disease—whether COVID-19, the regular flu, or any number of nasty bugs.

For one thing, the coronavirus’s outbreak has drawn renewed attention to the fact that many people’s handwashing technique falls drastically short of the standards recommended by health officials. A catchy song produced by Vietnam’s health ministry to educate people on the finer points of handwashing went viral—and for good reason.

According to one study, only 5% of people wash their hands properly—using soap and water, for longer than 15 seconds—after using the restroom. Researchers camped out undercover in public restrooms found that a stunning 15% of men did not wash their hands at all, while only 50% of those who did bother to, lathered up with soap.

This one simple change—bringing hand hygiene up to snuff—could do far more to keep people healthy than hoarding Purell and surgical masks. People who properly wash their hands are as much as 31% less likely to get sick. One study by researchers at MIT indicated that increasing handwashing at a mere 10 airports around the world could cut the risk of a global pandemic by 37%.

The truth is that people are far more likely to contract the coronavirus from touching a surface contaminated with droplets of the virus, rather than from someone sneezing in their face, meaning that thorough handwashing is a front-line defense against the illness.

Those trying to stave off sickness would also be well served by disinfecting the screens of their cell phones. These have been found to carry ten times more germs than a toilet seat. Every time you pick up your phone, which we do more than 2,500 times a day, your fingers leave bacteria and viruses on the screen. Extrapolating from data gleaned during the 2003 SARS outbreak, immunologist Rudra Channappanavar estimated that the novel coronavirus can survive on your phone screen for as long as 96 hours, although germs’ contagiousness decreases over time.

Experts recommend that the best way to keep your phone free of coronavirus or other diseases is to wipe it down with a microfiber cloth and a little bit of soap and water. There’s a high-tech alternative, too—devices which look like miniature tanning beds, which zap your phone with UV rays to render any germs inert. Studies have found that these gadgets are highly effective at neutralizing the bacteria sitting on some 35% of smartphones.

The people stocking their fridge with bottled water might be onto something, too. Improperly-filtered tap water can carry a wide range of illnesses, from polio to typhoid. While the coronavirus is predominantly spread through coughs and sneezes, there have been questions as to whether it can also be transmitted through water pipes. These concerns have been exacerbated by the finding of live COVID-19 particles in stool specimens, suggesting that the disease may also be transmitted through the fecal-oral pathway. The hypothesis might explain why the novel coronavirus spread so quickly on the Diamond Princess, the hapless cruise ship quarantined in Japanese waters.

In any event, steering clear of tap water isn’t a bad idea. The U.S. ostensibly has one of the world’s safest water supplies—and yet studies have revealed that “it’s nearly impossible to avoid contaminated drinking water” from carcinogenic chemicals. Switching to bottled water could help guard against these risks. For those worried about the health or environmental impacts of bottled water, a growing number of water manufacturers are offering safer and more sustainable alternatives. Ever&Ever has launched aluminum-canned water, while Danone is investing roughly €1 billion in rolling out glass and metal packaging for its water brands, which include Evian and Volvic. Moving away from plastic packaging could also be a positive for disaster relief efforts, as evidenced by the tremendous waste of water bottled in plastic seen during the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Ultimately, the most important thing for both policymakers and the general public is to keep the scale of the growing coronavirus epidemic in context. There have been nearly 96,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, according to official estimates. By comparison, one billion people get the flu each year, and some 32 million people have been diagnosed with it this year in the United States alone. While Donald Trump’s suggestion that the regular flu vaccine might work against the novel coronavirus may be wildly unfounded, it is important to remember the very real danger this preventable illness still poses in the era of coronavirus. While the flu shot is far from foolproof—this year it’s less than 50% effective—it’s nevertheless been shown to alleviate symptoms even in people who contract the disease.

While the prospect of a global pandemic is indeed terrifying, buying industrial quantities of toilet paper and face masks is a very ineffective way of protecting yourself from coronavirus. As it turns out, those rushing to buy masks on Amazon would be better off following the guidelines for hand hygiene and bolstering their immune systems instead.