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Spray all you like, it won’t stop Covid | India News


They make for great photos, but do fire trucks raining bleach on streets serve any purpose? Why is the sight of an aproned, gloved and masked person constantly mopping the floor with disinfectant so reassuring these days? Are we lulling ourselves into a false sense of safety?
Hygiene Theatre
Derek Thompson at The Atlantic calls the ongoing chemical war against Covid “hygiene theatre”. In the past few months, we have seen Spanish authorities spraying bleach on sandy beaches, New York’s subway workers sanitising not only the seats and poles but also the walls of trains with disinfectant, drones being used to spray buildings, and weary Indian workers being doused with sodium hypochlorite on returning to their home states. “Game over, virus,” each scene says, but Thompson asks, “What if this is all just a huge waste of time?”
Wrong Estimate
One reason for the offensive is that we have overestimated the virus’ strength. A study published in March claimed it survives in air for 3 hours, and for several days on steel and plastic surfaces. But Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Thompson such findings arise from conditions you will never find in the real world. “As many as 100 people would need to sneeze on the same area of a table to mimic some of their experimental conditions.”
Goldman’s own article in The Lancet describes some of these unrealistic lab conditions. The previous SARS virus, for instance, was shown to last up to six days on a surface smeared with about 10 million viral particles. However, Goldman says patients don’t sneeze or cough out so many particles. A droplet from a flu patient, for instance, typically contains only 10-100 viral particles.
Respiratory Transmission
Goldman says we are also vastly exaggerating the risk of infection from surfaces. The chances of your picking up the virus from a doorknob or table surface are “very small”, and the only way it can happen is if a patient coughs or sneezes on that surface and you touch it within an hour or two. A Covid outbreak in a Seoul skyscraper seems to prove his point.
More than 1,000 workers and residents used the building’s elevators every day, but while half the staff of a call centre on the 11th floor fell ill, “less than 1% of the remainder of the building contracted Covid-19,” says Thompson, adding that they all were “surely touching the same buttons within minutes of one another.”
This isn’t surprising because Covid is known to spread mainly through airborne person-to-person transmission. A call centre, where many people continuously talk in an enclosed space, is a perfect breeding ground for it.
Optics, Mainly
If science does not back this ‘hygiene theatre’, why are the authorities and common people wasting time and money on it? “These efforts may help people feel like they and their government are combating the coronavirus,” says The New York Times. People want “to be able to say, ‘I cleaned it. I know it’s safe,’” Joshua Santarpia, an associate professor of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, tells the paper.
Nonetheless, these rituals only “make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk,” says Thompson. In fact, they can increase the risk of Covid.
Perils of Hygiene
While there’s nothing wrong with staying clean and germ-free, this pointless show of hygiene is actually hurting the fight against Covid in two ways, says Thompson. One, it diverts resources from more important tasks. For example, the New York City subway will spend more than $100 million this year on “new cleaning practices and disinfectants” when it has had to reduce staff and services.
Secondly, this show of doing something about the virus creates a false sense of security among people, which can lead to more infections. Someone whose street has just been sprayed with bleach might think it’s safe to go out without a mask.

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