As the doorbell rings, I collect the delivery order and make it a point to drop the packet on the floor and leave it there for an hour or so. But when the fear psychosis surrounding the raging pandemic increases my paranoia increases proportionately and I even begin to, at max, lightly sanitize the delivery parcel. A similar exercise goes on at my mom’s home but at a level that is several notches above sanity. She makes it a point to literally bathe the packet(or packets) almost half-emptying that blue-bottle sanitizer spray kept next to the entrance, to her heart’s content, perceptibly in an attempt to kill any pathogens that might have dared to exist on that surface. She doesn’t stop till she is fully satisfied. If you were to visit her at home, you too would have to go through an airport-like sanitization check and be bathed in sanitizer spray front-to-back top-to-bottom before you go any further. I think her borderline sanitization paranoia (if I can put it that way!) is such that each time the doorbell sounds, she mentally makes up her mind to go on a brief world war with those coronavirus surface pathogens and gets all geared up with her weapons of mass destruction (aka surface & clothes disinfectant). I must give it to her though that since the very start she has consistently made this practice a part of her daily routine, irrespective of the contents of the packet, and completely unfazed by either the subsidence of the first wave or the resurgence of the second wave or even whatever the hell scientists are blabbering.
I am sure many households may be following this and understandably so I guess. Not only at homes, but we see mega-sanitization drives being conducted in countries across states, societies, at airports, hospitals, railway, and metro stations. There is also a creative adoption of technology be it the usage of drones to sanitize containment zones or companies requesting agencies for showing them ‘surface bacterial readings.’ For more than a century – since scientists learned that what caused infections in humans were germs that are invisible to the naked eye – we’ve also tended to believe that we need to live in completely sterile germ-free environments. That was our definition of a safe environment. With the onset of this pandemic that tendency has only heightened in us, as we increase the usage of disinfectants on groceries, clothing, delivery boxes, even in personal spaces (not to mention some insane people using them even on vegetables!).
Whereas it did take time for our scientists worldwide to figure out that the chances of surface transmission were extremely low – almost one in 10,000 – as recently only declared by CDC – that masks and physical distancing are our best defenses to battle this (more likely) air-borne pathogen - our sanitization practices, however, have continued unabated. I don't mean to undermine the benefits of the minimalist usage of sanitizers and disinfectants, but here in the excessive usage of these - lies the paradox that now has many health experts feeling jittery. The paradox is that -
The very measures that we are deploying to stop the short-term hazard of coronavirus, even though some are helpful, may eventually go on to pose a health hazard for all of us in the long term.
The scientists are now drop dead worried, and their worry solely revolves around the human microbiome – i.e. the billions and billions of bacteria that live on our bodies and inside our bodies. They suspect that our ‘excessive’ hygiene practices may result in the weakening or annihilation of these micro-communities that reside in us eventually in effect leading to the weakening of our immune systems. They fear that by sterilizing we may be actually doing more harm than good to ourselves. Simplistically put we are all made up of microbes. These germs or bacteria live on our surface, suffuse the air we breathe, and are permanent residents in some areas within our body (think probiotics & postbiotics in our gut!). That is to say in our environment there are ‘good' bacteria and ‘bad’ bacteria and the tools that we currently use to wage this war against the ‘bad’ bacteria today may result in the collateral damage of the ‘good’ bacteria tomorrow.
Though there still is a lack of clarity surrounding these ‘good’ bacteria however there is mounting evidence that the goodness of our health, in some way or the other, relies on our ongoing interactions with them. Deprived of them may result in the long-term rise of problems like allergies, asthma, autoimmune disorders, Type 2 diabetes, and some other chronic medical conditions in us. The microbiome scientists can say with a fair amount of certainty and confidence that exposure to these good microbes is necessary for our good health and living in over-sterile environments is not a good idea. In short, we need good bacteria even as we try to fend off the bad ones. While the gut microbes are popular there are some not-so-popular microbes too that live on our skin, in our lungs, maybe even brains – that perform some supercritical functions for the heart, tissues, and even hormones. The popular gut microbes are known to affect our brain functioning, joints, or spinal function i.e. impact on areas where they are not even present.
There is also a rising concern on the indiscriminate use of antibiotics – which are widely known to not only adversely impact our long-term immunities but also adversely impact these good bacteria. The human body is more like an ocean system where the aquatic life the fish, organisms, corals, aquatic plants, etc all have a symbiotic dependency on each other. The usage or over-usage of antibiotics may kill the bad bacteria but also wipe out the good bacteria in us. The pandemic has also upped the use of such drugs as prescribed by doctors or as administered to us at hospitals in effect indirectly posing a threat to us. We usually have a strong tendency to get a straightforward answer or a quick fix to everything however it’s imperative for us to be more mindful during these evolving times. Whereas it is prudent to wash or sanitize hands, say before eating, but trying to sterilize everything around us and trying to artificially create germ-free sterile environments may be a bad thing to pursue.
The habits of hyper-sanitization and antibiotics zealotry are being perceived as the two biggest threats to our friendly microbes and there is a fair amount of conjecture, amidst the scientific community, that the loss of these good friendly microbes, by way of such habits, may lead to an eventual increase in our susceptibility to various infections, perhaps, even to the coronavirus. Paradox?
Footnotes: References taken from studies published at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences