A Child’s Primer on COVID-19

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Let’s start with this:

This is probably a word that you keep hearing grown-ups talk about, but it’s also probably a word that is a bit of a mystery to you.

There are lots of ways to explain this funny word, but let’s start by telling you that it’s the reason why so many people are staying at home right now, why your school might be closed, and why people are saying that it’s best not to play with your friends. It’s also why your loved ones keep telling you to wash your hands and to be especially careful around your grandparents.

COVID-19 is basically “something” that can get you sick – which is why it’s sometimes called a disease.

And what that “something” is, is known as a virus.

There are actually lots of different types of viruses, kind of like how there are lots of different types of birds. For birds, you can have ducks and chickens and owls for example. With viruses, it’s the same sort of thing, except that you probably haven’t learnt about them at school yet.

Viruses are actually everywhere, which is o.k. because almost all of them are harmless, meaning that they don’t do anything to you.

Unfortunately, the few that you do hear about are the ones that make you sick. For example, if you’ve ever had a cold, that was actually a virus known as a rhinovirus. If you’ve ever had the flu, that was actually a virus known as an influenza virus. For COVID-19, the type of virus involved is called a coronavirus.

So, let’s look at some of these new words and see if you can figure out where the name COVID-19 came from:

Cool huh?

So now you know where the word COVID-19 comes from. It’s a disease, in that it makes you sick, is caused by a virus, specifically a coronavirus; and it also happens to have been first discovered by scientists in 2019.

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Anyway, viruses are very very very small. So small that they are invisible to your eye and even to most microscopes. They are also very very very strange. So strange that scientists aren’t even sure if they are alive or dead or somewhere in between!

For instance, they don’t grow, they don’t breathe, they don’t notice their surroundings, they don’t move on their own, they don’t really eat. In fact, the only thing that they can do (which sort of makes them alive) is that they can make copies of themselves. It’s not totally the same, but this is a little bit like how living things can kind of make babies. So yes, viruses can make more viruses!

However, to make copies of themselves, viruses always need a special place. For the COVID-19 virus, one of the special places happens to be on people! In fact, this coronavirus really likes to go hang out in people’s noses, and also their lungs.

Unfortunately, when this virus goes to those places, and starts to make more of itself, that is when a person can get sick. This is a little like COVID-19 messing up the place where they are hanging out.

This is why sometimes you hear people say that getting COVID-19 feels a little bit like the flu. They might feel hot, have the sniffles, start to cough, and just feel kind of yucky. For some people, getting COVID-19 is just plain dangerous. So far, it looks like older people in particular can get really really sick.

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Even though they are super small, if you could draw a picture of the COVID-19 virus, it would look a little like this:

What you see here is a circle or ball made of oily stuff, with lots of spikes sticking out. Inside the ball is actually a swirly set of instructions that allows the virus to make more of itself.

So kind of like this:

There are a couple of things that we can talk more about here.

First, when people talk about taking a test to see if they have the COVID-19 disease, what they are usually doing is a science experiment that lets you take a closer look at the instructions in the middle.

If it checks out that it is the same as the instructions for the COVID-19 virus, then you say that you test positive for the disease (in other words, you have the virus). This isn’t the only way to test to see if you have it, but it’s one of the better ways so far.

Now let’s take a look at the spikes. These are very interesting to scientists, because the COVID-19 virus uses its spikes to recognize and find a person’s nose and lungs. They are kind of like feelers that let the virus say “oh, I can hang out here!”

If we can know more about the spikes, then maybe scientists can make a medicine that stops the spikes from working. And if you can stop the spikes from working, then maybe you can stop the virus from making themselves at home in your body.

The spikes are also being looked at because they are one of the things that could help with making a vaccine for COVID-19. You may have heard of this word before – most likely when you had to have a needle shot.

Although that shot probably wasn’t a lot of fun, vaccines are really good at keeping you healthy.

The basic idea of a vaccine is that you get a medicine that tricks your body into being super ready for a disease, even before the disease has had a chance to get to you. By being extra prepared, your body is better ready to protect you from getting sick.

Lots of scientists are trying to make a vaccine for COVID-19 right now, but this can take some time.

Lastly, but probably most important because it is something that you can do yourself, is the fact that the ball is made of this oily material. This is why washing your hands with soap and water is such a great way to get rid of the COVID-19 virus.

Soap is very good at breaking oily things and can basically destroy the virus into pieces. This is also why it’s a good idea to wipe down door handles and other places that touch a lot of people’s hands.

Just to be safe, smart people have been saying that it’s a good idea to wash your hands for about 20 seconds. This is like washing for as long as it takes you to sing the alphabet song!

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The last thing to talk about is this thing called social distancing. This is the fancy word for why you might be stuck at home, and why you might not be allowed to hang out with your friends or go to school.

This is also why you’ve probably seen lots of pictures like this:

What this is all about is that scientists know that the COVID-19 viruses can easily go from a sick person to a healthy person, making this other person sick as well. They just need a chance to “jump” from one person to another. The fancy word for this jumping stuff is infection.

It’s kind of like playing a game of tag, where the person you tag also becomes “it.” And then this person can also tag other people and so on and so on and so on.

Pretty soon, you can have a LOT of people who are now “it.” Imagine this happening with COVID-19. The dots are all the new people becoming infected or becoming “it.”

Except that for COVID-19, there are two things that make it extra sneaky. First, you don’t even need to touch someone to tag them! You just have to be close enough – maybe only less than 6 feet or 2 meters away.

Second, people who have the COVID-19 might not even look or feel sick. This is like not even knowing who is “it!” It even means that you and your family could be sick and not even know it.

This is why there is this social distancing thing. It’s just saying that it’s best to not get too close to other people – just in case.

It’s also why some people say it might be a good idea to wear a face mask if you do go outside. Hopefully this makes sense to you, since a face mask is basically covering your mouth and nose, which happen to be openings to your lungs.

By making sure you don’t hang out with other people, you can really slow down how many people get sick.

If people don’t do this social distancing, then it just means that the number of people who get COVID-19 will be a lot, and very quickly. So many, and so quickly, that scientists are worried that there might not be enough doctors and nurses to look after them.

This is actually where the words flattening the curve come from. If lots of people get sick quickly, then you get a curve that looks like below. This is not a flat curve and it is bad.

But if we all do our part and be careful about how we social distance, then the curve will look less pointy, and might even start to look flat. A flat curve is math for fewer and fewer people getting sick. We want to do whatever we can to make sure that COVID-19 doesn’t spread too quickly.

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Anyway, hopefully this clears a couple of things up, which also hopefully makes COVID-19 a little less scary now.

This is why science is so important. It tries to make things more clear and less mysterious. By understanding how COVID-19 spreads and hurts people, scientists are working to come up with ways to make it go away, or at least figure out how to make it less dangerous.

This is why we should be listening to scientists!