I try to find a balance between sense & sensational
Life was normal a couple of weeks ago. Then, the new strain of Coronavirus landed in Italy. Subsequently, everywhere north of Pisa was declared a Coronavirus hotspot.
Unwittingly, Mark and I are caught in the epicentre. We are spending our winter skiing in Northern Italy, which makes us extra keen to appraise ourselves of the facts relating to Coronavirus and how to keep ourselves safe.
Precautions have been put in place by the Italian authorities, although life in Italy continues pretty much as normal. The British media, on the other hand, seems to have launched into the usual Doomsday frenzy of hysteria and scaremongering.
“Thank GOD you’ve phoned. I was so worried.” My poor Dad already had us dead and buried. We have become pariahs among our friends, who have been threatened with being made pariahs themselves if they have any contact with us.
I do understand. The UK Government advice is to self-isolate on returning from a risk area. Nonetheless, the level of hysteria irks me and it is hurtful and upsetting to find that, through no fault of your own, you are suddenly regarded by your friends as Public Enemy Number One, even though in reality, the risk is very low.
My husband, Mark, is currently in the UK. He told me, “There is absolutely NOTHING but Coronavirus on the news. You can’t buy a toilet roll in Sainsbury’s. And all the other shelves are empty!” The British public has risen to the Tabloid hype and started to panic buy its way into lock-down preparations for Armageddon.
As someone who has been into extreme sports for the last thirty years, I learned long ago to take a sensible and balanced view of risk. Unfortunately, the simplistic, populist approach that everything is black and white seems to prevail within the population at large. Every risk, however slight, is perceived to be equal and off-the-scale scary – and therefore worthy of a completely disproportionate response.
Yet all the while, well-known and very risky risks, such as heart disease caused by poor diet, climate change and Russian interference in Western politics are completely ignored. It makes no sense to me.
I have a degree in Biochemistry and have studied viruses, so let’s appraise ourselves of the facts without the hype.
What is Coronavirus?
Coronavirus isn’t a deadly virus that will turn your innards to mush. That was Ebola, which was infinitely more worrying, because it was very contagious and killed ¾ of the people it infected. But we didn’t get hysterical about that because it was contained and had the decency to stay mostly away from our shores.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a new strain of Coronavirus that has never previously been identified in humans. Covid-19 is the disease associated with the virus, first identified in 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Covid-19 brings flu-like symptoms and appears to pose a danger to life mostly when there are complications or the patient has other vulnerabilities i.e. they are elderly or have underlying health problems.
SARS-CoV-2 is a new variant of an existing family of Coronaviruses, so there is little natural immunity in the population as a whole and unlike seasonal flu, a vaccine has not yet been developed. It is contagious – and with no immunity and no vaccine, it is spreading rapidly.
Viruses are incredible, little biological machines. Because of their short life cycle (a generation may be only a few hours or days) and the way they reproduce (they take over your cells like aliens, using your cellular machinery to reproduce themselves!) the genetic make up of viruses can change very quickly. This is known as mutation and explains why viral diseases can change over time – and sometimes become more virulent. Imagine how quickly humans would evolve if a generation was merely a matter of days.
At present there are two types of Covid-19 and one may be slightly more hazardous than the other, although the main reason for identifying the different strains is to assist in producing an effective vaccine against all known variants.
How Deadly is Coronavirus?
It is terrible that even one person has died – but if you look behind the statistics, many of the deaths have occurred in the vulnerable groups cited above. Is this a good reason to go into panic-overdrive and clear Britain’s supermarket shelves of loo roll?
Children do not seem to be greatly affected, although due to their increased contact with each other and lower standards of hygiene, they can easily spread the disease.
Another major contributing factor in the death toll is the capacity of the healthcare system to cope with an epidemic. The large number of cases overwhelming the hospitals and medical staff has been cited as a major reason behind the higher number of deaths in certain parts of China. This is why the authorities are working hard to contain the spread of the disease.
It is early days in the outbreak and clearly, the figures relating to Coronavirus are changing constantly. However, for a bit of context, the global death toll of approximately 3,000 from Covid-19 at the time of writing is around one hundred times lower than the lowest estimate for seasonal flu;
- The US Centre for Disease Control estimates annual global deaths from seasonal flu to be between 291,000 and 646,000.
To put things into perspective, you are more likely to be killed on the road. Association for Safe International Road Travel statistics show that worldwide, 3,287 people per day are killed in road traffic accidents. That’s around 1.25 million deaths per year, yet no-one is considered a pariah for getting in their car. And put down that burger. According to the British Heart Foundation, 1 in 4 deaths in UK is caused by Cardiovascular disease; heart disease is Britain’s biggest killer.
If you are healthy, even if you do become infected with Covid-19, it seems that unless something changes, the odds are very much in favour of you making a full recovery.
How to Stay Safe From Covid-19 – And Many Other Diseases!
- WASH YOUR HANDS PROPERLY AND FREQUENTLY WITH SOAP – particularly before you eat and try to avoid touching your face. The most likely route to becoming infected is from your own contaminated hands touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Effective hand hygiene will also protect you from many other contagious diseases. Good, old fashioned soap and water is your best line of defence, but if not available, substitute hand gel containing at least 60% alcohol.
- Disinfect Objects & Surfaces that are Touched Frequently – such as counter tops, doorknobs, switches, toilets, phones/tablets and keyboards. This is a good idea regardless of Coronavirus.
- Masks are generally not recommended – these might stop you from spreading the virus but are unlikely to prevent you from contracting it. This is because they become contaminated quickly, need to be changed frequently and must be removed and disposed of properly.
- Avoid Close Contact with People, especially those who are Sick – avoid hugs and hand shakes and isolate yourself if you are showing symptoms.
- Avoid Large Crowds – advice suggests keeping a 1m separation from other people, but this is probably not practical. Many large events, such as the London Book Fair, have been cancelled to halt the spread of infection. Use common sense.
- Cover Your Nose and Mouth If You Cough or Sneeze – and ask family and friends to do the same. Coughs and sneezes spread diseases! If you use your hands to catch your cough, wash them immediately. It is better to use a tissue and dispose of it properly – then wash your hands!
- Keep Yourself Healthy – eat well, sleep well, exercise and don’t overdo the booze. It is thought that Bubonic Plague was so deadly because the population was already weakened by starvation, following several poor harvests.
- Check NHS Advice for travellers – which also links to a country by country guide on current hazards.
- The Centre for Disease Control – has produced a printable sheet to show how to stop germs from spreading.
What Are The Symptoms of Coronavirus?
Patients infected with Coronavirus show the following symptoms within 10 – 24 days of infection;
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Some patients may also experience;
- Aches and pains
- Nasal congestion / runny nose
- Sore throat
Many other diseases have the same symptoms, so displaying these symptoms does not automatically mean that you are infected with Covid-19. You may also be symptom-free and feel well, yet still be infected.
If you do have symptoms, consider;
- Have you travelled to a high risk area in the last two weeks? (e.g. China, South Korea or Northern Italy.)
- Have you been in close contact with someone known to be infected with Covid-19?
The Centre for Disease Control has produced a printable sheet showing the symptoms.
What to do if you have symptoms?
- PHONE the doctor – DON’T GO TO THE SURGERY OR HOSPITAL. Explain your symptoms, why you think it might be Covid-19 (travel to a risk area or contact with an infected person) and take their guidance.
- Self-isolate – don’t go out unless required to get medical attention. If possible, separate yourself from people and pets at home. (According to the WHO, pets are not at risk of becoming infected: they are simply a ‘surface’ that might transmit the disease to others.)
- Wear a mask & cover your coughs and sneezes
- Wash your hands frequently – and always after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing as well as before you eat.
- Don’t share personal items, such as cutlery, crockery, cups and glasses with others and make sure that after use, they are washed thoroughly with soap and water.
- Clean & Disinfect high traffic surfaces, such as counter tops, doorknobs, toilets, phones/tablets and keyboards with disinfectant spray at least daily.
- If your symptoms worsen PHONE – to seek prompt medical attention if you experience difficulty breathing or other worsening symptoms.
- DON’T ask your doctor for antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Besides being useless against a virus, this irresponsible misuse of antibiotics is exactly why we have super-resistant bugs such as MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus). Like viruses, bacteria reproduce and mutate rapidly. Some can also share DNA, which means that they evolve resistance quickly when exposed to antibiotics. Don’t pressure your doctor into giving you a pill when you’re ill. Antibiotics are only helpful if you develop a secondary, bacterial infection.
I Have A Trip Booked – Should I Cancel?
This is a both a personal choice and one governed by a rapidly evolving situation regarding the severity and rate of spread of Covid-19. Here are some factors to consider;
- Check Travel Health Advisories
- Travel Health Pro was set up to protect the health of British Travellers. It combines resources of National Travel Health Network And Centre and lists the current health status of various countries around the world.
- The UK Government’s Foreign Travel Advice website offers information on all aspects of travel.
- The Centre for Disease Control like all of the above, this too has information specific to Covid-19.
- World Health Organisaton Situation Reports
- Check advice on the government websites of the countries that you plan to visit.
- For example, The Italian government website has up to date advice on Coronavirus.
- Check the cancellation policies of:
- Your travel agent or travel company
- Your transport provider e.g. airline, cruise line, ferry etc Some operators have relaxed their cancellation policies in view of the outbreak.
- Hotel, B&B, campsite etc
- Check Your Travel Insurance
- In what circumstances are you covered for cancellation?
- If you work, what is your company’s policy?
- Some companies have chosen to enforce a quarantine period on employees who have visited risk areas.
- Are you eligible for pay or sick pay? Especially if you are not showing symptoms?
- Be Sensible
- Are you in a risk group?
- Do you currently have flu-like symptoms? – in which case you might be stopped at check points or prevented from travelling.
- Avoid non-essential travel to the worst affected areas.
- Is it irresponsible to continue to travel?
- Not necessarily, if you are smart about how and where you travel.
- Just don’t put yourself in danger or risk spreading the virus.
- Travel Advice from the World Health Organisation – updated 29th February.
How will we survive?
- We will focus on facts, not hype.
- We will monitor the latest information and take the precautions that we would take anyway, such as hand washing and avoiding the worst affected areas.
- We won’t panic. We’re in the Aosta Valley; an area of 3,261km² (more than 1200 square miles), which at the time of writing, has had two Covid-19 cases confirmed. Aosta is separated by a whole county, Piedmont, from the highest risk areas of Lombardia and Veneto.
Thankfully, the rest of Italy seems to share our sanguine view. There is no widespread hysteria – and you can still buy a toilet roll on a whim.
Footnote – just to show how quickly the situation can change, this very morning, 8th March, the day of publication, 16 million Italians are in lockdown in Lombardy and 14 provinces until 6th April.
There is nothing to fear but fear itself!
I read an article which posed the question, ‘Coronavirus – epidemic or infodemic?’ I don’t want to belittle the virus; it is spreading rapidly and people have died. However, it is essential to get the risks into context and I tend to err towards the latter. It is important not to confuse sensible precautions to prevent the spread of disease with the imminent danger of death.
I have a healthy degree of scepticism and can’t help thinking that once Coronavirus passes, like Bird Flu and Swine Flu did pretty much without incident, we will be back to worrying about an asteroid strike, the super volcano, the next pandemic, spores from outer space, mad cow disease, coffee causing cancer… or whatever terrible, awful, dreadful story sensation the Tabloid press dreams up to scare the ignorant and ill-informed and sell more papers.
The Conspiracy Theories
Remember 9/11, when Government ‘Spin Doctor’ Jo Moore apparently sent out an email along the lines of, “Today is a good day to bury bad news”?
- It has been suggested that hype about the ‘deadly’ virus from China is encouraged by the US and Russia to damage China’s economy.
- While Britain has its dicky fit about Coronavirus, Boris Johnson’s extreme right wing government avoids scrutiny on Brexit, its lack of trade talks with the EU, Russian interference in the referendum etc. etc. etc. They may even get to close down parliament legally! And when the blame game starts, Coronavirus puts something other than Brexit; in the frame. You can’t blame Boris for a natural disaster wrecking the economy, now, can you?
If we could direct even half of the panic and hysteria towards issues like climate change, which truly will be deadly on a global scale, there might be some hope for the future of the human race.
Somewhere between wearing an isolation suit and drinking bleach to keep yourself safe and licking the seats of public toilets because you believe yourself to be indestructible, there is a balance.
Stay safe and worry in proportion about things that warrant it.
And in the week that The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy turns 42, it seems eminently suitable to reiterate the words written comfortingly on it’s cover:
Although perhaps I should modify that to reflect the current situation in the UK:
Don’t Panic Buy!
Links and References
- World Health Organisation – Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak
- Centre for Disease Control Coronavirus Symptoms
- UK Government Guidance for the Public on Coronavirus
- NHS Information about Coronavirus
- Coronavirus Update (Live)
Please note that, while this information has been researched carefully and is given in good faith, it is very much subject to my disclaimer. The situation is changing rapidly, so do sign up for alerts and check reliable sources for the current information regularly.
Pictures, other than the photo of me skiing, courtesy of Pixabay.