How You Can Help: Thoughts From A Former Pandemic-Fighting NHS Employee

Right now, there is panic and chaos all over the world. People have become aware of Coronavirus, or Covid-19, and people are panicking about it. Medics in hospitals worldwide are struggling to stem the flow of patients. Supermarkets are struggling to feed communities as food supplies fly off of the shelves no sooner than they arrive and people are cleansing and sanitising every square inch of their homes in the hopes of not getting sick from this virus. For them I have some bad news. If you’re under 60, the excessive amounts of chemicals that you’re spraying around your home are likely to cause harm to you and your family than the virus itself will. Go steady on them, my friends.

I understand that you’re worried, a lot of people are. A lot of people, maybe, except me. That doesn’t mean I’ve developed a joie de vivre attitude towards the whole thing as we can all certainly do our part, but panic and pandeomonium won’t get us very far, either.

In 2009, I worked with the NHS on the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic. Sometimes I sorted mail, prescriptions or paperwork on the front desk, and sometimes I was tucked away in an upstairs office, folding and sealing hundreds and hundreds of letters inviting at-risk patients for a free swine flu vaccine. I was offered mine by a nurse at the health centre I worked in, right then and there at my desk. I refused it, to me, it was just another case of the flu. I had no real understanding of the pandemic, other than that we were relentlessly busy. A lot of times, I’d be working twice as long as my shift just to get the paperwork sorted. There were a lot of deaths which I just assumed were old people dying from swine flu. Looking back, they might have been no older than me.

It never occurred to me until now how close I might have been to death that day. As we hung out at my boyfriend (now husband)’s home, his friend sat next to me, sniffling and with a runny nose. He talked about taking Tamiflu for his symptoms and I disregarded it still as a normal flu. I was 21 at the time – well within the age ranges considered most at risk of dying from H1N1 swine flu.

In the weeks prior to now, I have been a bit flippant about this whole thing. 13,000 dead? That’s nothing on 200,000 deceased! That’s not even 10%. I wasn’t going to worry until it reached hundreds of thousands, then I would start to worry! I was going to still see my mother and my father-in-law. Family gatherings for me are usually 2-5 adults, none of us are elderly and none of us have underlying health conditions. None of us are at risk!

But something struck me a few days ago while I was sorting out under the stairs. What if someone had that attitude when I was working for the NHS? What if people had disregarded advice to wash their hands and catch and kill coughs and sneezes in tissues? What if people had ignored guidance to stay in if they were sick, or avoid people who were sick? How would I have felt if we called for social distancing, but people weren’t social distancing?

You see, that there is the problem.

It’s not just about whether you yourself are at risk, it’s about our collective action, the things we can do to make it easier on our health industries, our supermarkets and our industries. It’s the little things that we can do together and for each other, the little things we do right now will make the biggest difference. We are all at risk for Covid-19, but, it seems, the older are much more likely to die than the young.

Right now in the UK, we have over 4,000 cases, more than 25% of which are located in and around London. Here in the South West we have the lowest count with only 120 cases, and so far, only 20 in Bristol. Even if that’s an insignificant number in a population of over 500,000 , this virus appears to be quite contagious, and already Bristol has had one death from the disease. Most people are respecting a lockdown nationwide, but there are still plenty of individuals choosing to go forth and put us all at risk. Even if I’m sad at not being able to see my Mum on Mothering Sunday this year, I admire her for being among the many other women out there who working to keep the nation ticking over in times of crisis. We owe it to everyone out there who is fighting for us, to keep us safe and well and find a way to allow us once more to go on with our lives.

How You Can Help

There’s been a great community spirit, and truthfully it has moved me to tears to see neighbours in Italy and Spain singing together and clapping for healthcare workers. There has been nothing of the sort here in England, at least, certainly not on my street. Here, old cars drive down the road and park up outside houses. I know what they’re there for, and it’s not to drop off supplies to elderly neighbours. Life goes on for many people, but in the weeks to come, that could all change.

Wash your hands

Perhaps the biggest piece of advice that I can give you is to quite simply remember to wash your hands, thoroughly, as often as you think to do it. Try to make it a regular habit, but do try also not to go overboard. If you’ve been outside, before and after handling food and obviously any time that you use the bathroom. Remember to use comfortably hot water and soap. You don’t need to use a lot of soap as more soap won’t mean less viruses, one or two pumps is more than enough. Don’t forget to wash for 20 seconds, too. I found the chorus to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off more than long enough, and much more fun than singing Happy Birthday twice, Every. Single. Time.

Respect Social Distancing

I fully understand how hard it is to stay away from the people you most love and the people you want to see, I even wrote a piece about the bravery of the elderly in my country, prior to this little revelation. After losing my Dad to cancer little over a year ago now, this month was quite a sensitive time for me and my family. We would have had him and my grandfather cremated a year ago on the 3rd April (a family decision to not have too many painful days dotted about), but now we can only comfort each other on that sad day via Facebook. Social distancing was put in place to keep you and the people you love around for longer, it was not a condition that was put in place and only applies to everyone else. At first, I was tempted to adhere to the CDC’s guidance on groups no larger than 10 (family visits never are, they’re usually five at best) but then I decided that no, social distancing means social distancing for everyone. It is hard, but we all need to do our part.

How Much Toilet Paper Do You REALLY Need?

The toilet paper pandemonium during this pandemic has been atrocious. People have been stockpiling and getting ready to hunker down for months, years on end it seems. People it’s a virus, it’s not a nuclear apocalypse. Just to calm you, China and Russia have sent help to Italy, a NATO ally, who has been hardest hit by this crisis. Okay? No war, no conflict, it’s not the end times. Just as another reminder, the estimated death toll for H1N1 swine flu started off at 7%, it ended up being less than 1%, somewhere around the same as seasonal flu. Coronavirus started off at a estimated mortality rate of 3.4%, half of that estimated for H1N1. It feels doom and gloom right now, but trust me, we have seen worse. China has already managed to “flatten the curve” after just two months of restrictions. There is hope on the horizon if we just all work together.

One of the things I discovered recently was this fun little calculator. Enter a few specifics, like how often you visit the bathroom, how much paper you use and how many people there are in your household, and this cute little calculator works out how long your stocks will last you. Before the panic buying really took hold, I bought a 9 pack of toilet paper instead of my normal 4 pack (which normally lasts us two weeks), just in case stocks really did run low. By this calculator, we have enough paper (with a fairly modest 8.5 rolls left) to last us 109 days – that’s more than the anticipated 12 week lockdown! How long are you people planning to stay in lockdown for?!

Use this calculator to guestimate how much you really need, then donate or sell (for a respectable sum, please don’t price gouge) the rest. There are elderly and vulnerable people out there who are struggling to resource their basics needs because panic buyers have bought it all. Even a roll or two can last someone several days, and you never know when your neighbours might save you. I’m not panicking yet as we do have enough to last us, but I am definitely praying that the lockdown doesn’t last more than three months – or that my husband doesn’t overextend his daily allowance of loo roll!

Please Stop Panic-Buying

Similar to toilet paper, if everyone panic buys on food, there won’t be enough left for anyone else. Imagine the rolls were reversed and someone else had bought all the food, and all that was left for you was some bland looking food and empty shelves. How would you feel? Everyone needs to cut down a little right now, and everyone needs to make some sacrifices. We all need to work together during these hardships and be willing to go without somewhat. Our elderly and vulnerable depend on us to work together, and our supermarkets depend on us to be respectable so that they can provide enough food to keep everyone fed. Please. Don’t be greedy. It’s really not the end.

The more that people panic buy, the more likely we are to see a rationing system bought into place. Our governments are stressed enough right now as they try to find a healthcare system that works to control and end this crisis, the last thing that we need is anxiety in food supply chains to distract them from their goal and if a diabetic can’t eat then a lack of blood sugar could cost yet another life. Think of others, plan out your meals and only buy what you need. Could you spare some food, realistically? Why not prepare an extra meal for an elderly or vulnerable neighbour and leave it on their doorstep? It’s the little things like this that pull us all together right now and strengthen our resolve as a community.

Go Steady With The Chemicals

I firmly understand it, you don’t want the virus in your home. You can be clean, and then there is being crazy clean. Limit risks by being tidy and cleaning high contact areas (phones, keyboards, light switches and door handles) often, but please don’t go overboard. Again, similar to what I said above, more product doesn’t mean a cleaner home. Use just enough, and have enough left for next time,

Holding On To Hope

In this crisis, I firmly believe that the coming together of the world has allowed us to begin to heal some deep divides. The singing and playing music from balconies, the aid from overseas or the willingness of the young to shop for elderly neighbours. Even Britain herself has began to come together to form a more united front, Brexit Remain or Leave divisions matter less, and people are more concerned about a reduction in social activity to prevent the spread of the virus and stopping panic buyers. There are three things spreading the globe, one is Covid-19 and the anxiety and fear that it brings. The one that we should never lose sight of in these dark times though, is hope.

Be Bold, Be Bright, Be Beautiful,

Helen xx

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