News of COVID-19 is everywhere we turn right now and we are devouring every morsel we are fed by the experts and so called experts (including myself sharing my thoughts). In fact, we are consuming so much information that it has almost become a competition to see who can recite the most “facts” at any catchup to win the highly cherished Most Knowledgeable COVID-19 gold medal. However, as the virus has continued its global invasion many of us are only now starting to comprehend its full impact on our health, economies and way of life.
At the time of writing this blog (6.57pm EST 12 March 2020) Australia has 147 confirmed cases of the COVID-19, a long, long way behind the 4 countries that have the highest number of confirmed cases – China (80,932), Italy (12,462), Iran (9,000) and South Korea (7869). If you’ve been like me, you may have thought Australian’s don’t need to worry, after all we only have approximately 1% of the cases when compared to the top 3 countries. We are a long way behind.
I confess I have been guilty of engaging in this almost cavalier approach during my endless conversations about the Corona virus. I may have even said “let it come, after all it’s just like the influenza virus”. The symptoms certainly sounded very similar when Tom Hanks posted on Instagram that he and wife Rita had tested positive to Corona announcing “We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches. Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too”.
On face value the impact seems pretty harmless and may have had many of the toilet paper hoarders wondering if their stockpiling was a crappy idea after all. In fact, the illogical caveman thinker within me even thought that maybe my wife and I should grab some pizzas and wine and invite all our friends over to ‘meet’ some recently returned traveller from Italy, who had conveniently just tested positive for COVID19. “Let’s just get this flu thingy over and done with, so we can get back to our way of life and stop all this dramatic talk of shutting everything down and enforcing isolation”, I thought as I dragged my knuckles on the ground.
That was until I came across the number 5 in an recent news article, as I was preparing for the daily ‘I know more about COVID-19 than you competition’. This article noted that only 5 days ago Italy had a very similar number of cases as Australia currently had and that things had just exploded over there to reach over 12,000 cases in less than a week. During that time Italian authorities have now imposed a complete shutdown of the relatively wealthy Lombardi region. Everything is closed: businesses, schools, public events cancelled, even going outside for non-essential trips is not advised. Reports say that police are also enforcing a ban on people being closer than 1 metre to each other in public to minimise the risk of transmission.
Previously, I had been stunned by the images of the Chinese government’s rapid and authoritarian approach to attempting to reduce the rate of infection amongst its people. Cities of millions were ordered to stay at home and authorities were reportedly aggressively enforcing this strict isolation policy.
We Australians are known for our laid-back attitude to life and we are very protective of the freedom our way of life offers us. However, there is the risk that this very trait we value so much could become our undoing, unless we start to think and, more importantly, act more responsibly.
What I had missed in all of this COVID-19 hype was that my understanding of the situation was flawed and that this was not a simple case of proactively getting myself infected and then spending the next 14 days in ‘isolation’, binge watching Netflix and chilling. As a mid-fifties man in relatively good health I had ignored that we, Australia, were in fact on the verge of joining the viral version of World War III and the impacts on the vulnerable could be huge.
The true experts in managing pandemics, our health professionals and epidemiologists, have a well-thought out phased approach to dealing with epidemics. The first step is try to prevent the virus reaching our shores at all. Despite the best efforts of our early response of banning flights from China, COVID19 reached our shores within weeks and the cases have just kept rising as the virus infected countries globally. First travellers from China, then Iran and eventually Italy brought back unwanted souvenirs of their travels. Then, not long after our first case, another dreaded milestone was reached. We had our first transmission occur on our shores. Not only had we been invaded, but now it was spreading here between people. With global health enemy number 1 amongst us, the next phase of defence is to try and contain it and limit any cross infection. Isolation wards were put on high alert and infected patients admitted until they were no longer infectious.
As extra precautions all of the Chief Health Officers (CHO) instructed people who may have been exposed to any confirmed cases to self-isolate for 14 days. The final stage of managing an epidemic like this is to delay the spread so our hospitals can manage the influx of cases without putting at risk the other patients that need hospital care.
The egotistical and patriotic part of me told me to calm the farm. “We have so got this” I told myself and anyone else who would listen. With our high-quality health care system and the clean environment we enjoy here in Oz we were more than prepared and that we had it under control, my small brain reasoned.
But then the number 5 came back to haunt me. This was exactly the approach the Italians had taken a mere 5 days ago. People over there continued about their Italian way of life relatively unaffected, unless of course they were infected. Life continued with the European double cheek greeting, joyous social outings and tourists enjoying the delights of the scenery, food and people.
Now, fast forward five days and it is very apparent that maybe I needed to stop being so lackadaisical about this virus and realise that this really was the equivalent of war, albeit from a medical perspective. The invasion alarms have been sounded by CHOs globally, warning us of the impending invasion. But because the enemy was disguised in its flu like symptom camouflage we, or more appropriately I, had decided my way of life didn’t need to change. Other than being bemused by the empty shelves in our supermarkets and wondering what all that toilet paper was needed for, I carried on with my very pleasant way of life, unaffected.
However, over on the other side of the globe our Italian cousins and their health system were under siege. The infected were descending on the hospitals on mass and the overstretched health care workers were now forced to make devastating life and death decisions. Similar to the images we saw from China, the hospitals were overrun and Italy now faced with the same dire situation. Beds and patients were strewn throughout the halls and makeshift facilities were created to deal with the unimaginable numbers of sick and dying. Doctors and nurses were now faced with not only having to treat the sick and injured that usually attended a hospital, but they were flooded with the stream of infected people.
From all reports, the Italian and Chinese health workers now had to regularly choose who lived and died, based on the person’s likelihood of future survival. Faced with a 40-year-old male who was suffering life threatening injuries and a 65 year old Nona suffering respiratory difficulties, a call had to be made as to which one to save. But this wasn’t just once, but hundreds of times. This was now all out war (a reference made by an Italian Dr), and as we all know from the war movies you can’t save everyone, so tough choices must be made. The problem is that this is about real people not actors. People with families who love and need them, and they deserve to be given the best chance to survive. What a devastating decision to have to make for the health workers, all because 5 days ago the Italians continued to enjoy their way of life. Now their aging population is experiencing a 6% death rate much higher than the global average as aging human national treasures and family members are being lost.
This harsh reality of what can happen in under a week has made me reconsider my uninformed approach to ‘bring it on’. I am now suitably worried about the impacts on my 77 year old father, his partner, my wife’s elderly parents and the rest of the Australian population unless we immediately accept that we need to make some changes to our way of life quickly to choose to allow our more vulnerable continue to live the full life they deserve. Not such a tough choice after all.
Of course, these are my personal views as a passionate observer of human behaviour and in no way are intended to represent the thoughts, research or opinions of any of my clients past or present. I am not a medical or financial expert and while my first aid certificate will allow me to help you if you need a band aid, it in no way qualifies me to provide medical or investment advice. I hope you enjoyed the read.