As a physician working in ambulatory clinics, I was in the front lines during SARS and the H1N1 flu. I remember the intensity of the initial fear among the public and also among health care professionals. In both those situations, the dread of what was to come started to ease as things unfolded. SARS, in particular, was quite quickly contained. Thank God.
The current Covid-19 pandemic (declared a pandemic by the WHO today) is new territory in terms of its nature and scale, at least in modern times. What we allow ourselves to think about it, and how we act in response, significantly impacts both our own well-being and the well-being of our communities.
I stepped away from clinical medicine last year, to focus full time on educating the public on mental health and resilience. I’m prepared to step back into the fray if and when extra hands on deck are needed. For now, I’m watching things unfold from the bleachers, like so many others.
What to do, in the face of all this stress, uncertainty and fear?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the best response to Covid-19 would look like, for the average individual, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
1) Focus on what’s best for everyone, not just you (because that’s what’s best for you)
I saw a meme the other day, which made a critical, rather scary point: if you hoard dozens of bars of soap, that means other people won’t have soap.
If there ever was a situation where we wanted everyone to have soap, this is it.
Making sure that you have a year’s supply of soap, bleach, or hand sanitizer (but your neighbors don’t, because you took it all) works if you’re never planning to leave your home or have contact with anyone else. Ever.
Survivalists with bunkers aside, we need to do what’s best for all the people in our communities. To ensure that everyone can be prepared. That everyone would have resources to do the necessary things, like washing or sanitizing their hands. That health care professionals would have access to N-95 masks, versus ordinary people hoarding boxes of them.
If you were to get sick with Covid-19, wouldn’t you want the hospitals to be adequately staffed, so that people can take care of you? Health care professionals need these masks in order to protect themselves from infection, so they can keep working and attending to the sick.
I think it’s very natural, in the face of something like this, to think of ourselves first. It’s a built-in survival mechanism, most likely. Grab what you can, save yourself.
But if we really stop and think about it, the best way to “save ourselves” is to stop the spread of this thing, or at least slow it down. And that will take us working together, and thinking of each other.
2) Follow the recommended precautions, even if you think it’s “overkill”
As a doctor, I’m a compulsive handwasher. Early on, I was given a handbook on Surviving Residency Training that reminded me to always wash my hands after contacting patients or before eating, and to avoid touching my face. I don’t have OCD, but am intensely aware of good hygiene and infection control measures.
I always wash my hands, right after I walk into my home. My husband does it now too, which is great. But what if someone else comes into our home, who thinks all the hype is just “drama”? They don’t wash their hands when they come in, and then go into our refrigerator, use the washroom etc. There goes the home. I’m not going to walk behind people with disinfectant. And for now, in my community, the risks are still relatively low. But these habits really matter, if we have any hope of keeping those transmission risks low.
I don’t care whether you think hand washing, or recommended social distancing, is silly or not. Please think of other people. When you don’t wash your hands, it not just about your hands and about whether you get sick. If you get sick because of lax hygiene practices (or because of “not bothering with” other recommendations) it’s not just unfortunate for you. You will likely infect others. Others who may not have the same robust immune system that you do. You’re not living in a vacuum.
3) Take really good care of yourself, both physically and mentally
This is a time when you want your immune system to be strong, for obvious reasons. Get enough sleep. Exercise (though you may want to avoid the gym, especially during peak times). Stay well hydrated and eat healthy foods. Avoid things that cripple the immune system, like high sugar foods or not getting enough rest.
Have a reasonable supply of non-perishable healthy foods and supplies on hand (if possible), so that if you get sick or have to self-isolate, you can support your body well. I’ve got close to a couple of weeks worth of food on hand. My husband had the flu a few weeks ago. As I nursed him through that, it was a good reminder of how important it is to have things like soups and herbal tea around. No hoarding though, as discussed in point #1.
Watch your anxiety levels when it comes to this Covid-19 situation. As a physician, I have made sure to stay informed. But there can come a point where you just need to stop reading about it (or watching the news), especially if really upsets you. Intense fear and worry increase release of stress hormones, and may also interfere with sleep and proper rest, all of which suppress the function of your immune system. It’s important to stay calm. Guard your thoughts and proactively take care of your mental health.
4) Include helping others as part of your Covid-19 game plan
As I mentioned earlier, it’s normal to think of protecting yourself and your family first. However, if things get difficult in your community, I encourage you to keep an eye out for how you can help others. I heard reports from Wuhan about people giving out masks to others, or bringing food to people who were quarantined or sick.
Reflect on how you might contribute to the strength and well-being of others beyond your immediate family, particularly if things get worse. Of course, this would not mean ignoring guidelines around public safety, or foolishly exposing yourself. But do think of how you might help others.
The more we keep each other in mind as we walk through this, the better the chance we have at minimizing the damage to all of us: our communities, our countries and our world.
An excellent, level-headed approach to health –for all times–thank you!
You are so welcome, Belinda, and thank you so much for taking the time to comment!
Excellent perspective, Susan! Thank you!
Hi Dennis! Thanks so much.
Hi Cathy, thank you! I’m glad you found it useful.
Excellent post Dr. Biali….you are a smart, common sense lady!
Thank you, Ron! 🙂
Thank you!! I am always grateful when someone brings in the balanced approach; one which also considers our other needs (besides the physical), namely the emotional and mental. I am always looking for more of this type of literature to support myself, and then to be of help to others.
Cheers to TRUE health and well-being, well done:)!
Thank you, Shawn! I am so cheered by the positive responses to this article, in general. We must stay calm and come together at this time, and be there for each other. It’s a beautiful opportunity really (in the face of all the fear and stress).
Thank you, great, informative read.
Excellent read, thank you
You are so welcome, Loretta!
Thank you Susan for this realistic and practical view. I will share with my close friends and family because I agree we need to rally together on this.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom!
Hi Kim! Thanks so much for sharing the article, I am feeling very encouraged by the positive responses from so many. We can all do this, together!
Thank you, Susan. I, too, live in your area, and have leadership responsibilities in my church and the wider community, as well as having worked for many years in the medical field. I’m forwarding your wise words to colleagues, friends and family. We are paying close attention to hourly changes in the recommendations of those ‘in the know’ as we consider next steps in gathering (or not) – for the safety and health of everyone around us. May we all make good choices!
Hi June! It sounds like you have a lot of relevant and important experience, preparing you for such a time as this. We must make really good choices right now, even if they seem extreme in the moment. Together we can get a lot of momentum going, with respect to slowing this down, and potentially avoid a lot of grief. I am cheering for you!
Thank you for a very informative advice. Reminding us to think of others too at times like this.
You are so welcome! I feel strongly that reminding ourselves of the importance of considering others (and that we are facing this together, united as communities, nations and the world), can be really helpful in reducing our stress and keeping the healthiest perspective.
My monkey mind feels soothed and I feel more centered. Thanks Susan
You’re so welcome, Erica 🙂
I needed this. It was excellent and helped relieve most of my anxiety. I’m with Erica… I feel much better.
Hi Janice! I’m SO glad to hear that this was helpful to you. You’ve made my day. We can get through this, together.
I would add to all of your great points, information on what self-care should look like once we have contracted the virus. It empowers us to prepare and preparing makes us feels less anxious. I read an excellent article by a nurse who said: “Be prepared, you are going to get a really nasty case of bronchitis and maybe pneumonia. You will need Tylenol 325, Ibuprofen 200…
Hi Julie, that is an excellent point, HOWEVER there are reports coming out now (apparently from health authorities in France; I heard this through another physician in the UK) that Ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory medications have possibly been linked to severe covid-19 illness in younger people (the anti-inflammatory effect of these medications may be negatively affecting the immune response). I cannot give medical advice here online, but I would look to health authorities who are physicians or expert researchers with respect to what is safe or advisable to take during an infection. At this point, given what I am hearing, I personally would stay away from anti-inflammatories but cannot advise others (this website is never meant to replace the advice of an individual’s personal physician, and it’s never to be taken as medical advice period). Stay safe, Julie, and thanks so much for your comment!
Extremely well written – esp appreciate the part about overconsumption of media which can worsen our mental state and promote fear. Staying informed is good – watching the news constantly and monitoring social media uninterrupted for hours is likely less good. Thank you for these excellent insights.
Hello Dr. Robert! Thank you so much for your kind words, I’m very glad that you found the article to be useful.
Glad I stumbled on you and love the way you write and what you write. so helpful when so many people are struggling on where to put their focus! Dianne in Calgary
Thank you so much, Dianne! Sorry for the long delay in responding, I have been taking lots of time lately to rest and reflect during these difficult times. I’m very glad to be connected and I hope all is well with you and yours in Calgary.
I must appreciate the way you have expressed your feelings through your blog!