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.