Editorial: Three Different Community Responses to a Coronavirus Pandemic

Panic Shopping: Australian shoppers fighting over rolls of toilet paper (source)

My distress, anxiety, depression, and anger over the coronavirus pandemic have not subsided since I received permission from my employer to work from home. My initial sense of relief proved to be very short-lived. I now worry that I might be tipping over into full-blown agoraphobia—afraid to leave the house for anything.

Even though we only have 4 confirmed cases of COVID-19 here in Winnipeg, I have postponed, then cancelled, my regular Friday night supper with my long-suffering, unflappable best friend John, and I have also cancelled my Sunday evening dinner with my mother and stepfather. In all cases, they understand and are sympathetic. As John said on the phone to me today, “You’re just Ryan.”—almost exactly what my supervisor at work told me earlier this week. (To steal a line from Games of Thrones: It is known.)

I do have a rather lamentable tendency to panic, overreact, and infect other people with my anxiety and depression. (I apologized to two coworkers yesterday for stepping out of bounds in my eagerness to warn people about the risks.) The problem is, of course, that we as a society have never faced such an unprecedented global public health situation like this before, so everybody is guessing at what the normal response should be. We are going to see a lot of people stressing out (and acting out) over this, I am afraid. Here is my constantly-updated list of mental health resources during a coronavirus pandemic.

Microbiologist Dr. Siouxsie Wiles (whom I am following on Twitter) has released a series of helpful animated GIFs which illustrate important concepts that the public need to grasp about this COVID-19 pandemic. I shared one of her GIFs in this March 10th blogpost, and below is a second, new one:

Basically, this picture shows three different community responses to a pandemic:

  • No collective response, which leads to a spike of cases that quickly overwhelms healthcare systems (as we saw in Hubei province in China, and now in Italy, where they are making life-and-death triage decisions for intensive care beds and ventilators);
  • A strong collective response, which “flattens the curve” to keep the total number of cases at any one time to within hospital capacities (this is the ideal response);
  • A strong, but only short-term, collective response, which only postpones the deadly spike of cases over time.

The situation in Italy is currently grim, and it should as a stern warning for other countries; we are not immune to a sharp spike in cases happening here, especially if there is community resistance to quarantines and the imposition of social distancing policies.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has just announced the border restrictions that among the toughest in the world, in a country that so far only has seen only six confirmed cases of COVID-19:

Countries around the world continued Saturday to enact strict measures such as border closures and flight cancellations to combat the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus.

That includes New Zealand, whose Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Saturday the government will implement a policy under which all travelers, even New Zealanders, must self-isolate upon their arrival in the country for 14 days starting Sunday at midnight.

Ardern said New Zealand, along with Israel and several Pacific Island nations, “will have the widest ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world,” adding that she’s not making any apologies in this “unprecedented time.” All cruise ships will be banned from coming to New Zealand until June 30, as well. There are only six confirmed cases and no deaths attributed to COVID-19 in New Zealand so far.

Contrast this timely, science-based approach with the actions of the Donald Trump administration, which apparently tried to overrule Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations that seniors avoid airline flights and that they should remain at home as much as possible.

Donald Trump’s rambling, pompous, error-filled, and shambolic public pronouncements about the coronavirus crisis have done no favours to the U.S. populace. It’s very clear that Trump cares more about protecting industries such as cruiselines, airlines, and hotels, than he does about the U.S. citizens he was elected to protect.

The longer that the U.S. practices such poor risk communication to the public, the worse the overall reaction will be. Notice the levels of panic shopping now taking place all across the world? That’s a direct result of people being lulled into a false sense of security, suddenly triggered into panic mode. The “it’s just the flu” bros are waking up en masse, and ransacking grocery stores and pharmacies.

Like I said, welcome to the new normal.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

P.S. Please don’t worry about me; I am still seeing my psychiatrist regularly, and I am practicing good self-care at home, including taking breaks from the relentless news media coverage. To quote Gloria Gaynor: I will survive!

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2 thoughts on “Editorial: Three Different Community Responses to a Coronavirus Pandemic”

  1. I wish I lived in New Zealand. The virus is now in my city (in the US) courtesy of a guy who just came off a cruise ship. If all people like him had to self-quarantine for two weeks it would make such a difference.

  2. personally I think you are doing exactly what MOST people SHOULD be doing.

    Even before March began I canceled a girl’s biannual tea for March 4th — back when the closest known case to any of us was about 90 miles away. The gals were in favor of rebooking for “summer”. I also gave up my weekly gaming and lunch date of more than twenty years. We now send email and sometimes chat via phone. We will get to find “grandfather” somewhere down the line; the game will still be there and hopefully we will be too.

    People are NOT paying attention. Well some are but it seems that at least half of the world is going about like nothing is happening and this endangers ALL of us — especially older or ill folks. I just don’t get it. Not only do people need to take care of themselves, they need to take care of their friends and family and neighbors by NOT infecting them.

    Happily many US states “woke up” this week and many public areas are closed. A report in from a friend just now said that there were only a few cars at a popular local restaurant AND the neighborhood feed store (can’t let the critters die from hunger) is wiping down credit card areas between customers. Every little bit helps.

    After sequestering myself after a mandatory trip to the dentist there are e a couple more days of my self-imposed quarantine. I was as careful as possible with rubber gloves, alcohol and immediate clothes removal and hand washing. Since getting sick OR passing along the virus is not in my todo list, I have one contact person now and barring some health emergency don’t plan on seeing anyone closer than two meter (wink) until things calm down mightily.

    Overkill? Perhaps. But I am the person who has come back from long trips in foreign countries WITHOUT getting sick. All you really need to do is pay attention — REALLY pay attention.

    So don’t beat yourself up over your choices.

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