It’s the uncertainty about this COVID-19 virus that gnaws at my soul. And it’s the ignorance of others that makes me want to snap at anyone who blows their nose and then touches a communal condiment. I want to snarl: Are you trying to kill me and everyone else?
The uncertainty is reducing me to shreds. I’m no longer whole and resilient. Little things are becoming big. Is the bellyache a result of nerves? Or is it from an appendix about to burst? Are the inflamed and itchy spots on my body from a benign mosquito? Or have I been bitten by one of the two species of poisonous spiders in this country? And because the spots have not reduced after forty-eight hours, and have a weeping crusted centre, what are the chances of developing necrotizing fasciitis? A little knowledge can be dangerous in uncertain times. And a trip to the hospital could put me in greater peril than sitting here with my worry.
I’ve moved into vigilante mode on infection control. My husband understands, not because of my relentless reminders over the years, but from an episode of Scrubs. It was one of the best illustrations I have seen of what happens when people do not think through their responsibility to protect others. In this particular episode, whenever a character touched another person or object, without first washing their hands, a glowing green spot was superimposed on the image. The result? A trail of fluorescent green wound its way through hallways, along IV poles, into patient rooms, onto meal trays, and throughout the hospital. People died.
I was reminded of that episode recently when our server came to the table and handed us our menus. What caught my eye was her vinyl gloves, which she wore bunched at each wrist with beaded elastic bracelets. The resulting frill was somewhat fetching, but to this cynical eye, it was a clear message that her gloves were not coming off until the end of her shift. When I asked who was being protected by her gloves, she indicated that she was. I then asked, “What about me?”
She looked surprised. I gestured to the menus and said, “These have germs.”
Once again, she looked surprised.
“Will you wash your hands when you take your gloves off?”
“Of course,” she assured me. “They would be dirty.”
“What will you do to protect me between now and taking your gloves off?”
Her plan, she said, was to wash her gloved hands with soap and water or with antiseptic gel.
Did that happen?
My husband said, “Yes. Once.” He saw her washing her gloved hands as he headed to the bathroom. However, I saw no evidence that she did so as she handled cutlery and folded it into napkins. The experience made my decision for the next few weeks: I will prepare our food; we will dine at home.
Is there an upside to COVID-19? I think so.
I grew up at a time when mothers were insistent on hand-washing before meal preparation, before consumption of food, and after blowing of noses. These same mothers washed and rinsed dishes in hot water, and as part of their weekly housework, they wiped doorknobs with diluted bleach. These women understood “Germ Theory” at a practical level. Their approach to maintain the health of their families was primary prevention: Protect yourself AND protect others.
But, gloves isolate us from the intimacy of touch, and it’s that intimacy that, at a basic level, reminds us to wash our hands. I could understand gloves if the people wearing them had no access to soap or hand sanitizer. But I fear that the motivation at worst is ‘protect myself and to Hell with others.’ When I see anyone going about their business outside a hospital wearing gloves, I do not feel safe.
I’ve thought about health, safety and infectious diseases for decades— ever since my first encounter with a patient who unbeknownst to me had active TB. I was the first responder at her cardiac arrest and administered CPR. As a result, I was on medication for a year, and my awareness of infection control was forever changed. I don’t shake hands at church, and I’ve been known to grab the arm of someone who is about to double-dip. Amongst friends, my cautions have been a running joke; with my sons, I’m an embarrassment.
Two earlier versions of coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, did not result in pandemic management measures. Borders stayed open; schools did not close, and people commuted to their workplaces. I suspect that it was a small pool of the population whose behaviours changed forever: our health care workers, and the families and friends of the people who became ill. But the upside of our global experience with COVID-19 may well change personal behaviour.
Are more of us are now aware of the ‘fluorescent-green’ bio-trail that tracks our movements when we do not wash our hands. I think so.
Do more of us understand that we can spread a virus before we have ourselves developed symptoms? I hope so.
If each of us, to our very core, recognized our civic responsibility to protect ourselves AND to protect others, our bio-trails would become bio-dots. They would stop at the sink. The result would be that we would have protected ourselves AND protected others.
As for COVID-19 and it’s spread, I would say, “Trash the gloves; wash your hands; and Namaste—May the goodness in me greet the goodness in you.”
Let’s take care of ourselves, and each other.
Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.