Date published: Thursday 12th March 2020
Yesterday (Wednesday 11th March), the World Health Organisation declared the Coronavirus a World Pandemic. Over the past few weeks, I am struggling to remember a single day in which someone has not asked me a question related to the Coronavirus, either at work, church, social gatherings or online. Our bulletins, social media and public discourse are completely saturated with the unfolding events, statements, debates, and opinions related to the global outbreak.
So how should we respond to the Coronavirus? I would like to look at three angles
- Denial vs Hysteria
- Unity vs Division
- Selflessness vs Selfishness
1. Denial vs Hysteria
The way of the fool seems right to them,
but the wise listen to advice
It is apparent from watching the news that people’s responses to the Coronavirus range from stubborn denial through to complete hysteria.
On one end of the spectrum, there are some very prominent voices that are working hard to down-play the seriousness of the virus. Many of these voices appear to have political motivations. For example, on 10th February, President Donald Trump announced in a Whitehouse speech “I had a long talk with President Xi- for the people in this room- two nights ago, and he feels very confident. He feels that, again as I mentioned, by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus.” (I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining why this is not true).
More soberly, there is concern that around the world, there are some governments and leaders who are deliberately downplaying the incidences in their countries or regions for fear of political ramifications. The most famous example is Dr Li Wenliang who was the Chinese doctor who tried to issue the first warning about the virus. The Chinese police responded to his warnings by instructing him to stop “making false comments” and the Public Security Bureau stated that he had “severely disturbed the social order”. On 6th February, Dr Li died of the Coronavirus, triggering a massive national outpouring of grief and fury directed at the Chinese government, with widespread accusations of a cover-up that cost the doctor’s life.
However, in the UK at least, I think more people are landing more towards hysteria than denial. People panic-buying supplies such as alcohol wipes and tinned foods has become so absurdly rife that on 8th March Tesco announced it was capping the amount individuals could spend on these items. A friend of mine who works in a pharmacy recently posted this on Facebook: A girl came into Boots 2 days ago and stocked up on £200 worth of make up “just in case”. In Australia, a video emerged of a full-blown punch-up in a supermarket over the last roll of toilet roll. But I think my favourite over-reaction to the Coronavirus has to be a sign that went up outside a Peter Andre Concert that read “Due to the recent cases of the coronavirus please DO NOT have any physical contact with Peter Andre”. (Presumably he then gave the contradictory declaration “oooh mysterious girl, I want to get close to you”)
Clearly a reasonable response to the Pandemic has to be somewhere between denial and hysteria. According to the UK Chief Medical Officer, the mortality of Coronavirus is thought to be around 2%. To put this in perspective, this is higher than seasonal flu (<0.1%), but significantly lower than SARS (9.6%) and MERS (34%).
This highlights the first point I want to make in answer to “how should we respond to the Coronavirus?”: be careful where you get your information from.
Information and guidance around the Coronavirus change every day, as the epidemiological picture evolves. I have been asked many questions about the Coronavirus, ranging from “do masks work?”, to “should I change my travel plans?”, to “what are the chances I’m going to have to cancel the Word Alive conference?” (a conversation I legitimately had with chairman of Word Alive, Hugh Palmer, over a fry-up). And my answer to the vast majority of these questions has been “As far as I know… But check the NHS website, as the information is changing every day”.
Public Health England have done a good job in creating a website with comprehensive, clear and up-to-date information and guidance on symptoms, management, travel advice and FAQs. It has not been glitch-free, but is nonetheless an excellent resource.
If you have questions around Coronavirus, or concerns that you have contracted it, I would strongly advise sticking to the NHS Coronavirus website. It is where I get the majority of my information. Striking the balance between denial and hysteria, necessarily involves knowing the facts as they emerge.
2. Unity vs. Division
A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity.
The Coronavirus outbreak as acutely shown us the importance of unity in a time of crisis. I have been generally reassured by the cross-party work and united approach from our politicians at Westminster. And it has been refreshing to hear by and large civilised and mature discussions on political TV shows such as BBC Question Time, compared with the usual party-political mud-slinging. Coronavirus may well turn out to be an oddly positive answer to the question “How can the UK unite after Brexit?”. We stand the best chance of curbing this Pandemic if we all work hand-in-hand (not literally of course): medics, scientists, politicians, business leaders, social leaders, journalists and the general public.
However, of course it is not all hugs and kumbaya. Despite the unity from the politicians, an ugly side of society has also reared its head during this outbreak: racism. My social media feeds have been filled with reports of racial abuse directed mainly as Asians, and mainly those who wear facemasks in public places. I know of several friends who have received racist comments on public transport in London, and an atrocious physical assault on a Singaporean UCL student made national headlines.
In my life, I have never really received any major form of racial abuse. I know I am very privileged in this respect. However, with me being a Chinese doctor who has been quite coryzal for the past few weeks, I, for the first time in my life, have felt self-conscious about my skin-colour. I say this not to fish for sympathy- I know I am hardly an overlooked oppressed minority. But I just want to highlight that it is hard enough for people from very high-risk areas at the moment (many are worried about friends and family abroad, not to mention all the travel bans), without the need for racist actions, words, or even looks and avoidance in public places. As comedian John Oliver pithily put it in his Last Week Tonight piece on Coronavirus “Until experts advise that this threat is over, we should all be following some basic advice. First, don’t be racist! That’s just good general advice, for now, and for later.”
3. Selflessness vs Selfishness
It is a sin to despise one’s neighbour,
but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy
A journalist friend of mine posted this on Facebook
“…I know some of you are frontline healthcare workers. Are you preparing for coronavirus in your hospitals or surgeries? If so, can we do anything to help you? We know from Italy and China that doctors, nurses and support staff have been almost overwhelmed with work. Are you bracing yourself for that? And if so what can your friends do to help?…”
This last section is my answer to her question.
It is a challenging time to be a healthcare professional. We are dealing with rapidly increasing numbers of sick and worried patients, we are constantly having to change and adapt to the new protocols and guidance that come out on a daily basis, and we are at high risk of contracting the virus ourselves. Therefore, we are very much at the mercy of the actions of the general public. Let me give three quick ways you can help us help you.
Firstly, if you think you might have Coronavirus, please do not attend your GP or A&E. Contact 111 (phone or online) and follow their instructions. All it takes is one person with Coronavirus to ignore this guidance and to rock-up to their local A&E, and not only will they be exposing many high risk individuals, but that department will lose several front-line staff members who will have to self-isolate, and the practice or department will almost certainly have to temporarily shut. One selfish act like this can have major consequences in a system already at saturation point.
Secondly, please stop stealing our masks and hand gel (and please stop asking clinicians to steal them for you)! I know there are shortages in the supermarket and online. But the anaesthetists intubating Coronavirus-positive children need the masks far more than worried healthy commuters on the London tube.
And thirdly, please just be nice to us. The vast majority of patients and the general public are. And in a high stress environment, such as an A&E department during a Pandemic, a smile and a “thank you” can really lift our spirits. Please look after those who look after you!
How Should We Respond to the Coronavirus?
My social media feeds are flooded with various opinion pieces about the Coronavirus. And there many Christians who have written and recorded their wisdom. The Gospel Coalition published an article heralding the need for trust in God’s sovereignty and hope of life after death7. The Zacharias Trust recorded a podcast focussing on the political issues and the desire to pin blame and seek justice, when perhaps we should be uniting and caring for the sick8. Glen Scrivener and Paul Feasey released a Speak Life podcast episode in which they tracked the Christian responses to major infection outbreaks in the past, and how Christ’s self-sacrificial love can be mirrored in the lives of His disciples9.
I found all of these helpful, and highly recommend giving them all a read/ listen. This article is simply my attempt at answering some of the questions and concerns of friends, colleagues and patients, as a Chinese Christian doctor working on the front line of this Pandemic. I hope some of what I have said is helpful!