Could my death go viral?

Image by Meredith Reardon

I am afraid. My eyes fill a little, mostly at night when I consider my future, our future. I have lived a full life, more focussed on the world around me than my family. My lovely wife has channelled her energy to family and friends. Together we have stood easy in our space, even when apart.

We share some sadness; a fatal crash, estranged loved ones and health has become more fragile. We have a wealth of offspring who pluck our sense of being. We have always loved to live in the villages and spaces we moved in, with little concern for the future. We have had good parents, and siblings who have found their feet. My parents still go about their lives, playing bowls and music as they approach their centenary. My body is likely strong.

I have always anticipated my death a little, and felt vaguely cosy with the tears that I would share with my cherished sons and daughters and those grandchildren who had enjoyed exploring the opaque and cheeky thoughts of elders. Even the regrets that we didn’t do more together, that I didn’t show my love enough, or wasn’t there for some when I should have been, could be resolved in that final reckoning. If I was younger my one love in life would carry me, my family would lift my mood and surround me. Perhaps even some of the people I worked with would join the throng and replay forgotten moments. If I was older, the sheer number of offspring would sustain me and I would go easily.

With the news of this virus and my work amongst potential victims a new contagion has begun to haunt my dreams. It is bleak. What if my wife or I were to catch it and get sick? How would it be to need increasing support and finally, to know one of us could not recover? What then?

Would I die in an expensive shiny intensive care bed, my tubes and vital signs attended by masked and selfless strangers, fading into a world where a distant and sunless window occasionally showed a fleeting familiar face? Or less alone in a ward of others suffocating slowly while sharing our stoic denial or whispered acknowledgement of our very possible future? Perhaps I will be amongst a hoard in a warehouse, given what sustenance the conscripted carers can find. They may be the untidy recovered or people out to make some money to pay off recent debts.

Whatever the stage, whatever the course, we seem deemed to tackle this grim reaper alone. Any peace cut by sirens of the tiny oxygen meters on our fingers or the soon futile wailing of ambulances arriving at the barred doors below. Or the creaking of lines of makeshift beds and gasping neighbours. Alone in a sea of drowning strangers.

That is not what I want for me, for my family or anyone. Let me have a little of my own future, and the people I love. Even one to be with me will make me smile and wonder at what might have been and see inside another’s eyes. I think we can and we should.

But how?

Let households be the victim of this wanton infection, strong together within familiar walls. Let resilient children play with their snotty parents, and lovers lie with their fevered friends. They will joke and laugh and cough even as they feel a shared fear of the future. Take out the elders if they wish and test them, returning immediately if they have the little beast within and later if not. The children will wonder what the fuss is about and happiness will replace fear as each recovers, cared for by ones affected not at all or in a little way.

The home while coughing will need help to bring supplies. They will wave together through clean blue windows and call gratefully to the helpful neighbour who turns away. They might go outside in their garden or play music and sing in a balcony choir. Every now and then one will get very sick, and if there is somewhere better to be with a ventilator or new treatment, they can go. They can be visited there and kissed and hugged by their recovered family. And if all fails or they are making a slow recovery, they can go home if they wish to be cherished.

They say things will change with this king of germs. Perhaps it is a chance to discard the notion of health and even being as an individual experience.

Who knows who blows?

Could we greet each other in a way that meant we kept 1.5m apart?
Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

Few of us blame the Government for this virus pandemic but on a dreadful day when Australia has twice as many new cases as China (and a 60th of the population) we have to ponder whether we have done enough. Peter Wener in the Atlantic points to a major issues in the USA such as, “… the decision to test too few people, the delay in expanding testing to labs outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and problems in the supply chain. These mistakes have left us blind and badly behind the curve, and, for a few crucial weeks, they created a false sense of security. What we now know is that the coronavirus silently spread for several weeks, without us being aware of it and while we were doing nothing to stop it. Containment and mitigation efforts could have significantly slowed its spread at an early, critical point, but we frittered away that opportunity.” It sounds a lot like us. Five hundred people getting together at the moment is NOT safe. It is very hard to get tested, and we are being told it may be more difficult.

We have seen TV presenters, film stars and politicians come down with the virus. These people certainly mix with more people than we do day to day, but there are not many of them. So if we extrapolate back from their numbers and determine the rate of infection we will arrive at figures many orders of magnitude above that being reported. Let’s face it:

It is infectious, it is deadly and we need to stop it.

Economic predictions of impact are unlikely to be accurate and should not be listened to. Minimising the spread of the virus will have the most positive economic impact. Short, sharp, severe. Norman Swan has been getting air time to promote more health of the nation approaches. If we stop the growth, we can reopen schools and kindergartens. We can probably keep schools open now for children of emergency workers, health workers and other services that are understaffed.

Most of all we need to consider testing. At the moment we are testing a lot of worried people and groups of people who are in contact with an infected case. If we take a community view rather than an individual view and extreme social distancing is in place, we can check one member of a potentially infected household with symptoms and declare it positive or negative. That household should then be supported at home. Children are likely to be infected very quickly and have no difficulty. The disruption of treating individuals in this situation is massive and quite likely to lead to asymptomatic people thinking they are clear. Household members over 70 in infected households can be removed if asymptomatic and offered alternative accommodation if they do not have the virus after brief quarantine and testing.

Small towns with limited movement in and out can test the first locals with fever, and no travel or contact, as sentinel cases. If the sentinel febrile person is negative then we can assume safely that other fevers in that community are almost certainly negative for a period – perhaps the next seven days. This will be especially important when we add the usual winter viruses to the mix. Obviously any new arrivals with symptoms must be tested.

Regions, such as Central Australia, Cape York and Northern Western Australia (and many others) lend themselves to a regional community approach with community-based testing. The experts on our nation’s 60,000 year old cultures are at grave risk and require extreme measures of preservation. This requires checking all arrivals into the region (which is often one or two roads and an airport or two) and testing any of these who are symptomatic or develop symptoms over the next 14 days. We can tell them when we check them at the regional boundaries. In two weeks they become part of the “viral control” community. We will need sentinel testing in communities, perhaps one or two tests per week. The extraordinary thing in Central Australia is that this will require less than 100 tests a week. If we can “bank” the saved tests, we will be able to carry out contact tracing in the way Singapore has done.

If we are short of tests, lets think about how to use them effectively. It is time for extreme social distancing. Whatever we are putting in place, we need to know where the virus has spread.