Yesterday was Friday the 13’th 2020. I am an American living in Switzerland. Like most countries, we are currently experiencing a rapid evolution in risk regarding Corona virus. Because of Switzerland’s close proximity and strong connection to Italy, the epicenter of the European outbreak of Covid-19, I believe the state of the pandemic spread in Switzerland, as well as Switzerland’s response to the virus is somewhat further along than that of the U.S., but the situation is evolving so quickly everywhere, this analysis could be wrong or obsolete in a matter of days.
My wife and I both happened to be free from Friday afternoon, so we decided to do some errands while everything was likely to be less crowded. At the thrift store an elderly gentleman (70’s?) asked the cashier why they were wearing gloves, to which the answer was “because of the Corona virus”. The elderly man went on something of a rant about how we are making too big a drama about all of this.
At the grocery store we were surprised to find the parking lot jam-packed during what would normally be office working hours. On the way home we were shocked at the traffic at 16:00 — usually unheard of. Dry and canned goods at the grocery store were also in short supply with several empty shelved — I could find any beluga lentils or brown rice for example. When we got out my wife checked the government news site to see what had happened — Switzerland had announced the closing of its school system through the Easter holiday.
My wife teaches the Swiss equivalent of Junior high school, and will be expected to teach online from home. My son Scott will now have to spend his days at home, and will have to avoid forming groups of children. Normally we send Scott to his grandparents on Monday afternoons. Given that they would be especially vulnerable to Covid-19, we informed them that morning that we be keeping Scotty at home.
Now my wife has a significant increase in her workload as she has never taught online before and there will be growing pains. It’s difficult to know how the work balance will shake out over the next months, but it’s unlikely that her life will get any easier. At the same time we’ll have our son at home constantly, except for occasional play date. We are in the lucky position that I am between jobs until May 4’th, which means I can jump in and take up the childcare slack until then. Things will be significantly more challenging for others.
Then, yesterday evening I started coughing. I have been feeling low energy for the last couple of days which I attributed to overexercising recently but now it was clear that I am fighting off a cold. I’m not concerned that I have Covid-19 at a rational level. Emotional responses are a different matter, but they too are more or less under control. I’m not even that sick. I plan on going mountain biking today, and maybe for a run tomorrow. But as a responsible citizen I will have to ramp up my social isolation significantly. Even without Covid-19 a cold or flu is a tremendous burden to impose on somone right now. The more I inconvenience myself, the less I inconvenience others. The more we all take pains to avoid spreading any illness, the better for society as a whole. We all benefit from not overloading our medical system.
So mostly I’m annoyed. In the last week I was exposed twice unnecessarily and completely avoidably by neighbors and colleagues. Last Saturday the father of one Scott’s friend asked us to join them skiing. I learned on the car ride to the mountain that their one child was at home with a flu, and I found myself sitting next to a coughing driver for over an hour. Two days ago Scott had two friends over and one of them started coughing. I had to take her home and explain to the parent that she shouldn’t be sending he daughter to kindergarten or to people’s houses even is “she only has a cough”.
During the current outbreak there is no such thing as “just a cough”. As the risks of Covid-19 increase, any possible infection has to first be treated with self isolation. If symptoms persist or align heavily with Covid-19 it has to be tested, and serious cases have to be treated. Being dismissive of a cough that is minor for your child might lead to the infection and death of vulnerable citizens as Covid-19 often has mild symptoms in children. Even a common cold or flu outbreak can lead to overloading the health systems capacity for testing for Covid-19.
I now find myself in a situation with two extremes of outcomes: In the best case I self-isolate, I fret unnecessarily about the risk that this is nothing serious, and life goes on as normally as it can under the current circumstances. I’m inconvenienced but that’s the extent of the problems generated. In the worst case, my recent exposures to simple cold & flu cases are not the source of my symptoms, and I am infected with Covid-19. Because of my false confidence I do not take full precautions and still wind up infecting other people, contributing to the overloading of the medical system, and leading indirectly to the death and suffering of vulnerable members of society.
There’s lots of outcomes in between — for example I spread my simple cold or flu to others (like my neighbors likely did to me or others), leading to more noise in the signal, more stress like mine, and maybe more cases where people have false confidence that their Covid-19 infection is just a cold or flu leading to faster spread of the novel virus. So as a responsible citizen I have to take my own infection seriously even if I am confident I don’t have Covid-19.
Now, because of the no-doubt well meaning lack of consideration of my neighbors I am having difficult and stressful conversations with my wife about how much I should self isolate from my family. I normally help with the housework and cooking. The new circumstances will only increase her workload and she will need more support from me, but if either she or Scott get a cough then things get more difficult.
So we have to align on what housework I should still do. We decided that as long as I wash my hands obsessively and follow correct coughing protocol I can clean the kitchen and prepare cooked food. If I want to taste what I’m cooking though I’ll have to use a new utensil each time. I’ll fill the dishwasher, but leave it to my wife to empty it. I’m sleeping in a separate room, but we will share the same room when necessary (for example we both want to use the home-office) as long as we keep it well ventilated and keep over a meter distance. Hugging, kissing, cuddling is out for the time being. As Covid-19 infections rise similar symptoms will require us to take more severe measures imposing even greater inconvenience.
The Covid-19 outbreak requires a greater degree of social responsibility. If your child comes down with a cough, you must isolate your child for the sake of the other children in the neighborhood. In the best case, you are spreading inconvenience and stress. In the worst case you are spreading a potentially fatal disease and contributing to the overload of a medical system which will be strained even if we are all highly responsible. If you are young and healthy Covid-19 is not a big risk for you. Chances are good you are going to get it eventually no matter what you do. But slowing down the spread of the virus, as well slowing or avoiding the spread of less dangerous, more nuisance viruses means de-stressing the medical system, which will save lives. In the end we do this to protect the vulnerable member of our society, including the cantankerous gentleman at the thrift store who was complaining that we were making too much drama out of this.
When the Covid-19 outbreak is a thing of the past, I hope one of the lessons we can learn and build on is a higher social awareness, and increased sense of social responsibility. We live in an age where our most challenging problems — environmental collapse, climate change, pandemics — are global problems and affect us all. If we learn to be more considerate and thoughtful of others as a consequence of the outbreak we can turn a bleak and horrible event into a positive, if painful, learning experience.