Thoughts on COVID-19 from one of the “weak and vulnerable”
My Allograft 2018-20 – 36. 16th March 2020
By Andy Burrows, 16 March 2020
I guess with all the news going around about the coronavirus and COVID-19 you may have been wondering how I was feeling about the whole thing.
I mean, when they talk about the “weak and vulnerable” or those “with underlying health conditions” who do they mean?
Well, aside from the elderly, it really seems to mean anyone with any other health problems.
And people like me are included somewhere in that group – somewhere on the riskier than normal spectrum.
Because of my stem cell transplant last year, and my continued lack of CD4 lymphocytes which I spoke about in my last article, I am one of those classed as “immunocompromised”.
And in fact, I’ve actually been “practicing social distancing” for the last 18 months anyway – ever since I started the chemo that preceded the stem cell transplant – for my own protection.
As I found out at the end of the summer last year, being immunocompromised means easily picking up infections. If you look back at my blog posts from that period, you’ll see that I was in and out of hospital a lot because of post-transplant infections. I think I was admitted three or four times, and spent a total of more than seven weeks in hospital in a 15-week period. And I felt, frankly, awful in between admissions.
I know the risks. An upper respiratory infection (be that bacterial or viral) can move into the lungs and become a lower respiratory infection (pneumonia or bronchitis). Once that happens to someone with a weak immune system, things start to look very worrying. Sepsis is then a real risk, which means intensive care treatment, and a very real risk of not making it.
So, that’s why as soon as I get a temperature I get taken into hospital.
So, does this new virus make me any more worried?
Well, yes and no.
From a personal point of view, there is no more I can actually do (within reason) to protect myself from COVID-19.
Accepting that I’m not in the 80% who would only experience mild/normal flu symptoms, is the risk to my life any greater from COVID-19 than it is from seasonal flu, the norovirus, shingles, measles, or the common cold (which I seem to permanently have at the moment!)?
Well, having looked at some of the information out there, yes, there is greater risk.
For one thing, the mortality rate is higher than the infections that commonly go around. For some reason, in the UK, the COVID-19 mortality rate is a lot lower than other parts of the world, but robust data gathering is not really established properly.
For me, shingles and measles are still deadlier, but COVID-19 is more deadly than normal flu. And that seems to be because the virus seems (as far as I can tell from what I’ve read) to move quite easily into the lungs.
The other thing is that, because of vaccinations, common infections are less likely to get to me.
I don’t have immunity to very much, and my childhood vaccinations are now wiped out (and will have to be redone when my immune system is able to create antibodies). But immunity in the general population means that I’m not very likely to get shingles or measles, or even norovirus or flu, so long as I take the precautions I have been taking – staying away from public places and public transport and mass gatherings, and being careful with diet, etc.
With COVID-19, no one is immune and therefore it transmits very easily. That is the primary reason why this is being treated with such seriousness around the world.
What happens if I get this coronavirus?
As I said, personally I can’t do much more than carry on being careful and staying away from public gatherings. My wife and kids are the ones who are worrying – not for themselves, but worrying that they will catch it and pass it on to me!
Does all that make me more fearful?
All other things being equal, if I got the coronavirus, I’d be taken into hospital just as quickly as I was last year, and I’d be really well looked after. I am not old, and I have a strong heart and good lungs. I may have a weak immune system, but with medical help I think I have enough physical strength and resilience (at least I do now that I’ve recovered from last year’s fun and games) to be confident in pulling through.
But I said, “all other things being equal”, which, of course, they’re not.
A foray into politics
And this is where we move on to the political scene.
The response of our government in the UK, now that we’re past being able to contain the virus, is aimed at maintaining the equilibrium. They are accepting that the infection will continue to spread, but they are trying to control the spread as much as possible, so that the health service is able to keep up with demand.
An overloaded health service means more people who need medical treatment (like the elderly and those with existing health conditions, or, like me, are immunocompromised) will not get the help they need – and then more people would die from lack of medical help.
At the moment, that means that otherwise-healthy people who find themselves with symptoms (persistent dry cough and/or temperature) are being told to self-isolate for seven days (in order to avoid infecting too many other people) and not bother the health service with it. Because otherwise healthy people don’t normally need medical attention so they shouldn’t demand it! If people start to feel much much worse than a normal flu, of course, the hospitals will help them – but they should seek advice on the phone first. But most otherwise-healthy people with COVID-19 feel ill and then recover within a couple of weeks.
Overloading the health service with “worried well”, people who could just stay at home for a week and get better by drinking plenty and resting, is not what they need when they could be using their capacity to treat those much more vulnerable.
But what that means is that when the health authorities and the government say that the time has not yet come to shut schools or ban mass gatherings, etc, then we should understand from that that the health service is still coping well.
We need to use that capacity.
So, taking unilateral action, like postponing football matches and closing schools, colleges and universities, earlier than we’re told, is actually counterproductive.
All that means is that when those closures end, we get a peak of cases that potentially becomes unmanageable. And we could have coped with a few more cases earlier on. Not only that, but health professionals with kids then have to take time off work to look after them for no good reason – reducing capacity in the health service when we need it!
Where I lose my cool
Finally, I come to the thing that actually is stressing me out, and has caused me sleepless nights.
And that is the media reporting, which is designed to cause hysteria. Journalists love hysteria. Sorry, but they do.
I was fine when it all started in China. I laughed and ridiculed when I heard reports that the World Health Organisation had stated that the coronavirus was a “global emergency” when there were still only a few hundred cases in China. Terminology is everything – looking back, what the WHO actually did was to label COVID-19 as a PHEIC: A Public Health Emergency of International Concern. All that meant was that they were alerting the international community that China was dealing with a disease that was infectious and deadly enough to do something about in other countries.
But journalists love to report stuff. And report. And report. Every new case is a new piece of news. Every different expert’s opinion, every different politician’s opinion, on and on…
And then they report that supermarket shelves are empty and some people are panic buying… which then makes people worry that things are going to run out… causing panic buying. And I’m so cynical that I don’t even believe that the initial reports of panic buying weren’t anything more than a photo of an empty shelf and some journalist wondering why the Tesco Metro in Kettering had mysteriously run out of toilet roll!
The media is singularly unhelpful, in fact disastrously unhelpful. Some journalist’s musings, along with a stock photo and suitably juicy headline, lights the touchpaper of a ruinous groupthink.
Someone in my household said the other day, “did you see that over 70s are going to be told to shut themselves in for four months?”
I looked at the news report and the headline was that the government was doing a “U turn” and that over 70s would be told to stay in. There was another report that schools were going to close and mass gatherings would be banned… two days after the UK Prime Minister clearly said that the time had not yet come to take those steps.
Was there really a “U turn”? Had the PM really changed his mind? Had things really got that much worse?
If you read the text of the articles, rather than the headlines, you find that these things are “being discussed”, that “legislation is being drafted”, and that the information came from a nameless unofficial “Whitehall source”, and that these things may be put in place some time in the next 5 to 20 days. And the source of the story turns out to be Robert Peston, ITV idiot political editor, who claims to have been told by somebody in Whitehall. From that we’re supposed to understand that someone in the UK government in “Whitehall” is leaking information. In reality, I suspect that Peston simply stopped someone in the road (there is a road called Whitehall in London where the government buildings reside) and had a conversation about what might happen.
But whatever the source, the news was that somebody said something to somebody else about something they thought was being talked about just in case it might happen some time in the future, we don’t know when! And that’s supposed to signal a government U-turn.
I.e. news journalists are really just gossips on big paychecks!
More than that, that very same ‘news’ was reported several days in a row with different words and different headlines… but essentially when you read the articles, it’s referring to the same conversation with the same nameless person with the same idiot journalist who just wanted to cause hysteria.
Stirring it up and drowning out the news we actually need
Why does that stress me out?
Because it ruins my concentration. I am forever being bombarded by news articles popping up in phone and browser notifications, emails… and I get everyone in the house saying, “Dad, have you heard? Have you heard?” Like I’d be silly if I wasn’t worried!
I want to ignore it and get on with taking one step at a time. I may get the coronavirus at some point, but it’s not worth worrying about that now, as long as we’re all doing the proper things (which we were anyway).
I shouldn’t have to think several times a day whether I let my kids take public transport to college or work, or whether family members should be cancelling their shifts in the retail stores where they work… just because the BBC and Sky News and Channel 4 (and The Telegraph, The Times and The Mirror…) want to find different headlines to report the same news about the same thing when nothing essentially has changed!
(In fact, just after I wrote that paragraph, one of my kids sent me a text asking again if I was ok with them taking public transport to work and being in the office all day. I said that I wasn’t worried and they should continue as normal until told otherwise.)
For that reason, I’m turning off the news as much as I can. I’m asking my family to not tell me about stuff they read in news outlets – I don’t care whether it’s BBC, Reuters or CNN. They are all a bunch of irresponsible fearmongers.
Trust only the health authorities
If I want to know anything about COVID-19, I’ll ask my medical team and look at the NHS website.
My hospital consultants, just to (nearly) finish with, because I’m sure you’re wondering, have said not to worry. They’re not cancelling clinics or advising anything particular, just keep our hands clean and be as careful as we already are.
I don’t see any panic or overload in the hospitals when I go there. In fact, one hospital nurse said to me that she was puzzled. She wasn’t being told by the NHS anything like the stuff that is coming out in the news media. What she was being told by her management was much more measured and calm and confident.
(But then we also get the occasional annoying situation – one of my kids needed a GP appointment, but was told the surgery had been shut down for a deep clean because someone had wandered in saying they thought they had the coronavirus! I’d be tempted to accuse the patient of stupidity if I didn’t have some sympathy – when you’re bombarded every hour of the day with news of how many deaths and what may happen, and all sorts of mixed messages, it can drown out the clear voice of the health professionals saying “please don’t come and see us if you’ve got these symptoms!”)
I guess we all have a choice about how we react to things.
Do we choose to give in to fear and act irrationally? Are we stockpiling provisions (thus endangering older people and those who can’t afford to buy more than a week’s shopping) “just in case”, when our brains are telling us that a “running out of essentials” scenario is pretty unlikely if we all keep our cool?
I choose to trust the government and health authorities and my medical team, and follow their advice and direction… and NOT react to what I might happen to hear from the gossips on the TV, the internet and in the newspapers.
And I do that on the basis that they are the experts.
Whatever you might think of their politics, I don’t think you can accuse any government of not wanting to save and protect the lives of their people.
And to those who feel they should accuse the government of wrong or inadequate action, just think! Which elected politician do you know who is a qualified epidemiologist or virologist or immunologist?? They know as little as you and I do about epidemics! So, what would you do if you were a Prime Minister? You’d get the best advice possible and follow it to the letter! And that’s what they are doing.
Let’s be the best we can all be, and allow for learning without judgment
It may turn out in retrospect, when the dust has settled, that there are things that could have been done better. But that is no different to anything we do in life.
The most we can expect of anyone is to be the best we can be today. I really believe that governments and health authorities around the world are trying to do that.
The people who are letting the side down are the journalists and those who give in to fear…
And even they can decide today to do better. I challenge them to do so!
Now, I’m going to get on with some work. I don’t plan to think much about COVID-19 any more.
But first, I’m off to wash my hands and make a cup of coffee…
Thanks for listening to my rant!