Essays · Strangers

… There Is a Disease Outbreak (Part 1 of Who the Hell Knows)

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve shared some advice here, but there are a lot of people acting like jerks (some on purpose, some out of fear) due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout the world. While the disease likely has a low mortality rate overall, it’s not well studied and it clearly is a health threat to many people, including those who are older and have underlying health issues. We are connected more than we ever have been, both remotely (thanks, internet) but also physically. One can leave London at 11:30AM local time and arrive in San Francisco at 2:30PM local time, or take a six hour train across a few countries in Europe.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. I am not a doctor, a nurse, or an epidemiologist. I did once work in emergency preparedness at public health, but that was about planning for how to respond; I know nothing special about diseases. Any information regarding health should come from your local health department or authority (if you’re in King County, for example, where a large US outbreak is located, visit this site). In many countries, your national health department will have the best information. Public Health England is where I go to look for information; if you’re in the US you might check the CDC.

I also know that the people who are paying attention are terrified, many don’t know what to do, loads are losing their jobs, and everyone’s lives are uncertain right now. We definitely should be kinder to ourselves and each other. At the same time, we also need to look out for each other, which sometimes means making some sacrifices.

Because there are so many different ways of being a jerk right now, I’m going to have to split these up. First up: My fellow members of the general public!

You do not need 15 bottles of hand sanitizer or 100 rolls of toilet paper. You just don’t. It’s great that you’re preparing for possible supply shortages, or for having to stay inside during an outbreak, but you don’t need any of that, and you’re not helping yourself or others. And you certainly don’t need to be a jerk to staff when they don’t have the sanitizer you’re looking for. Yes, hand sanitizer is convenient, but you can wash your hands with soap and water.

“But Ashley,” you say. “Hand sanitizer is great for when I take the bus and can’t wash my hands right away.” You’re right, it is! But unless you are an essential worker (more on that below) on your way to or from work, you shouldn’t even be on public transit.

And as for food? Look, I get it as much as someone who has never lived with true scarcity can. I have anxiety around not having access to my favorite comfort foods, or to the vegetarian proteins we’ve become dependent on. But guess what? It will all still be there if we all just take what we need for the week or two. So really think about it. Do you need 17 bags of pasta? Not unless you’re doing a shop for the food bank you work at.

My biggest personal food concern (after snacks, obviously) has been fresh fruits and vegetables. I can’t really buy two weeks worth because things go bad. I don’t have a lot of freezer space, but I might check out this site. You could do the same. If you’re working from home now, you can use some of your commute time to do this.

(Because you aren’t going out, right?)

This does require some planning. I live in a city and don’t have a car. Even if my partner and I go together, we can only really carry few bags worth of groceries, and our shops don’t have carts, which means we can’t quite load up, so we do end up visiting the shops more often than I’d like (and the selection of already frozen fruit and veggies here is not great). But we have to plan ahead. Get enough fruits and vegetables and proteins for meals, now including lunch (because we both used to eat that out of the office). Plan large meals that will last for many days.

Plus, think of your neighbors who don’t have access to regular streams of income. Can you imagine finally getting the money you’ve been waiting on, braving the shops, and learning that there is not toilet paper, or apples, or bread, because a few people came through before and bought up enough for months just because they can? That’s not cool.

(Note: There is a recent article suggesting some of the shortages are due to supply chain differences, not hoarding. Very cool. Still, please don’t hoard.)

Working From Home
First off, getting to work from home is both a huge privilege (in that it keeps you out of the public right now), and can be a huge inconvenience if your home is small / unsafe / full of children who would normally be in school. Obviously it’s not an option for everyone, but if it is and you’d just rather be in the office? Please, please reconsider. I understand that for some people, the workplace is where they get their daily social connection, and the idea of silently working for 8 hours every day, and then not going out to see people at night, is truly terrifying. I’m an introvert and even I am starting to get a little weary of the though of keeping this up for months (it’s only been four days for me).

But still. If you can work from home, do. Even if you like your job. If you don’t have to leave your house to earn a living right now, it’s a serious jerk move to continue to do so. And if you can, but your supervisor or company are doing something absurd like suggesting you are an essential worker (I’m looking at you, GameStop), talk to them as a group. Get together information on how it will work. Make the case that you could literally be saving lives.

Practicing Physical Distancing
I know there is a lot of different information out there. Because this disease didn’t hit everywhere at once, and because we are a seriously connected society, it’s been challenging I think for people who aren’t immediately in it to realize how big a deal this is. And because of severe shortages in testing and failures of government leaders (more on that one in another post), some places that have the virus now may not realize the extent of it. But the thing is, it takes a few weeks to see the impact, so staying in NOW helps future you (and all the people you come into contact with).

Even in places that are in full lock-down this doesn’t mean you can never leave your home. You can go for a run, or take a walk with members of your household. You can sparingly go to the grocery store or pharmacy. And yes, if you are an ESSENTIAL worker (e.g. healthcare, getting people to/from their essential job, part of the production and supply chain of food and medicine), you need to go into work.

But holding house parties, or any gatherings with people who you don’t live with? It’s not cool. I don’t care if your government hasn’t outright banned them. Read the room. Actually read the planet. Shit is dangerous and serious and even if you don’t think you’re at risk, you could definitely pass it along to someone who is. Is it really worth getting in a quick rugby session if you end up killing your neighbor?

To that point, I’ll end it here with the wise words of my friend A:

“I’ve created an imaginary person to help me make decisions regarding Covid-19. Her name is Betty. She’s got kids and grandkids. She’s been married for 49 years and is excited for the surprise party she knows her youngest will inevitably plan for their 50th.

Every time I feel the urge to make a trip out in public, I stop and ask myself if it’s worth Betty’s life. Do I *need* to go to the grocery store right now? Or can we wait and consolidate trips? Do I *need* to go pick up X, Y, and Z? Or is it just inconvenient for me to go without for a while?

My inconvenience is not worth Betty’s life.

Also, yes, sometimes in my mind, Betty becomes Betty White and it’s only more reinforcing. Get yourself a mental Betty because you WILL know people who die from this. You very well could be who passed it on to them.

Stay home.”

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