We are in the midst of a crisis few saw coming. As 2019 turned into 2020, our biggest fear was climate catastrophe. But we had decades to prepare for that, to act (or, too often, not act).
The suddenness of the arrival of coronavirus to our shores makes where we find ourselves all the more frightening.
But, working together, we can combat this enough to make a considerable difference, to save hundreds, probably thousands of lives.
This is our generation’s time to front up. We have, by and large, lived a privileged existence. Very few of us can recall World War II. We have never been safer, never better off. But we find ourselves faced with a huge crisis and we need to act. It is our time to shine.
The key point in all of this is every single one of us can make a difference. In order to reduce the number of cases of coronavirus and delay the onset of the cases that arrive, we all have to behave responsibly.
Because in the crisis that we find ourselves in right now, every responsible action has a positive impact and every irresponsible action has a negative impact.
And we are in some respects fortunate, though it might not feel like that. We have the opportunity to learn lessons from China and Italy.
The earlier you take action and the more decisive that action is, the better. The city of Wuhan and its region of Hubei in China was the first epicentre of the virus. They have suffered with the virus spiralling out of control there.
But the Chinese took decisive action across the country. So much so that the rest of China has reduced the spread much more effectively than Italy has.
Countries like South Korea, Italy and Iran have suffered particularly. But countries close to China like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand have managed the spread much better because of decisive action. These countries were hit hard by SARS earlier this century and learned the importance of swift and firm action.
One thing that is apparent from Hubei in China and from Italy is that the number of official cases will only be a fraction of the real cases. It is not because of any suppression of data but simply because a person can often have the symptoms for days and over a week before they are officially diagnosed.
So even though decisive action was taken last Thursday and over the weekend, and more decisive action might be taken this week, Irish figures will rise every day for days to come.
Flattening the curve
The key is simple: keep those figures as low as possible for as long as possible to ‘flatten the curve’ and stop a spike that our hospitals could just not cope with. Again, we must learn the lessons from elsewhere.
The problem with the growth of the virus in places like Wuhan and Italy is not just the number of cases but the effect that such a high number has on the ability of that region’s healthcare system.
Data shows that countries that are overwhelmed will have a fatality rate (the percentage of people diagnosed with coronavirus who die) between 3 and 5 percent. However, some countries that acted swiftly have a fatality rate of less than 1 percent. Outside of Hubei, the rest of China has a fatality rate of just 0.9 percent.
Much of this comes down to the ability of the medical response. It is generally shown that 20 percent of cases require hospitalisation, and 5 percent of cases require treatment in intensive care units.
In Hubei and Italy, the health services were completely overwhelmed.
Patients flooded into hospitals, many were treated in hallways, waiting rooms. Healthcare workers were at work almost non stop. Nurses and doctors are being asked to move way out of their area of expertise to deal with the crisis.
Then healthcare workers get sick and have to go into isolation for two weeks and the system creaks on the brink of complete collapse.
ICUs don’t have enough ventilators or life-support machines. Healthcare workers must decide who gets what – effectively who lives and who dies.
This means that people who would likely survive in a healthcare system under less pressure are much more likely to die in a region where the healthcare system is bursting at the seams due to the extent of the spread.
That is the frightening reality, and we must become acutely aware of it in this country. This could be the fate that awaits your mother, your father, your friend or you. Use that possibility as the motivation to act and behave responsibly.
Reducing the infections as much as possible to enable our healthcare system to cope will reduce the fatality rate. The longer we delay transmissions, the more lives will be saved when a vaccine is developed to counteract the coronavirus.
This is the battle we are now fighting in Mayo and in Ireland. Doing everything we can to reduce transmission and to ease the burden on our healthcare system.
Jobs will be lost, people will suffer financially, but when you look at Hubei and Italy, you realise those matters are of secondary importance.
So what do we do?
The single biggest weapon in our armoury is social distancing. In Wuhan as soon as they went into lockdown, cases went down. People did not mingle and so the virus couldn’t spread like it once had.
So people staying home at almost all costs as long as possible until cases start to reduce is the battle we must fight.
Keep your circle tight. Keep grandchildren away from grandparents – kids are carriers though they often don’t suffer, but elderly people are the most vulnerable.
Work from home where possible. Many of us in the media will find that easier than others. We should be extremely grateful to those who are putting themselves in harm’s way to combat this. Our healthcare workers are the true heroes here but everyone can and needs to play their part.
When you have to go out, practise what the HSE have been preaching. Keep your distance from people, practise good hygiene, use credit cards rather than cash and don’t dawdle.
At the weekend, anecdotal evidence and social-media footage would indicate that too many people were mingling in pubs. People need to take personal responsibility here hand in hand with government measures.
If you have kids, keep them home – no playdates, no playground visits. What we are enduring right now is many things, but it certainly isn’t a holiday. In Italy, that’s what people did in the first couple of days of lockdown, partied and visited and completely undermined the benefits of the lockdown.
The earlier we act, and the more decisive the actions taken by citizens of this state, the better will be Ireland’s ability to cope with what is coming and what is here.
Oh, and Happy St Patrick’s Day. Let’s make this one a day when we will never be prouder to be Irish. It is our patriotic duty.