COVID-19: A view from the UK

A contribution by Giskin Day, Imperial College London

Isn’t it amazing how something so tiny can wreak such havoc? As COVID-19 weaves its insidious way through individuals, communities and populations, here in the UK we feel like we’re in a state of suspension, waiting with trepidation to see what happens next.

I work in medical education at a big London university. The biggest impact the virus has had on me personally is that a big medical education conference scheduled for next week, on which dozens of people have been working on for months, is thrown into jeopardy. Whilst last week we were looking to plugs holes in the programme when presenters from at-risk regions cancelled, the potential for the UK to become an at-risk region itself in the next week or so means that we are now exploring a technological alternative.

Although I don’t feel personally at risk from the virus – I am healthy and would have very good odds of recovering were I to catch it – I am acutely aware that it is my moral duty to behave responsibly in the interests of protecting those more vulnerable than myself. But what does that mean? Is the responsible thing to ‘keep calm and carry on’ as normal, or make contingency plans in case the need arises for self-isolation? There is a very fine line between sensibly stocking up and irresponsible panic buying. In the meantime, government advice has focused on hand washing and reprogramming ourselves not to touch our faces so much.

I feel desperately sorry for those who are suffering as a result of this outbreak, directly and indirectly. The measures taken to prevent spread – which may be futile anyway – are probably going to cause more long-term harm than the virus itself. Some businesses, already under strain through difficult economic times, will fold. Fewer shoppers on the streets will be the last straw for some stores, resulting in many jobs lost. Events will be cancelled. Times will be tough. But good things will happen too. In a frenetic world we might all benefit from slowing down for a bit. There will be opportunities to innovate so that we all become more resistant to infectious diseases in general. Finding workarounds to relentless travel may benefit the environment.

Long term, I worry most about social distancing become entrenched. We already live in a society in which we are anxious about touch. We enact a lot of our social emotions through physical contact – handshakes, hugs, a consoling hand on an arm ­– and if these become taboo, we risk adding to loneliness and isolation that contributes to that other epidemic of our time: a crisis in mental health. This one thing we can all do: look after each other. Be generous. Be patient. Be kind.

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