Thoughts on COVID-19

A contribution by Dr. John Launer

As a doctor, I have been following the medical data carefully as it has emerged. I now expect there will be a worldwide pandemic. How soon this happens depends on how well the virus is contained in the countries where it has already arrived, and how fast it spreads as a result. Influenza pandemics in the 1950s and 1960s affected up to a quarter of the world’s population, with around 1 million deaths worldwide each time. No-one knows if a pandemic of COVID-19 will be worse or not so bad, but until we know more it is reasonable to expect it may be similar.

It seems as if most people who catch the virus will have mild symptoms or none at all. The danger is for old people, or those with existing cardiac and respiratory problems, who are more likely to get serious pneumonia and die. Many of these people will already be close to the end of their lives anyway, but some will have their lives shortened considerably, and a relatively small number of young people may die too. Most health services do not have enough facilities to cope with large numbers of critically ill people, and this is a particular problem in poor countries. On the positive side (and there aren’t many positives here) modern communication means that people may be more informed than in the past concerning hygiene precautions to avoid becoming infected or infecting others.

On a personal level, our family are worried about an elderly relative with severe lung disease who is particularly vulnerable. We are thinking about the logistics of how to protect her from anyone (including other family members and professional carers) who may carry the virus, but we realise that we may not be able to protect her totally. I am 70 and have a heart condition so I know I have to be careful too. I think it is unlikely I will travel outside the UK for the next few months. As I am an educator and no longer in clinical practice, I expect that much of my work this year will be done on the internet and by Skype. We live in London but we also have a holiday home in the hills in Wales where there are very few people (but thousands of sheep!) and we are starting to make contingency plans in case we need to stay there for a few weeks at the height of any pandemic, keeping our exposure to other people to a minimum.

In a historical perspective, pandemics like this will always occur. Panic is unhelpful but I think it is sensible for people to keep well informed about the evolving picture in their own countries, and the best precautions to take. Reliable information is available from the World Health Organisation at and is regularly updated.

John Launer

Member of the Editorial Board of ‘Chronicle of Narrative Medicine’, Honorary consultant at the Tavistock Clinic, London, Honorary president of the Association of Narrative Practice in Healthcare

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