Painful Lessons I Did Not Want to Learn
It’s been a sobering week. I’ve had insights and learned things I didn’t want to learn. Initially I didn’t want to heed them, but now I’m very grateful.
This article contains a lot of information. It’s important information that sets the context for the insights I want to share. I believe they’re relevant to all of us. It’s also very personal, especially the most recent insight late last night… that’s at the end of the article.
We’re at the beginning of a worldwide pandemic. For most of us it’s still all ‘out there’, somewhere a long way away, dramatic events we see only on TV or online. We know it’s happening. We’ve seen the impact of panic buying, and our leaders are doing unprecedented things. But it’s still in our heads, it’s yet to really touch us. The penny has yet to drop.
I’ve been doing a lot of research for reliable data on coronavirus in the past two weeks. The data is readily available and the impacts predicted are steadily becoming harsh reality.
So what have I learned? And why is it painful?
(1) Coronavirus could kill me
I could die with coronavirus. I am over 60 and this bug is vicious. I thought having an excellent set of lungs meant I wasn’t at risk of dying, but lungs are exactly what the virus attacks.
We’re all wired to think it won’t happen to us. Dire things happen to other people, not us. But the facts are now telling us that coronavirus is very different to ‘most things’.
Coronavirus is highly contagious. If left unchecked, 50 to 65% of Australians will be infected, a staggering 13 to 17 million people. It means we’re all more likely to be infected than not. If we do, 80% of cases being mild sounds reassuring. But don’t be fooled. 20% being severe cases and 5% requiring intensive care is a huge danger when you work out the numbers.
If our country fails to take drastic, successful action to stop the virus two things are certain. Our hospital system will be totally overwhelmed. And well before that, the number of people needing intensive care will totally dwarf the number of ICU beds available.
Seem impossible? That’s a very normal response. But don’t stop reading in disbelief. Let me explain with a simple explanation of exponential growth.
The number of cases in Australia is doubling every 3 to 4 days(1). At 3 days, the number of cases will double almost 5 times in 2 weeks = 32 times! There are 5 x 3 days = 15 days in a little over 2 weeks. Double today’s number of cases 5 times and you get 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 32 times today’s figure. As at 3:00pm today 29th March, there were 3,966 confirmed cases in Australia (2).
If we allow this rate to continue, there will be up to 32 x 3,966 = 126,000 cases just two weeks from now. Two weeks later it will be 32 x 126,000 = 4 million, and in 6 short weeks it will be 32 x 4 million = over 100 million. Of course that’s impossible for a population of 26 million. But it shows how quickly we’ll reach peak infection numbers of 13 to 17 million people!
Now think about our hospital system. If just 10% of infected people need hospital that’s 1.3 million people. Our hospital system will collapse. If 5% need intensive care, that’s 650,000 people for only 2,200 beds. Our ICU capacity is minuscule compared to the beds we need. In fact it was announced on Fri 27/03 that we could run out of ICU beds in as little as 2 weeks.
This means medical staff will be forced to choose who lives and who dies. The decision criteria is already being worked out in preparation. At this point the number of deaths will dramatically increase because the vast majority of severe cases won’t be treated.
So yes, coronavirus could kill me. And it could kill you too.
And untreated respiratory deaths are not pretty. You slowly drown in your own mucus as it clogs up your lungs. It’s one of the most horrible ways to die.
(2) I really DO have to take this seriously
Clearly I MUST take the situation seriously. It’s essential for my own survival, and that of all other Australians. I must play my part and follow whatever social restrictions are implemented. At present it’s staying at home and stopping all unnecessary contact with others.
Every time I go out is another opportunity to become infected.
But that’s not the main issue. If I am infected and go out with mild or no symptoms, I risk infecting a cascade of other people. Every time I have close contact with others, every time I inevitably touch the many surfaces that lots of other people touch, I’m putting other people at risk. Think carefully about all the things you touch in shopping centres.
To reinforce the point, University of NSW modelling(3) shows at least 80% of the Australian population must stay at home to have any hope of containing the virus. For your own sake, and the sake of everyone else, DON’T be one of the people pushing Australia over the critical 20% non-compliance threshold.
If you’re younger, don’t think you won’t be a severe case or die. The severity does increase with age but worldwide there are far more people aged 18 to 64 who are infected, and far greater numbers in hospital, than people 65 and older. And ask yourself, what if the hospital system collapses before I need it?
Then there’s the death rate. The estimates vary widely. Many cases will never be detected, and of the known cases we don’t yet know how many will recover or die. Medical experts in the UK(4) predict 0.5 to 1% of the total population will die. For Australia this equals 130,000 to 260,000 people. But the final figures could be worse… we just don’t know yet.
(3) I’ve got to practice what I preach
I’d had a sore throat on and off for over 2 weeks prior to last Friday. I thought two weeks with no other symptoms meant it couldn’t be coronavirus. I decided to collect a parcel from the Post Office then go to the supermarket. When I saw the sign on the Post Office door I stopped, “Please don’t enter if you’ve got any symptoms”.
I’d stayed home for the previous 9 days because of my throat. I allowed no-one in my house, so I could not be carrying the virus. But, hold on, I’d made one exception. Two older family members came to visit after staying with their daughter’s family in the suburbs. They were keen to see my new house before returning home. I was keen to make it very clear to both of them that it was essential they minimise all contact with others. Both having chronic health conditions meant their lives could depend on it.
The second realization hit hard at the Post Office door. My sore throat had gone days ago but was back again that morning. I thought it was just a recurrence of the same bug. But what if my new sore throat was coronavirus that I’d picked up from my visitors? However unlikely it was, it actually could be coronavirus, and I could be risking other people’s lives.
I hesitated for a moment, then, sad to say, I rationalised it away. We all love picking up parcels and I allowed my desire to overrule the possible risk.
I went inside and picked up the parcel, all the while knowing deep down I’d made a choice that contradicted what I’d been passionately proclaiming to others… If you’re showing any symptoms avoid all close contact with others! Contrite, I drove straight home… definitely no more shopping for me until I know I’m clear!
I know many of you will identify. We’re all human. We don’t like stopping activities that bring us pleasure. And if we’re honest, we often do things we know aren’t wise, especially for our health. Most times there’s no immediate consequence. But coronavirus is different. It’s no overstatement to say this is a critical moment in history. We all need to work hard on not letting our desires lead to choices and actions that put ourselves and others in danger.
(4) The reality hits home
I took a break from working on this article late last night. Only partly finished I wanted to be fresh today to finish it.
TV is something that helps my brain slow down enough to sleep. I selected SBS. You’ll probably laugh, but I love zombie movies. I find them so over-the-top that they’re hilarious and a great way to relax. “The Road to Tuhan” was on. This movie was great. Hilarious moments were interwoven with a heartwarming drama. Well into the movie, the most recent realization hit out of the blue. I had a mental picture of sitting on a precipice watching the world fall over the edge.
How could I possibly be watching something as inane as a zombie movie when the whole world is facing a life-threatening crisis? What if I’m one of the casualties and have only weeks or months left to live? Is watching a zombie movie what I want to do on one of my last remaining nights?
It sounds very dramatic, but it’s possible. In balance however, there’s absolutely no value in worrying about the worst possible outcome. Far better to ask what can I do to achieve the best outcome for myself and everyone else?
There’s a lesson I learnt from my late wife Rosie. She had a 16 year journey with breast cancer. The whole time, right up to the day she died, she remained realistic about where the cancer was taking her. Rather than hiding behind positive thinking, or allowing herself to become morbid, she faced every downward step head on. She was determined to make the most of every day, always enjoying life and being an encouraging, supportive friend to literally hundreds of people. I want to live like Rosie did.
So what can I contribute in the face of coronavirus? This article is Chapter One of my coronavirus journey. It is part of what I can offer. If I can convince just one other person to play their part, or even save a life, it is abundantly worth it.
Where to from here?
Australia has reached the stage of community transmission of coronavirus. An antiviral drug is still a long way off. The most effective, and possibly only way, of stopping coronavirus is now total lockdown.
Ideally we would have been in lockdown at least two weeks ago. But no government (apart from the Chinese) can take a whole nation from life as normal one day to total lockdown the next. It takes time to convince a whole nation that a course that devastates our economy and has severe social impacts is the best way to go! Leaders can only lead if the nation chooses to follow them.
Our leaders are not idiots. Put aside your political opinions. They are doing their absolute best to lead Australia through to the best possible outcome.
Conservative governments like ours have the economy flowing in their blood. Even with the facts staring them in the face it takes time for them too to believe that total lockdown, whatever the economic cost, is the fastest way to get through this pandemic with minimum social and economic cost. But give our leaders due credit. Don’t be quick to judge. They are only human too.
But don’t wait for the government to tell you it’s time for total lockdown. The more people who voluntarily do it now, the better the outcome will be.
Help lead the pack rather than drag your heels behind it.
Think of people on the front lines
If you think total lockdown is tough, and it certainly will be, think of the people who still have to go to work so the rest of us can make it through. Health workers at every level, those keeping us supplied with food and essentials, law enforcement. They are all at higher risk than you.
Our health workers especially are at risk. They don’t want to die either, and yet they’ll make the sacrifice turning up day after day to perform very high risk roles. They may well run out of protective gear long before the pandemic is over. Look at Italy now. Many will be totally exhausted by their selfless work and traumatised for life by what they see. They will face the likelihood of taking the virus home to their loved ones after every shift.
It won’t lessen how difficult things are for us at home, but it helps get our own sacrifice in perspective.
We all need each other
Lockdown has to be longer than two weeks to beat the virus. At least 4 weeks, perhaps even months, will be necessary(5).
Social isolation is going to take a terrible toll. There will be spikes in the number of people suffering anxiety and depression. Domestic violence and suicides will rise dramatically. There will be no lack of people who need your support.
If you can, don’t despair, that will not help you at all.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking only about yourself and how tough things are for you. Endless video, binge eating, porn, or whatever you’re into will work for a while. Ultimately it will leave you bored, depressed and worse off.
Instead recognize WE ALL have an essential job to do. Think of everyone you know who could be doing it tougher than you. Think of your family and friends. Connect with other people. Make calls, send messages, or chat online to encourage and support other people. You will lift their spirits and help them through. You too will get a ‘buzz’ each time as your brain releases feel good hormones. It will help you make it through as well(6).
If you’re struggling, reach out to others. Don’t try to go it alone. People will never be more willing to support you than now.
Be grateful. Choose to enjoy life. Grasp this opportunity.
Your attitude is the key to your own emotional survival.
Be grateful for everything you can. Be grateful for your loved ones. Be grateful for the food you eat and the roof over your heads. Be grateful that the end of the crisis WILL come. If nothing else, being grateful means you’re still alive!
Keep enjoying everything in your life that brings you joy. Music, photos, books, all the things you can learn from online, things you can create, your pets, and of course, other people… the list is endless.
Use this time to learn and grow in every way you can.
Initiate new friendships. Build deep connections with others. Repair broken relationships.
You will never have another life changing opportunity like this (we hope) to achieve so much.