Dispatches from the front-lines of the Coronavirus panic…

On TV News last week we learned that N. Ireland had its first victim of the new plague that is Covid-19.  This novel coronavirus that started off life in a pangolin sold as an exotic food from a fish-market in Wuhan, China, had finally reached these shores on a Thursday night. I don’t think the media fully appreciate the sheer panic they unleased in a public, in its infinite ignorance, already very worried indeed.

A local radio host dedicated his fast pace morning radio programme to worrying deficiencies in our Public Health Agency (PHA).  His claim that PHA’s helpline advice was dangerously incorrect regarding Covid-19 was at best banal but he had the air-waves.   He asked how it could be that PHA was advising those just returned from Northern Italy, to “self-isolate” when that was “incorrect advice”.   The correct advice was for the call-handler to tell them to telephone the GP who would then tell them to “self-isolate”.   In the throes of a potentially serious plague this incompetence could cost lives, he intimated.  Really?

So by Friday morning, with one person recently returned from an Italian ski-trip incarcerated in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, the public had moved from general interest in coronavirus to blind panic about Covid-19.   Raising my pharmacy shutter at 9.00 am a group of twenty swamped the shop demanding hand-sanitizer.  Staff, still with their coats on, had to reassure that handwashing was best in this the containment phase of the disease. Over 200 visits before lunch-time were asking for the same product.    We had been out of hand sanitizers for a month following a visit from an assertive Chinese man who bought all I had before I had time to change the pricing labels. (Note to self; need to get better at profiteering).

So with little effort our media pundits had dramatically altered human behaviour.  People were doing things to protect themselves from a perceived threat, a threat that was frankly close to zero. At that time it was almost impossible to catch Covid-19 locally short of sharing a handkerchief with the lady now imprisoned in our Health Service.

And off course the fear became more bizarre and extreme as the day went on.  An elderly lady, not known for her intelligent insights, was, she told us, going to Mass to pray for the Pope who she was convinced already suffered from Covid-19 since, at morning prayers in Rome, he blew his nose many times into the Papal hanky.  This, she added, was in addition to a plague of locusts eating all the crops in Africa all of which had been predicted in the Bible.   At 4.30 pm with a few customers waiting for prescriptions, a gentleman in the queue sneezed three times sending a middle-aged woman running screaming from the pharmacy in horror.

Friday over, Saturday was no better.  Supplies of antiseptic-solutions sold-out; never a bad thing in retail.

Writing this piece a week after notification of our first case some sort of calm has returned but behaviour remain changed.   Hand-sanitizers we did get quickly sold in spite of a decent mark-up.  The wholesale price of a single disposable face-mask on e-bay is now £1 the price of a 100 box last year.   We are struggling to keep stocks of antiseptic solutions and wipes and yet we are still very much in the containment phase of this novel infectious disease.   India has banned exports of Paracetamol so pharmacies are panic buying and the price is shooting up.

At this point, I have no idea how things will unfold but the chance of an 80% population infection and one million deaths in the UK is pretty remote.  There will be infection and there will be death that’s how these things work.   Last year in the UK we had over 20,000 flu deaths and no one even seemed to notice.  In N. Ireland, 2,000 smoking-related deaths, 600 alcohol and drug-related deaths and 1,000 deaths from people being over-weigh and not taking enough exercise; all preventable by alternations in behaviour.   Public Health Agency should reflect on this and how the public were influenced to quickly adopt safer behaviours.   Perhaps, if they could stop sensationalising the message, TV and radio health correspondents and shock-jocks have the answer.

Photo by ElisaRiva is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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