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Why self-isolation might reconnect us with what matters

By Jack Parker, Junior Doctor


Could it be what finally brings us together? A Junior Doctor at one of the UK’s hardest hit hospitals shares his view.


In the past week we’ve watched the world we know change around us. We think twice before going outside, our universities are shutting down, and we’re finally finding out which meetings really could have been emails. Every hour there is a new headline about COVID-19, each one feeling scarier than the last. Self-isolation - a measure that feels like it’s straight out of a dystopian sci-fi movie - looks like it could soon become part of our day to day lives. But could a break from the behaviours of our normal lives be just what our generation needs to reconnect with what really matters?


As a Junior Doctor working at one of London’s hardest-hit hospitals, I think there are a number of mindsets and personal measures that we, as 20-somethings, should all individually adopt. These measures can not only help us through this pandemic, but could also see us emerge as a potentially happier generation on the other side.


Firstly, I think we need to accept that we are in a period of uncertainty.


A lot of people have a lot of questions at the moment and they want answers. We all want to know what COVID-19 means for our communities and for our nation at large. But I think we should strongly doubt anyone who is saying things with absolute confidence. We should avoid feeling like we, too, have to make black and white statements ourselves about what is happening and what is going to happen. There are so many unknowns still, and even the experts in epidemiology and virology are still working things out. 


Within the NHS we’re learning new, invaluable pieces of information everyday. We have to accept that this virus is in the right hands and that the experts are working quickly to find out what we need to know, and planning accordingly. All we can do is keep ourselves informed and listen to the people in the know.

Secondly, as hard as it might be for us, we need to take this seriously (enough).

We’ve all taken to the pandemic with a steady stream of memes, gifs and funny social media posts that make light of the situation. Whilst humour can and does help us get through difficult times as individuals and as a nation at large, it’s wrong to brush off the seriousness of the situation, because brushing it off is what could make us lax and careless, at best, and uncooperative at worst. The virus might not be a killer to the average healthy 20-something, and might not even cause symptoms at all in many of us, but it will take the lives of loved ones amongst the immunocompromised and elderly. The measures put in place by the government aren’t primarily there for our benefit, they’re there so we can help make sure the more at-risk people aren’t exposed to the virus.

Thirdly, we need to help the NHS in whatever small ways we can. It’s all hands on deck now.


As of yesterday, King’s College Hospital had tested positive 43 patients and the Trust has entered into its major incident framework. I expect this to be happening in more and more hospitals across the country as the days go by. Bed availability, in particular critical care beds and isolation side rooms, must be a concern for those in power. As this becomes more occupying, less urgent health issues will be pushed to the side in an act of prioritisation. Looking at the situation in Italy, there’s a degree of chaos that’s unprecedented for many doctors; hospital beds all across the country in crisis, intensive care units at max capacity, healthcare workers becoming ill and further exacerbating the problem, stories of decisions being made about who to provide life-critical support to.


When there’s a pandemic at large, it can be tempting to over-Google, to panic about our own symptoms and to demand more of an NHS that is already overstretched. The latest NHS advice is to self-isolate for seven days if you experience a new continuous cough or a fever, and to only call 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home, if your condition gets worse, or if your symptoms don’t get better after seven days. And when self-isolating there are a number of helpful guidelines the NHS asks us to follow for the safety of others.


The rest of us can do our bit by keeping a cool head, educating ourselves with reputable sources, using tissues, relentlessly hand-washing, adopting meticulous standards of general hygiene and being considerate of others. If we can all pull together and play our individual parts, we will be lifting our bit of the burden on an institution that is there to protect us when we are at our most vulnerable, and that, for once, needs our help.


Fourthly, we’re all going to need to do what we are told for a while.

Italy is under complete lockdown at the moment. Streets are empty and all shops are closed except for pharmacies and food stores. When it comes down to it, Italy didn’t act quickly enough and containment measures weren’t adopted thoroughly enough by the general public to contain the virus. We all need to act to ensure the UK and other European countries aren’t sleepwalking towards a similar fate. Some of the power to ensure this lies with our governments, of course, but a great deal of this power lies with us; each and every one of us. 


The case of Italy should be taken as a hard lesson for the rest of us who still have the eye of the storm to come. Because meanwhile, China and other Asian countries like Singapore and Vietnam initially looked to be headed for a downward spiral of uncontrolled infection, but they all appear to have contained the pandemic surprisingly effectively over the past couple of weeks, and this can only be due to the strict measures that have been put in place by their governments, alongside a willingness and a sense of duty adopted by the public. Whilst the situation in these countries does beg the questions, "are these measures sustainable in the long term?" and "will they be able to manage the inevitable threat of re-infection once containment measures are lifted or indeed once the epidemic resurfaces next winter", what they do offer is proof of what collective action and widespread social responsibility can achieve.


We can now all do our bit for our country with a bottle of Dettol, a pack of Kleenex and an eagerness to do as we’re told.


Fifthly, we’re going to have to think of “we” not “me”.


Many of us are focusing right now on questions like ‘how has this been allowed to happen?’ and ‘how on earth am I going to make these individual sacrifices?’ instead of ‘how do I protect myself and others?’. We are all, as young people, living largely individualistic lives where we don’t often feel part of a community or have to think with a collectivist mindset. But to reduce transmission, we’re going to have to sacrifice some personal wants for the benefit of society at large. We need to all take responsibility for protecting our vulnerable. Coming from London now, for example, I would not go to visit my grandparents or any relatives of ill or compromised health until the virus has blown over.  But this approach requires a sense of trust in each other that we’ll all play our part. Take Singapore’s widely applauded response as an example. Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said of the situation on Thursday,


“What makes Singapore different from other countries is that we have confidence in each other, we feel that we are all in this together, and we do not leave anyone behind.”


Nothing has demonstrated the individualism of our society more than the stockpiling crisis we’ve seen over the past fortnight. This might be another aspect of the pandemic that’s easy to point and laugh at or blame each other for, but couldn’t it be more productive if we can learn from the fact that we have created our own national shortage out of pure selfishness? A depressing picture to paint of our society, perhaps, but we are the generation of change and this sad truth could be turned into a real positive if we allow ourselves to feel shocked and ashamed enough to change our own mindsets. It’s not a case of "what does my society owe to me?" now, but one of "what do I owe to my society?".


Whilst our present situation and the months to come will take some adjustment, these adjustments could be good for us in the long-term. Thinking more collectively could help us feel less isolated and reconnect us with a sense of community. Thinking about what we owe to our families, could help us repair relationships that can sometimes become fraught in our twenties. We have already proven we can be a resilient and proactive generation when called upon by things that are bigger than ourselves and our lives, such as Climate Change. If we can give ourselves the wakeup call we need before the impact of the virus does, then we will stand a much better chance of getting on the front foot.


Finally, we can reassure ourselves in the knowledge that it will pass.


It’s not all doom and gloom. We’re now coming out of the mainstream flu season and this should free up bed space in hospitals and alleviate the strain on both the NHS and the public. The COVID-19 virus has also been discovered to be 70% genetically similar to SARS (which broke out in 2002), which responded well to containment measures alongside a move into warmer months, so we can hope that the COVID-19 virus would follow a similar pattern. The death rate in the UK has actually been relatively low compared with the initial rates predicted from the first three months of the outbreak in China (1.4% vs 3.4% at the time of writing). There are, of course, many factors that come into play when considering epidemiology statistics, but this is still encouraging. 


Our government has taken some key steps over the past week, like increasing daily testing capacity from 1,500 to 10,000, and testing all those admitted, not just those from high risk areas or those who’ve had contact with someone tested positive. The approach that’s being adopted by the UK and other European countries has become much clearer over the past few days. Will the vulnerable in society be effectively ‘cocooned’ to protect their safety? Who knows, but we can hope to see more decisive and firm action from the government in the coming days. The economic and psychological consequences of mass containment, like in Italy and China, can’t be underestimated, and whether the gamble of delaying action to achieve herd immunity will pay off, or whether we will fall into a fate similar to the Italians’, we’ll soon find out. But the recent, more positive headlines about the situation in Italy have proven that if we can summon up a spirit of togetherness, there’s joy to be found in even the darkest hours. 


And then there’s the future beyond the virus. And in spite of it all there’s a small part of me that thinks this might end up doing our generation some good. We’re in the midst of a companionship crisis, all fighting towards individualistic goals in a culture that demands such standards of perfection and pits us against each other in constant competition and one-upmanship. Many of us with symptoms are now self-isolating with our families, who we don’t see enough, or the friends we live with, who can sometimes feel like ships in the night. It is in times like these we truly get the wakeup call to reality. A reality in which we realise that we’re all the same really, underneath it all. 


We’re all just people with the same hopes and feelings and vulnerabilities, and when it comes to the stuff that really matters, we’re all in it together. Underneath the Instagram posts and job titles and social statuses and wardrobes and talents and holidays and pay packets and families and flats and houses and hobbies and insecurities and worries and pressures and competition. And for once the competition isn’t with each other; we’re fighting a common enemy. For all the worry and uncertainty of COVID-19, at least we are finally united by something bigger than us. And I for one am hoping that when we come out the other side of this thing, that is the one thing we will take with us.

Image via Unsplash.

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