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by Mandy Rhodes
22 March 2020
Flatten the curve

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Flatten the curve

We’re overwhelmed by a pervasive contagion that we can’t see, don’t understand, and have no real way of knowing who will be next infected and whether they will survive.

And in the absence of a cure, all we can do is wait. Ideally, alone.

The world is a scary place right now and the speed at which our sophisticated lifestyles have unravelled has been extraordinary to witness, from the cessation of international air travel, to financial market collapse, to empty supermarket shelves, to grown men fighting over toilet rolls.

We can no longer doubt that we are living through extraordinary times.

We’re all grappling with what to do and while some actions are clumsier and more self-centered than others, the questions of how long, how bad, what next are common to us all.

One solution is to be so overcome by the grimness of it all, that you isolate, not just from a virus, but from life. But to get through this, ironically, we need to pull together while simultaneously we tear apart.

At a time when you want to hug your loved ones close, you must also push them away.

And while all of that is hard, life has to change – if we want to survive. And that instinct is strong.

Last week was the first time in my life I have walked into my parents’ home and not hugged my mum. But she’s 82, has had a stroke, is pretty well housebound and I don’t want her to die.

My son, aka the Student Prince, is travelling in South America right now and while the lure of a Caribbean coastline and the adventure of travel is what matters to him, I desperately want him back. He’s 22 and while I can’t insist he returns, when I found myself wondering, with a real physical ache, when I would see him again, I was relieved when he saw things dramatically change, with land borders being closed, curfews in place and tourists barred from local buses, and he booked his flight back home. We still don’t know if he’ll get out – flights have just been cancelled – but I will only rest easy when he’s home.

At work, a colleague finds herself unable to help her mother, who has MS and is stuck in Portugal after the airline cancelled her flights, offered her a refund, but no return. She only has enough of her life-saving medication to last another week and is scared.

A friend who has just bravely fought his way through what was assumed to be a terminal cancer, now has, for his own good, to stay away from all those he loves and who up until recently were grieving because they thought they might lose him, but who now might be a danger to his health.

Here in Scotland, foodbanks are shutting up shop because they’ve run out of food. Hostels for the homeless are closing their doors because residents are safer on the streets than taking their chances against a virus which could spread among them while they sleep, side by side, on mattresses on the hostel floor.

These are desperate times and have required desperate measures.

I’ve never lived through anything like this before. Yes, there were moments when it felt like the earth had moved on its axis and life would never be the same again, but even after 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008, life did, extraordinarily soon, get back to a sense of business as usual and all those resolutions to change were quickly gone.

Not being able to take full size make-up products on board planes is now more of a source of frustration than a comfort against a terrorist attack. Property prices boom. Landlords profit. Financial institutions that could have taken the world’s economy down continue to reap the rewards of their own failure, while billionaire hedge fund managers still bet on despair. And meanwhile, the poor go hungry.

Seismic global events may appear to offer opportunities for change but rarely seem to have a lasting effect.

Does this time feel different? I think it should. In a world where our interconnectivity meant that flying across the other side of the world had become as mundane and natural as taking a breath, there’s something fundamentally terrifying about how easy it has been for a killer virus that seemed just a month ago to be so insignificant to us here in the UK to have travelled so easily around the globe and ripped through our lives, likely changing them forever.

Globalisation, lauded for its potential power, has now, belatedly, thanks to COVID-19, become for many a source, too, of great fear.

Countries are responding with interventions unknown outside wartime. Borders are closing. Whole towns and cities are being partitioned off. Large gatherings have been cancelled. Pubs, clubs and restaurants closed. Schools shut and private hospitals, hotels and factories requisitioned. The official tourism site for Estonia has even launched an online campaign to discourage visitors with the hashtag #staythefuckhome.

This is a public health crisis like none we have never known. It is not a time for governments to act slowly, in secret or by stealth or even to criticise a devolved one for making decisions in the interests of its citizens and then, sheepishly, having to follow suit.

Scotland can be thankful for its calm, collected and reassuring team at the top, led by Dr Catherine Calderwood, the Chief Medical Officer. Nicola Sturgeon, of course, has form, having steered us through the swine flu epidemic, leading doctors to give her a standing ovation during the BMA annual conference in 2008. And we have a star in Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s clinical director, who during this crisis has been to COVID-19 what John Curtice became to marginal seats. Heroes of our time, both counting numbers and charting herd behaviour.

And remember, that while we’re all stumbling our way through a new and very frightening landscape, recognising the need to work together, there are people, including the president of the United States of America, who insist on calculatedly calling this pandemic the “Chinese virus”, who are looking for scapegoats rather than solutions.

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