Colette Sheridan: Rays of hope amid the pandemic which we'll defeat, says expert

In her weekly column Colette Sheridan reflects on the words of one of the world’s leading officials in charge of fighting the pandemic, who has 30 years’ experience of fighting polio, Ebola and other diseases.
Colette Sheridan: Rays of hope amid the pandemic which we'll defeat, says expert
Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan at the Department of Health who is encouraging people to help them flatten the curve in the fight against  Covid-19. Picture:

“IF it was the apocalypse, we’d still be working,” said a fed-up check-out assistant in a Cork supermarket, the other day.

These long, strange days sometimes feel as if the apocalypse has come as we drift through our self-isolated lives, grieving for our former way of living and our sense of well-being and even optimism, although climate change should have been occupying our thoughts.

Instead, we are laid low by an invisible virus with the body count mounting and terrible scenes from Italy and Spain of the deceased being transported in trucks, ultimately to their graves.

A friend keeps breaking down in tears, sad over what has come to pass. The first time she saw markings on the floor of a super-market, indicating the distance we must keep from other shoppers, she cried.

I go for walks most days, doing the virus dance to get out of the way of the occasional pedestrian walking towards me. Sometimes, shy smiles are exchanged, acknowledging our shared experience of a world gone mad. Will we ever revert to our former selves?

What will the coronavirus pandemic look like six months from now? That was a question posed by journalist, Amy Gunia, interviewing Dr Bruce Aylward, for Time magazine last week.

Dr Aylward, a Canadian, is the senior adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organisation. One of the world’s leading officials in charge of fighting the pandemic, he has 30 years’ experience of fighting polio, Ebola and other diseases.

In six months, Dr Aylward expects that we will be emerging from a bad wave of this disease across a large swathe of the planet, with it still affecting various parts of the world. But we’ll be going back into the flu season.

One of the major questions will be whether we’re going to see a surge of conoravirus again during that period.

Will coronavirus ever disappear? Dr Aylward says that most people don’t believe that it will disappear completely as it transmits too easily in the human population. It’s more likely that there will be “waves” of it “or low level disease.” A lot of that will depend on what societies do.

“If we do the testing of every single case, rapid isolation of the cases, you should be able to keep cases down low.”

But just how feasible is it to carry out that level of testing? It’s simply not possible here given the high level of negative results which waste time and resources.

We are, says Dr Aylward “in a guerrilla warfare against a virus.” And after containment, “there’s no reason why it shouldn’t take off again, unless you’re ready for it.”

Depressingly, but looking ahead at a worst case scenario, China, where the virus is believed to have originated and now seems free of it, is buying ventilators, building beds and generally preparing. The Chinese don’t expect the virus to disappear but they expect to be able to run their society, their economy and their health system. But they are future-proofing.

There are misconceptions about coronavirus such as the notion that young people don’t get sick from it. Dr Aylward says that what “terrifies” him is “this sense of invulnerability among millennials.”

He points out that 10% of the people who are in intensive care units in Italy are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. These are young otherwise healthy people with no other diseases.

With reports of a small number of young people coughing into the faces of older people and generally being obnoxious, Dr Alyward’s advice should be heeded.

“You are not an island in this, you are part of a broader community, you are part of transmission chains.”

Never underestimate a new disease, he adds. There is too much unknown.

“What we do know is it will kill young people, it will make young people sick in large numbers.”

How will it end?

“This will end with humanity victorious over yet another virus, there’s no question about that. The question is how much and how fast we will take the measures necessary to minimize the damage that this thing can do.

“In time, we will have therapeutics, we will have vaccines, we’re in a race against that. And it’s going to take great co-operation and patience from the general population to play their part because at the end of the day, it’s going to be the general population that stops this thing and slows it down enough to get it under control.”

So there is hope amid uncertainty. One thing is for sure - coronavirus is a great leveller.

Prominent broadcasters, Claire Byrne and Ciara Kelly, have spoken of their experience of it, gamely working through their illness. And as for the medics, they’re the true heroes. Not to mention our much appreciated supermarket workers.

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