Fear is not productive – that’s my mantra for the day. For as I write, I sit on a plane wearing a mask, glasses, and gloves, flying into the eye of the storm.
The WHO has declared Europe the center of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it doesn’t get more central than Zurich, which lies slap-bang in the middle of it.
My children are there, so that’s where I’m headed.
I’ve been in Spain from where I’ve been watching events unfold with increasing unease. The internet has helped me access news in several languages. I’m also in touch with friends and family in other parts of Europe who’ve been filling me in on what’s happening on the ground.
Over the last month, I’ve grown weary of politicians’ ineptitude and apathy in handling this crisis. Most disturbing have been the stomach-churning personal videos coming out of Italy, which is already on lockdown.
Hospitals are so overcrowded that doctors are having to decide who will be placed in the ICU, and who’ll be offered palliative care only.
Numerous audio recordings from doctors on the front line in Madrid are shocking in what they describe.
It’s grim. The elderly and those with a compromised immune system or chronic condition are particularly vulnerable.
None of us have any immunity to this virus. There’s simply not enough information to fully understand how this virus behaves.
We’re told that the majority of us will get it within three months and for most of us, the symptoms will be unpleasant yet manageable.
We also know that many will die.
A few people are beginning to prepare themselves for self-isolation. Yet most aren’t taking the situation seriously. I don’t get it.
Can’t they see what’s coming?
Is it my experience of loss that affords me a different perspective?
That I know that the worse really can happen?
That loved ones DO die?
Or am I hypersensitive and too anxious? That I’m over-reacting?
Quite probably it’s a bit of both. If you’ve buried your child, you know that the unimaginable can happen.
When people say “It’ll be fine”, I know it may not be. Such knowledge can be a good thing – it can help me prepare, bolstered by the resilience born of living in grief and the knowledge that I have faced worse and made it.
But perhaps it’s also a bad thing – I’m hyper-vigilant and the thought that someone I love may die in the next six months terrifies my already-shattered heart.
I imagine a worst-case scenario and wonder how we’ll cope with death on a global scale.
The coronavirus has a far higher mortality rate than normal flu and everyone is getting sick at the same time. That’s why slowing down the rate of contagion is vitally important. In doing that, we help ‘flatten the curve’, which is another way of saying we’ll buy time.
It’ll save lives, not only of those who present with life-threatening symptoms but also all the patients who usually rely on ICUs.
And then there’s the doctors and nurses who are being exposed to pathogens on a daily basis. They need our help too. So many of them are sick already.
Take a look at what’s happening in Italy and Spain right now. As in most of western Europe, these two countries have good public health systems. You get free medical care at the point of delivery, no matter your age or illness. Whatever the time of day or night, an ambulance will come and pick you up from your home.
Hospitals are well run and staff professional. Someone who has a fever and is having difficulty breathing will be admitted to the hospital, no questions asked.
But we’re now in a pandemic. These systems are on the verge of collapse. Let’s say a hospital can usually provide care for 15 ICU patients whilst all other beds are for ‘normal’ illnesses or post-op recovery.
Suddenly, the doctors are faced with hundreds of patients requiring ICU care all at the same time. In Bergamo’s main hospital, they’re admitting 70 new critically ill patients every day.
Where are they meant to put them? They don’t have enough machines or trained staff. And what about all the other accident and emergency patients that continue to arrive? The woman suffering a stroke? Or the man having a heart attack?
Where do they go now the ICU is full?
The terrible reality is that in northern Italy clinicians are having to triage: for every four patients requiring a ventilator, there is only one machine.
In some hospitals, patients are dying alone because family members can’t enter the building. Funerals have been put on hold or happen with only one family member present, or no relatives present at all.
To not be able to attend the funeral of your loved one is harsh indeed.
In Switzerland, where medical services are supposedly world-class, the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences admits that we don’t have enough artificial respirators or nursing staff to deal with the expected number of patients.
In their words “bottlenecks could form in intensive care units.” The mere thought sends chills down my spine.
Days 2 & 3
As I land in Zurich and make my way home, I read the updates from Spain. The government has declared a State of Emergency. I call friends in Madrid and they say the panic has begun.
France and Spain are in partial lockdown. Several European countries are patrolling national borders.
Across the EU schools have closed and people are being asked to refrain from traveling and to stay home. The Swiss government has passed strict social distancing measures.
People are shopping for food as if it’s the end of the world. They perceive Covid-19 as a real threat and one that could last for weeks, and possibly months.
We’ve stocked up and have created a pantry. Stories circulate and go viral: there’s been a run on toilet paper; Pornhub in Italy is donating its March revenue to hospitals; people are taking up knitting and online yoga; you risk a hefty fine if stopped on the street without reason.
Stock markets are in freefall. People are worried sick about losing their jobs and their income.
The internet is filled with people singing from balconies and applauding medical staff. It’s uplifting to see such scenes, to be a part of something compellingly human. The Italian #IoRestoaCasa (I stay at home) is trending and other languages are following suit. Memes abound about being on lockdown, making light of the situation.
Depending on my mood, I may forward messages to friends or delete them. Humor in grief can be a good coping tool. It eases anxiety and makes the coronavirus nightmare seem more manageable.
It can help put the situation into perspective. But it does depend on the joke – not all memes will bring a smile to my face or help me believe that this situation is surmountable.
The bereaved know only too well how hurtful dismissive comments and jokes about death can be.
Grief has shown me that I can laugh and cry, be serious and find joy – and this pandemic is much the same. We’re facing an extraordinary situation so it’s normal to have mood swings.
I dread what’s coming and yet have come to accept it. I can do the laundry and minutes later read the updates on military deployment and the number of dead.
Humans have an amazing capacity to adapt to new situations and I’m no exception.
In the worse hit European countries, the city hospitals are already at capacity. Waiting rooms are overflowing; patients lie on stretchers in corridors, people are dying.
Military hospitals are being turned into pandemic centers, all non-emergency operations have been canceled, organ transplants for adults have been halted unless it’s an emergency.
Where possible, patients with pulmonary insufficiency are being airlifted to clinics where ICU beds are still available. Doctors and nurses are being brought back from retirement whilst anyone who is not critically ill is being told to stay home.
I’ve stopped listening to politicians. I ignore those that think bad things only happen to others. I know better, I’ve lost a son. Awful, terrible things can happen to anyone. And not just once.
That’s why I’m taking my cue from those on the front line – the exhausted doctors fighting to save lives whilst risking their own. Information provided by medical staff is what I trust at the moment.
I have voluntarily self-isolated with my children for our own sakes and for those in our community who need our protection. The vulnerable deserve our respect, our care, and our self-sacrifice.
We must all try to break the chains of transmission. And we have to do this together.
Our response to this crisis as individuals speaks volumes about the society we live in and wish to create.