Pandemics and Infection Avoidance

Pandemics are currently the greatest potential threat to us here in the UK, according to the government itself – the Cabinet Office report I linked to last week, in relation to volcanic eruptions, states that very clearly.  Searching the gov.uk site led me here and here too which includes links about face masks and hand hygiene.  All very useful for getting the official take on things.

Personally, I don’t wait for an official declaration of pandemic before I start taking precautions – I take precautions during the annual flu season as well, because my immune system is at wet-paper-bag status for most of the year. So I thought it would be helpful to compile a list of precautions, and that’s what’s in the rest of this post. If anybody has any other precautions they use, or that they’ve heard of, I’d really appreciate you posting in the comments. As individuals, we have no control at all about whether an epidemic or a pandemic start up, but we have at least some control over the level of our exposure to it.

I’d advise keeping in touch with the news, internationally, nationally and locally, so that you know if the infection is spreading, mutating or on the decrease. This will also inform you of any new information about counter-measures such as vaccines. A couple of the big websites where you can find that level of news at a free, basic level are HealthMap and Global Incident Map.  These sites look really scary at first, but they give you an idea of whats happening. Remember, however, as we saw from the last six months’ Ebola cases outside of Africa – anywhere with an airport is vulnerable. Anywhere. By the way, both these sites are owned by Americans, according to their WhoIs data, and they claim many US corporate and governmental accounts.

There are several issues to take into account.

1 avoiding infection

2 killing infection if you come into contact with it

3 coming into contact with as little infection as possible.

4 strengthening your immune system. Or not.

I intended to explore each of these topics separately, but after writing it that way for a bit, it was like doing a jigsaw upside down, it just didn’t make sense. So the headings below are for separate ares of our lives: shopping, transport, public toilets, hygiene at home and so on.

Some of these measures are probably already part of the daily routine for people with vulnerable immune systems, while to others they may seem completely foreign. How many of these measures you implement is always a matter of choice, of course; but what if you were the one who brought the infection home to your kids, because you happened to be shopping at the same time as someone who’d just got off a plane and was infected with a pandemic virus? It’s possible, so please consider these things in that light.

Location

Whereabouts we live in the country has some sort of effect on whether we catch a pandemic infection, though it’s not overriding, of course. If you live ten minutes from Heathrow, you’re probably exposed to a new infection more than someone living on, say, the Shetlands. But as I said above, anywhere with an airport is vulnerable at short notice, and the population density doesn’t make that much difference. It can just take one person ….

Location is important on a micro level as well as macro. You should choose your location in public places as carefully as possible – a waiting room, a bank, a train etc. Be aware of the air flows, and stay as close as possible to the source of fresh (not air conditioned) air. But don’t position yourself so that people can cough all over you: it may seem sensible on a train to sit as close to the doors as possible, but then you’re most likely to have people standing by you – and if they cough, then frankly, it goes all over you. Don’t let that happen during a pandemic.

Shopping

Stockpile as much food and supplies as you can, and by supplies I mean things like spare fuses, lightbulbs and laces for your trainers. Things that are important and useful, but small and easily stored. It seems crazy to me to risk exposure during a pandemic wave to buy items like these. It might even be worth putting your shopping on credit cards, even if you can’t pay it off at the end of the month, during this sort of emergency, especially if you have a 0% deal you can access.

When you do need to shop, buy as much as possible at one shop, or at least on one trip – growing your own food will help you cut down on some shopping, but most of us are very far from self sufficient even in vegetables. So learn to shop safely: as few shops as possible, hand gel to clean the handle of the supermarket trolley and the self service till (using the self service may be a pain at first, but it means that the last shop worker to handle your goods was the one who actually put them on the shelf, and that might have been some time ago, long enough for viruses to die).

When you get your shopping home, you should have two buckets by the front door, along with a drainage or drying area (old towels in the cloakroom? That sort of thing) : one bucket containing a weak bleach solution, and the next containing ordinary water – use the bleach first, then the water, then the towels or drainage. Even I don’t do this during flu season, but I would in a pandemic, definitely.

The above bleach/water/drying or drainage procedure should also be followed if you have a delivery of course, whether from a supermarket or any other online shopping. Online shopping certainly avoids point-of-purchase infection, but you still have to take physical possession of whatever it is.

Pay by card to avoid handling cash. A card is much easier to disinfect than notes and coins, and if you’re using a contactless card (safely sitting in its RFID wallet for most of the time, I hope!) then that’s even better.

Work

Do you have the sort of job where you could work from home, and simply avoid going out for big chunks of time? Or do you have work appointments at your home, or in a cafe? Skype is your friend in this situation; with local people, you could even just have a walk in the open air, in a quiet place. Negotiating with your employer could actually be a survival skill in this situation. And for your employer, business continuity would potentially be very valuable; retaining their skilled workforce certainly counts under this heading.

If you take payments from people, whether goods or services, ask them to pay you online – you don’t have to handle their cheques and envelopes, and you don’t have to go into the bank to deposit the cheque.

If you do have to travel, whether for work or anything else, travel at the quieter times of day if at all possible, even if that means spending longer at work. You could also change your route or method of transport – a bus instead of a train for short journeys, for example. Or walk! Again, negotiate with your employer to get the best deal for you and for them.

Personal Life

For your personal finances and arrangements, just as for your work, do as much online as you can, this will vastly reduce your exposure to infection. Use skype, facebook, ordinary email, texting, whatever you can, for yourself and your kids. Even conference calls, for small groups! But we’re a social species, and I think it’s inevitable that people will still want to meet up socially, in small numbers at least; larger events may well be prohibited during the active waves of any pandemic.

Each time you avoid infectious contact, you increase your chances of avoiding the pandemic altogether, and if it’s one with a high fatality count, that could be the difference between life and death. I’ve put it very melodramatically, but it might be true one day.

Even if you do decide to attend smaller social events, there are still things you can do to minimise the chances of infection: ask for part of the event to be held outdoors if at all possible, as viruses spread much less easily in the open air; walk to the event, or travel during a quiet part of the day or a (comparatively) quiet route; have any necessary tickets already so you don’t have to handle cash, take your own food and drink if possible (some venues forbid this, and it may be a step too far for your children), don’t use the public toilets, don’t shake hands. And of course, you should always take tissues and hand gel. You should also always use plasters on broken skin, especially on your hands during pandemics – if you want to let a cut breathe, then do it at home, where it’s safer.

When out and about, don’t touch anything you don’t have to touch. A banister, for example – very few people absolutely have to use a banister, but nearly everyone touches them. There’s no need, if your sense of balance is at all adequate. If there’s a swing door, push it with your foot. When seated on public transport, don’t get up from your seat until you’ve reached your stop (and then make sure you don’t miss your stop!) so that you don’t need to grab any handholds – I do this one already, because of arthritis in my shoulders, holding on in a moving train or bus is just too painful.

Assume you need a distance of about ten feet to avoid germs being passed to you by someone coughing or sneezing. Depending on various factors – wind, whether they cover their mouth and nose – this may be too much or not enough. But ten feet is often mentioned in studies of how bacteria and viruses are passed between people, so it’s a good average.

Finally, make a conscious effort not to touch your face – if you’re punching numbers into a bank’s key pad, or paying by cash, or picking up a Click and Collect delivery, you’re touching things that have recently been touched by other people. Keeping away from your face until you can wash your hands when you get home is just common sense, it’s advised even during ordinary flu season.

To Be Continued!

There’s still a lot to say, so there’ll be a Part Two of this next week, this post is long enough.  Do check back again, and please let me know if you see a gap in what I’ve written.

2 thoughts on “Pandemics and Infection Avoidance

  1. another excellent article. I would suggest carrying a small bottle of hand disinfectant like PURELL® Advanced Instant Hand Sanitizer Products when out and about and use it after touching a cash dispenser.

    1. You’re dead right, absolutely! And I also think you’re right about using a branded product – some of the unbranded, or poundland versions, have a much lower percentage of active ingredients.

      I’m glad you liked the article.

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