Human Writes: When it comes to Covid-19, we are all fair game


A combination picture of people in India holding mobile phones with images of relatives who died due to Covid-19. None of us, whatever our status in life or position in politics, are safe in a pandemic. — Reuters

Sometimes, it’s worth mulling over death. Oh yes, it’s morbid and depressing and almost taboo. But it’s one way we can value life.

It’s amazing how people don’t value their lives. The emergency rooms of hospitals all over the world are filled with people who took life for granted and were casual about risks to their lives. People who drove too fast, swam in dangerous waters or failed to wear a safety belt or helmet. Or, in 2020, people who didn’t physically distance in a pandemic.

Recently, I heard a story about a teenager who took a risk and ran across a road as the lights were changing. He didn’t make it. A bright, beautiful teen lost his life due to a miscalculated risk. He is just another statistic in a common tragedy – road deaths are the main cause of death for young people globally. But his parents will forever mourn him. (Incidentally, children learn such risky behaviour from those around them – they observe and model adults, which is why you should never, ever try to beat the lights with a child in tow.)

Since the start of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, people have miscalculated the risks. Recent studies confirm that many people often underrate their risk of being infected with Covid-19 (but, nevertheless, mostly comply with guidance). This is known as “optimism bias” and is influenced by age and education.

The pandemic is pushing us to consider the reality of our mortality. But some still think they’re infallible.

Now here we are, in October 2020, several months into a pandemic, yet far too many of us still throw caution to the wind with behaviour akin to running through red lights.

After starting off so well, the numbers now tell a different story in Malaysia. On Oct 6, 2020, a record 691 new Covid-19 cases were reported – the highest number so far (numbers have declined since then but remain in three digits). Cases increased throughout September, with a sharp spike at the end of the month following the Sabah state election on Sept 26, 2020.

Some of those travelling from Sabah to Peninsular Malaysia did not observe a 14-day quarantine as it was not deemed mandatory until a day after the polls. Now, cases have spread to every state in the country and much of the Cabinet is under quarantine.

We should use our heads in taking precautions, whether mandatory or not. When returning from a hot zone, one test doesn’t cut it – it won’t pick up infection during the incubation period. Indeed, in the case of one politician, a second test turned out positive.

In these times, there are inherent risks involved in social gatherings and public events such as elections. Most risky are indoor events with little distancing. Yet gatherings of more than 100 or even 200 people at weddings and funerals still continue. People, we have a pandemic!

Even family gatherings present risks – this was the main route of spread in Wuhan and is a major problem now in Spain, the worst-affected European country.

We can’t afford to be casual with Covid-19. When people don’t wear masks, don’t quarantine or maintain distance, and socialise like the pandemic is over, they give the virus opportunities. They risk not only their own lives but also the lives of family members and the community.

Just one major misstep and the epidemic can escalate or even explode, as seen elsewhere. The virus doesn’t make exceptions for us because we are so-and-so – we are all fair game.

The behaviour of those in the public eye is especially critical – when politicians flout or ignore public health guidance, the public take that as permission to do the same. Leaders should set examples.

Inconsistent leadership has created confusion and lack of compliance among the public in many countries, as well as muddled responses and skyrocketing cases.

US President Donald Trump’s inconsistency and indifference to pandemic prevention measures (he took forever to start wearing masks!) sowed deep divisions. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissal of Covid-19 as mere “mild flu” and his criticism of lockdown measures led to people breaking quarantines and a rise in cases and deaths. British premier Boris Johnson’s initial casualness about the disease – he missed most of the early pandemic meetings – led to a delayed and mismanaged response.

The fact that all three leaders subsequently got infected with the virus indicates the risks they took.

We are not as invincible as we think. Life has a 100% mortality rate (and we are now nine months closer to death since the pandemic began!). Some of us should remember that it’s not worth risking our lives to chase after material gain – in the end, we leave that all behind when we die.


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Covid-19 , healthcare , prevention

   

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