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Notes on a pandemic: How society has responded to Covid-19

May 2020, no. 421

Notes on a pandemic: How society has responded to Covid-19

May 2020, no. 421

Listen to this essay read by the author.

I was operating when it arrived. Between patients I read the email hastily. It concerned an article from surgeons at Stanford University. Along with colleagues in the United States, Italy, China, and Iran, they were reporting an increased risk of death from Covid-19 among otolaryngologists, neurosurgeons – and ophthalmologists, like me. Surgery around the nasal passages or other mucous membranes of the face seemed to release a potentially lethal aerosolised load of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Among the casualties were surgeons in their thirties.

I thought of Dr Li Wenliang, the thirty-three-year-old Chinese ophthalmologist who died from Covid-19 after blowing the whistle on the outbreak in late December 2019. I closed my inbox and focused on the next patient. Amid the din in the theatre, a new alarm sounded a worrying thrum.

Cycling home, I pedalled faster than usual. My wife, also a doctor, was in her third trimester of pregnancy; she was posted in Accident and Emergency at the time. Her commitment to work both impressed and concerned me. So far, Covid-19 had only affected pregnant women in a mild to moderate degree, with no cases of in utero transmission to newborns. Some babies had been affected by maternal illness after delivery, causing fever, respiratory distress, and, in one case, neonatal death. My wife and I considered the evidence – a tug of war of uncertainty, risk, and the limits of her duty to medicine. Soon afterwards, three MV Artania cruise-ship passengers, confirmed as Covid-19 positive, were transferred to A&E during her shift. That night, there were tears and hugs at our home.

At work, in both public and private hospitals, the impact came in waves, each one bigger than the last. New infection-control measures rolled in daily: screening stations, thermometers, personal protective equipment (PPE), wall-to-wall public health announcements. The undertow swept away hundreds of non-urgent appointments, all rescheduled to a later date in order to depopulate waiting rooms, maintain physical distancing, and preserve PPE. For deferred ophthalmic patients, there was, and remains, the small but significant risk of vision loss.

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Comments (9)

  • An excellent - and well-considered - analysis. Thank you for sharing it with us.
    Posted by Ian Robinson
    14 May 2020
  • A very sane and moving commentary on the situation engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic. I listen to this as a US citizen living in Costa Rica, where the response was instant, very community-minded, and effective. Sad, but only seven deaths. Friends with other conditions that need attention are now crowded out by huge numbers of Covid-19 patients. A small percentage are hospitalised, and a smaller proportion of those are in the ICU. What the disease has also done is reveal the threadbare responses of so many countries, the United States being by far the worst. Those of us in/from the so-called First World have been living in a world where compassion is deemed less and less necessary and where community bonds are fragile. Now we are paying the price. If only we can change our ways, oust the corrupt, ignorant, and cruel politicians, and work towards a better world. In the case of the United States, it will be a particularly uphill journey.

    As for the comment about US sanctions: do not expect any humanity on the part of the present US government. Its leader does not lead, his minions are fanatics with no perceptible mercy.
    Posted by B. Mills
    14 May 2020
  • Why is Dr Razavi so critical of the Iranian government and yet says nothing about US sanctions against that country? The Iranian government should certainly be blamed, no doubt about that, but we should be fair. Dr Razavi also doesn't say why the situation in the United States, Italy and Spain are worse than in Iran?
    Posted by Iradj
    11 May 2020
  • Thank you for sharing.
    Posted by Ken Clark
    08 May 2020
  • Absolutely beautifully written, insightful.
    Posted by University of Western Australia Information Services
    06 May 2020
  • Thanking you all for your support. A trying time for sure, but glimpses of normality are on the horizon. Meantime, may we stay safe and strong (and wash our hands!).
    Posted by Hessom Razavi
    05 May 2020
  • A wonderful and moving article.
    I too, hope you are able to be present at your daughter’s birth and that your family remain well.
    Posted by Penny Allen
    03 May 2020
  • Thank you so much for sharing this well written, commonsense, scientific and thoughtful response to what must be a very tense time for you and your family. I hope your daughter is born healthy and with both parents at her birth. Thank you for the care you and your colleagues are taking of us all.
    Posted by Debbie Froome
    02 May 2020
  • Hessom,
    Congratulations on a great documentary on our current Pandemic.
    Posted by Marg Sparkman
    01 May 2020

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