An Alert Anchorite?

Instead of “Stay at Home” we are now being asked to “Stay Alert”. No-one seems quite sure what this means, but it feels as if we have been gradually developing our alertness skills since lockdown started.

As I see it, the basic principle of alertness must be to assume that every person you see is furiously shedding coronavirus, and every object outside the house is covered with it.

Whilst 2 metres is the statutory minimum of social distancing, alertness means going further than this whenever you can. I feel like a Talmudic scholar, “putting a fence around the law” when I cross the road to avoid someone coming the way when the distance between us closes to 10 metres. I’ve noticed that when people do this (and we aren’t the only ones who have this policy) then they give a cheery greeting to negate what would formerly have been seen as an offensive snub.

We try not to touch anything we haven’t brought with us when we are outside the house – I’ve developed a neat flick of the wrist to get Poppy’s filled poo-bag into the waste bin without touching the sides. Just before lockdown I saw some white cotton gloves in the chemist and bought two pairs. I think they are intended for people with skin diseases of the hands to stop them scratching and keep oily ointments off everything they touch. They work very well as a protection when one has to handle things from the virus-laden world – although they make me feel a bit like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.

A medical education (coupled with a mother who, like Marcel Pagnol’s, was convinced everything is covered with “les microbes”) comes in very useful when living through an epidemic; those years of being shouted at by bossy theatre sisters are at last reaping dividends! So for example it is second nature to peel off my cotton gloves (or the disposable plastic ones which we found in the garden shed, having been bought to protect against creosote rather than Covid) so that they end up inside out. That way they can be disposed with the viruses carefully trapped inside, or in the case of the cotton ones washed in 10% bleach. This has over the weeks turned them a rich cream,, so I look like a White Rabbit whose mother doesn’t use Persil, but since we are told that this mixture kills the virus in one minute that is a small price to pay.

When I have just come in or touched something suspect I find myself walking about with my hands in the air, arms bend upwards at the elbows like a surgeon waiting for the patient to be wheeled in, and opening door with my elbows (unfortunately we don’t have taps that you can do that with).

I’ve developed a no-touch technique for opening letters without touching the envelope, using a paperknife in one hand and holding the envelope in a piece of kitchen roll in the other. Given the speed of the mail I think I can safely assume any viruses on the hand of the person who wrote it will have died – probably years ago.

We have established a decontamination zone just outside the back door, where groceries and other incoming goods can be swabbed in 10% bleach and then rinsed off after a few minutes. Most things which can’t survive this treatment, such as vegetables, or things we don’t need for a while, can go into a quarantine zone we have established in a large plastic box in the former coal-hole.

Doing this takes a certain degree of obsessionality (which is where the Pagnol mother and the surgical education come in handy) but it soon becomes second nature. And it’s probably worthwhile, not only to reduce the risk of actually getting the infection, but to reduce the viral load if we do.

Viral load is an important concept which hasn’t appeared much in Government briefing. Basically how sick you get if you get infected depends partly on you – age, gender, chronic health problems all affect your vulnerability. But so too does how much virus you get when you get it. If you only get a tiny bit – say from touching a contaminated doorhandle or an envelope – the chances of you getting really ill are less than if you get a big dose, being breathed over by someone incubating the virus for a 20 minute tube journey. That may be why people like bus drivers, care workers and hospital staff have died even though they were young and with no vulnerability factor.

Quite early on in the epidemic I saw a Facebook post which said the way to what we now have to call “staying alert” was to pretend you are in Holby City (or Casualty, or whatever your favourite medical soap is). Perhaps we should all watch a few episodes on Youtube as part of our preparation to “Stay Alert”. This looks like having to become a way of life for everyone.