Written by: Annamarie A. Fuchs, Creator. Partners in Health | Conversations.
“When people say “If I only knew then what I know now” it makes me wonder why they aren’t using that wisdom now.”
I read an article in my CBC news feed this week where the grief and burnout of a Registered Nurse was heartbreakingly on display. She’s been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, working in a hospital on the lower mainland in British Columbia. She posts her thoughts following a particularly difficult shift where she watched yet another patient die. This individual was under the age of 60, healthy and with no pre-existing chronic disease conditions.
The nurse begged her readers to take the pandemic seriously and implored: “please, I’m begging you all. Stay home, wear a mask, and get vaccinated if you’re eligible. We are all exhausted and I don’t know how much more pain my heart can take.”
Her heartbreak presents a stark contrast to much of what I see when searching social media. Like many writers today, social media furnishes an important source of context for me. Whether I am catching up with one of my two Twitter feeds, Facebook, or Instagram, I am astounded by the daily onslaught of inconsistent, hypocritical, and frankly nonsensical, dangerous and angry outbursts.
I can easily identify with that nurse. I am no longer working in the clinical setting so my own professional risk of exposure to COVID-19 is low. But I have dozens (perhaps hundreds) of colleagues who certainly are working every day on the front lines of clinical care, trying to navigate a crisis and cope with a death rate that hasn’t been seen in more than a century while being confronted by the very same nonsense.
So, what am I talking about? I’m referring to comments from uninformed people such as the following statements seen just this week:
You can give someone else my vaccine because I’m not doing it.
Closing the B.C. border is stupid. It’s my constitutional right to travel anywhere I want in this country.
The vaccine has a Nano chip in it. We will lose our security and our privacy.
The vaccines don’t work. They’re dangerous.
In my opinion, these people are representative of the demographic who, while believing that either the pandemic is a conspiracy or they know better than the experts how to survive it, will also demand timely access to elective surgeries and expect our universal health system to pay for absolutely any procedure or treatment that they believe they want or need.
Perhaps the system should communicate some expectations of its own. Perhaps we should all be called to participate by being stewards over our own good health while contributing to healthy environments as a means to ensure appropriate distribution of healthcare resources which by the way are not infinite and are delivered by people risking their lives for us every single day.
Let’s go back in time a bit. In the early 1950’s my aunt was a young Registered Nurse with her entire life ahead of her. She was engaged to be married and working in Ottawa – until she was struck by Polio. She never worked again as an RN and went on to cancel her engagement because she believed she was too much of a burden for any spouse to take on. She continued to work in healthcare as a hospital librarian and research assistant for the remainder of her life while living in a wheelchair with nearly quadriplegic deficits. The Salk vaccine was discovered in 1955. The disease peaked in 1953 with nearly 9,000 cases and 500 deaths (in Canada). By the time I was born, the disease had nearly been eradicated and in 1994 Canada was certified as polio free. I doubt there were many people who would have refused the polio vaccine in those early days after the epidemic. After all, newspapers had been filled with pictures of disabled children and the dreaded ‘iron lung.’
During the golden era in healthcare after the discoveries of various vaccines, polio, smallpox, and tuberculosis were nearly stamped out. Smallpox today has been virtually eliminated. In its day the disease killed one third of people infected and, in the 20th century infected more than 300 million worldwide. In the 1950’s the WHO launched a campaign to eradicate smallpox. The last known naturally occurring case was documented in Somalia in 1966. The virtual elimination of smallpox was seen to be one of the greatest public health achievements in history. However, with the rapid interest in intrigue and conspiracies alongside access to mis-information, pure quackery, inaccurate and explosive stories about the danger of vaccinating against communicable diseases, people with virtually no medical education or comprehensive understanding of biology, the pathophysiology of disease or disease transmission are making decisions that not only put themselves and their families at risk but affect the ability of the health system to do its job which is to protect and save lives.
In the 19th century, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the cause of puerperal fever, a fever that struck women shortly after childbirth and killed countless women and their babies. His discovery? Disease transmission. The solution? Wash your hands. That simple rule by the way was by no means immediately embraced by the medical community. What Semmelweis and others found was that physicians who were performing autopsies on women who succumbed to this disease and then performed examinations on laboring women without having washed their hands, ultimately passed the illness on to other women.
You might gasp in horror. In today’s world, we assume that all health professionals are routinely washing their hands before touching us. But at one time, handwashing or wearing masks was a phenomenon and often laughed at by the medical establishment. But today, with advances made in understanding disease transmission and the value of sterile technique, if you have surgery or dental work your provider is wearing a mask, not to protect them but to protect you! But somehow if we ask the public to participate alongside health professionals in fighting disease transmission by wearing masks, washing hands more frequently, or God forbid limiting our personal freedoms, we cry foul.
So, let’s jump back to COVID-19. As of the date of this writing, there have been 143,328,087 cases of COVID-19 and its variants worldwide. More than 3 million people have died. (See the Coronavirus Resource Center, Johns Hopkins University Medicine website for up to date worldwide statistics.) We know about the relative transmission of this virus. We know that masks reduce spread. That’s not up for debate. It’s a simple fact, a fact that was acknowledged in a poster I recently saw in a store that explained: “When I wear a mask, I’m protecting you; When you’re wearing a mask you’re protecting me.” And yet as recently as yesterday (April 20, 2021) there were people all over Twitter and Facebook ranting about their right not to wear masks.
So, before you search Google or Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter in an effort to find information that merely supports your strategies for achieving freedom from this disease, try asking a trusted health professional. Speak with your family physician. Sit down with a faculty member at one of the university faculties of medicine. Check out the World Health Organization, Alberta Health Services, and the Public Health Agency of Canada. I can assure you those experts are not crackpots and there isn’t a coordinated worldwide conspiracy to limit your freedoms by concocting a fake pandemic or injecting you with a high-tech GPS tracking device. Those experts are helplessly watching people die and doing their best to help YOU and your loved ones to stay alive. They are also hoping that by preventing you from getting COVID-19 or one of its variants, you can avoid being stricken by life long chronic disease. Let’s take some of that misplaced energy and become health system partners. Let’s take action by wearing masks, limiting our movements, washing our hands and rolling up our sleeves for a vaccine. Let’s be accountable for our own health and wellness decisions and let’s trust the real experts to give us the information needed to finally conquer COVID-19.