We Need to Learn to Live With COVID-19

“All of this has happened before, and will happen again.” – Lt. Kara Thrace, aka Starbuck, from the Battlestar Galactica (2004) TV show.

An advantage of being old is that whatever is happening, you have likely seen it, or something like it before. Every so often, society undergoes an upheaval and people have to change behaviours. For those of us who were around in the 1980s, there are some stark parallels to what happened then, and what society must do now in 2020.

The early 1980s were a different time not only for how we lived as a society, but for how medicine was practiced. This was particularly true with how we handled body fluids. As surprising as it may be to some younger readers, there was no such thing as universal body fluid precautions back them. If you had a known blood born illness like hepatitis, then sure, extra precautions were taken. But not for every body. When I was in medical school, there were multiple stories of a particularly nasty vascular surgeon who would squirt blood on trainees during surgery if they got an answer wrong to his questions. Needle prick injuries were routinely ignored. There was not a robust sharps disposal system. In short, it was very different.

A huge shift in society, and medicine, came when reports of a novel virus (sound familiar?) became publicized. This virus was new, deadly, and little was know about it. At first, this strange new illness seemed to only affect gay men. This led to all sorts of additional discrimination against the gay community, and even more ostracization then they were already experiencing. Mainstream media outlets routinely referred to it as “The Gay Plague” which clearly didn’t help matters. This also led to whack job conspiracy theories about its origins, some of which persist to this day.

This strange new illness was, of course, eventually named “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or AIDS and the virus that causes it was identified (Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV). It was recognized that body fluid transmission could spread it and that it was not limited by sexual orientation. We learned it was possible to carry the virus and not have symptoms and you could get it from anyone.

And so, the age of universal blood and body fluid precautions began, and policies around this were implemented in hospitals and other health facilities between 1985-1988.

But there was also a shift in how society responded. Until then, most public service announcements around Sexually Transmitted Disease (like this painfully dated one from 1969) focused simply on encouraging people to get treatment after the fact. And accepting that it was possible for you (yes, sweet innocent you) to get an STD.

AIDS changed all that. Suddenly, an STD could be deadly. Suddenly there was no cure or vaccine. Suddenly, just getting treatment wasn’t an option, and education around prevention was mandatory.

With education, the public took precautions. “No glove, no love” was a popular catchphrase used to promote latex condom use as these were proven to significantly reduce the risk of transmission of STDs (including HIV). Public service announcements shifted to openly talking about prevention.

In short, people and society adapted, and changed behaviours to deal with this new virus.

Today of course, we are faced with a novel new virus, that is clearly deadly and is widely publicized. Little was know about it at the start, and we continue to learn about it. The virus seems to have originated out of China, and this has led to all sorts of anti-Asian racism (including from the President of the United States). There are whack job conspiracy theories about it. As we learn more about the virus, we know asymptomatic spread is possible, and that, yet again, anyone can get it. There is no vaccine (and despite Dr. Fauci’s optimism I’m not holding my breath) and no effective cure.

In response, hospitals and other health facilities are implementing new polices around Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Hospitals are taking extra precautions around elective surgery as the risk of mortality in patients who get COVID19 infections peri-operatively is ridiculously high. In my office I now see patients wearing a mask, eye protection, and surgical scrubs that I immediately remove after my day is done.

And now too, society will be asked to change in response to this most awful virus. The simplest thing to do of course, is to wear masks when you are in an indoor public place, or better yet whenever you leave the house. As mentioned in an earlier blog, one only has to look at Japan where there was poor social distancing, packed public transit and no closure of their famous karaoke bars, but people wore masks, and the number of infections was extremely low. Wearing them also is key to restarting the economy so we can get on with our lives.

Next, we need to accept contact tracing. Aggressive contact tracing in South Korea was largely responsible for their low rates of infection. I was glad to hear that Ontario will be introducing an app to do this. I can already hear the cries of invasion of privacy, but if we are to control this virus, we are going to have to figure out a way to contact trace safely, and protect personal privacy at the same time.

The big difference between the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and COVID19 now is, of course, the economic costs. The economy was never shut down then, and the kind of wholesale level of job loss we are experiencing now in (hopefully) once in a life time.

But if we are to get the economy running (and we must for a whole bunch of reasons, including the fact a good job improves overall health care), then society will need to adapt again. We did it forty years ago, and I believe we can do it again.

I am however, not looking forward to 2060…….