COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus, you can’t tune into any media outlet without hearing all about it. It's a big deal.
I traveled back to Lima yesterday and expected the airports to be lighter and travelers to be a bit more cautious. Atlanta-Hartsfield, one of the busiest airports in the world, was packed. Although I did see more people with face masks, the numbers weren’t outrageous; there were, however, a ton of travelers.
What was surprising was how much people are openly discussing their fears and concerns. I overheard conversation after conversation. People are afraid, and this fear seems to be close to pushing into a bit of panic.
I get it. This is a novel, by definition new, strain of the coronavirus (remember – coronavirus is the same family of virus that cause the common cold). The vast majority of our immune systems have not been exposed to this new strain of the coronavirus; and, therefore, we don’t have built-up immunity. I also get there is a great deal of information coming out in the media that seems contradictory.
The reality - this will get much worse before it gets better. There will be a lot more infections, and unfortunately more fatalities. However, the novel coronavirus “pandemic” is also a great wake-up call for organizing and mobilizing public health efforts. Those of us in public health and global health to use this challenge as an opportunity to assure we are prepared.
We are getting information to all of our programs. Our in-country teams are meeting with our staff to talk about the facts of the virus and help them craft messages for families enrolled in our programs or for the children in our care.
Were also telling volunteers who may be preparing to join us for a service-learning trip to expect the best and prepare a contingency plan. This means getting trip insurance. If for nothing else, it will give you peace of mind if you need to postpone or cancel your trip.
It also means making sure you have a recent influenzae vaccine (and pneumococcal vaccine if age or condition appropriate). It means talking with your physician or medical professional to see if they encourage you to get any other vaccinations before coming on your trip. And, it means taking all the same precautious we always do – getting plenty of rest, covering our cough with our elbow or arm (and not our hand), avoiding touching our mucous membranes (eyes, nose, and mouth), drinking lots of fluids (hydrated cells = better immune function), washing hands frequently (and correctly), and taking time to recover should one of us get sick.
As for masks, there is little data on the effectiveness for otherwise healthy – non-ill, non-infected – people. If your immunocompromised, on medications that decrease immune activity, or sick yourself – masks seem to be a good bet. Check out the CDCs website for up-to-date evidence-based information: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/prevention-treatment.html
We are also actively thinking through how to support the communities we work with, many of whom live in deep experiences of poverty. How can we support them to best prepare for an outbreak? There is so much discussion in public health circles about preparation – and, there is very little discussion focused on helping low- and middle-income countries best prepare. The reality for places like Perú – people living in cities, people living in upper socio-economic structures – these folks are going to be fine. However, for people who are chronically malnourished, under fed, living under a great deal of stress from the overwhelming pressure of living in the experience of poverty . . . they are most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 infection. They are also the people who are most fractured from receiving evidence-based healthcare.
This is our plan: We are talking with volunteers and staff every day. We are working on an approach that will best support us to be a bridge for the communities that we serve – when the novel coronavirus hits their communities. And, we are taking the same precautious we always do.
The HBI Blog is a rotating journal from our staff. Our Blog is a series of messages from the field, insights from our work, and lessons in service.