Pandemic prepping

There’s nothing like a health crisis to liven up the news week, apparently. The entire world is bracing itself for…. well, no one is really sure, but if the television and Internet are right, we all need to prepare for the fall-out of the coronavirus.

My friend in the northeastern United States sent me pictures of the shelves at her local Costco. Toilet paper was sold out, bleach wipes were sold out, and there was a five-case limit on water (which was also sold out). And at the time, there wasn’t a confirmed case of coronavirus for 100 miles of her.

Someone yesterday told me that hand sanitizer was scarce at stores in the Strait area (this isn’t confirmed, but it speaks to the kind of information circulating). I was at a store myself this week and heard someone ask an employee if they sold surgical masks.

Although the demand for supplies is leaving many looking for infection protection empty-handed, that hasn’t stopped people from improvising. While watching the evening news out of Toronto, I noticed several background pedestrians walking down the street with what looked like scarves or bandanas over their noses and mouths, a form of insurance, in their minds, against inhaling someone else’s coronavirus germs.

This is where we’re at in terms of public perception about the virus.

In case you haven’t kept up with news, the respiratory illness COVID-19 is considered a pandemic, one that has spread beyond the initial cases in China to dozens of countries around the globe, killed several thousand people to date, and sent stock markets into a free fall. Our natural reaction is to protect ourselves with what we can – surgical gloves, disinfectant sprays, face masks, things like that.

The frenzy to take preventative health measures, particularly the demand for masks, is reminiscent of pre-hurricane behaviour in Atlantic Canada, when, usually at the last minute, everyone and their dog feels the need to stock up on a month’s worth of plywood, water, bread, and batteries.

I guess I should’ve seen the mask hysteria coming weeks ago, when I was watching a newscast out of British Columbia and noticed an army of face mask-wearing passengers pictured at the Vancouver airport. At the time, the virus was a health problem in a different part of the world about which I would likely never have to worry. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. hadn’t yet announced that infections in North America were inevitable. Seeing the Vancouver crowd seemed a bit much, and at the time I chalked it up to alarmist overreaction. Now, people in masks is becoming a regular sight, all over the world.

If health officials in Canada and the United States are right, however, wearing a face mask won’t necessarily keep you from contracting COVID-19 (or anything else, for that matter). The CDC doesn’t even recommend them for sick people or caregivers of coronavirus patients, explaining that it’s better to keep at least six feet away from others, wash your hands consistently for at least 20 seconds, and cover your nose and mouth if you cough or sneeze. You can stay home, too, the most effective tool of all.

The reason the masks don’t work (at least according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta who explained it on CNN, so take it for what it’s worth) is because airborne virus particles can float in around the edges of the mask. I read that even N95 respirator masks only filter out 95 per cent of microscopic germs.

What fascinates me about this mask mania, though, is how humans have taken the edge off an otherwise-worrisome topic. Face masks have now become fashion statements.

Mixed in with the news stories about the effects of the deadly virus, are tales of people making the best of a bad situation. The front office staff at one hospital wore decorated masks – one with a painted-on handlebar mustache, another with huge, fire engine-red lips. In a stressful time, I’m sure their efforts to lighten the mood have put many patients at ease.

Not to be outdone, a designer showcased hounds tooth and lace masks at Paris Fashion Week, where now they’re considered “a must-have accessory” and “are poised to become the next major wellness trend” thanks to “our increasingly apocalyptic world.”

Normally, I’d roll my eyes at such nonsense, but instead I’ve come to value a sense of humour about these types of things. If you’re gonna go down, might as well look good doing it in a couture surgical mask, as they say.