Hazel McHaffie

World Health Organisation

Coronavirus – keeping calm in a crisis

Remember that feeling when you come out of the cinema from a film, set in the wild deserted, snowy wastes of perpetual winter, and the sun is shining and people are milling? Disorientated. Discombubulated. It takes a moment for the world to steady on its axis. As a writer of fiction, I’m well used to that sense of hovering between reality and fantasy. But now it’s not just a sense – it’s for real. And we’re ALL experiencing it – every hour, every day. The greatest public health emergency of our generation. And it’s worldwide.

As a country, this week we’ve officially moved from the ‘containment’ phase of this new and spreading Covid-19 virus, into ‘delay’; desperately trying to keep demand within the capacity of our health services. On Monday things ratcheted up hugely. We’re now avoiding all unnecessary travel and social contact. My generation are deemed extra vulnerable and a protected species! … but we ALL have to take unprecedented decisions and actions.

© Can Stock Photo / nasir1614

Sound information is always key to good decision-making, but there’s so much out there, a lot of it hard to take in, sometimes even conflicting. Initially the official cautious approach of our Government was at odds with the advice of many scientists and the WHO who were looking for more draconian measures sooner. That felt troubling. Who were we to believe? For me, uncertainty was much more stressful than the fear of the illness itself. So I welcomed clearer instruction on Monday: I could now, with a clear conscience, cancel the week’s planned travel and social encounters, and prepare for a long period of increasing social isolation.

So, reviewing the situation thus far, with my ethical hat on, what influences or persuades me, and enables me to make an informed choice? Facts. Consistency. Authoritative voices. Transparency – being shown the workings behind the advice. Quiet expertise.

A concrete example: my personal opinion of the Prime Minister notwithstanding, I’ve been heartened to see him flanked by experts of undisputed scientific and medical pedigree, who add gravitas and authority to the messages given to guide us all in dealing with this ongoing and escalating crisis. Professor Chris Whitty is the Chief Medical Officer for England; Professor Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government – both men with yards of qualifications and credentials and experience. But best of all, speaking in a measured, calm and quietly dignified manner. In simple words we can all understand. It takes someone with real expertise and confidence to convey the facts in comprehensible lay terms without obfuscation or bombast, to remain unflappable in the face of challenge.

When, early on, Professor Whitty observed that rushing into panic mode and isolating ourselves prematurely was unwise, enthusiasm would wane, fatigue and non-compliance would set in, and the psychological as well as the practical consequences could be far more detrimental, I let my breath out gently. Here was a chap who understood human nature. Understood not only the epidemiological and medical aspects of the epidemic, the immensely complicated world of microbiology and disease transmission, but the lived reality of everyday Joe/Jane Bloggs. Against the bluff and bluster and pomposity that can so easily characterise people regurgitating secondhand facts and figures, these modest understated men defuse the panic. So when they tell us that THE most important thing is hand-washing and containment of nasal spray and distancing measures, we can all personally identify with such ordinary domestic strategies; we each and every one have a vital role to play in this global war effort. When they tell us that the time has now come to introduce more stringent isolation measures to save lives and reduce the burden on our front line emergency services, we can comprehend and accept the need. When they admit it will be really difficult and it will go on for a long time, we know they understand the consequences, they are in this with us.

© Can Stock Photo / coraMax

But my heart goes out to them, and all other ‘leaders’ who are called upon to make major judgements on behalf of their people/teams/dependents/clients/delegates/fans. My own personal sphere of influence is microscopic by comparison with that of these men, but nevertheless I feel the weight of responsibility. Just what is the wise and sensible choice? The devil is indeed in the detail. So, huge thanks to everyone who is doing their level best to steer us through these unchartered waters. And hats off to the countless unknowns who are quietly and effectively providing acts of kindness to cheer and support those in most need. Already this unprecedented crisis has brought out the best in people.

I rather like this apposite and quietly dignified quote from the Talmud: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’


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Heads above the parapet

Two things to report this week: both related to author appearances.

The first was a salutary lesson to me. I discovered quite by chance, and after the event, that a reporter had slipped incognito into one of the sessions I was doing and published a lengthy report of it! Phew. Over my Dead BodyHad I known, I’d have been super-conscious of what I was saying, but I had no idea. I thought I was talking unscripted to a lovely group of book lovers in a public library on a beautiful sunny Wednesday evening about my latest novel and the issues it raises. They all seemed fully engaged with what I was talking about, and asked some very relevant questions. I simply responded to these and their non-verbal cues.

So it was a bit of a shock to find a pretty full account of what we’d talked about in The Edinburgh Reporter! A few comments have been given an emphasis or slant that I certainly didn’t intend, and hope I didn’t say quite like that, but hey, I’m impressed that the reporter gave our quite low key event so much space.

Then, this past weekend, I was one of four authors invited to take part in a Readers’ Day in North Ayrshire. We were each asked to select two books – one of our own and one other – to discuss in workshops. My choice was Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a brilliant novel about Alice Howland, a Harvard Professor of Neurolinguistics, who gradually loses her sense of self through Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease when she’s in her late 40s.

My choice of bookWhy did I chose this? Because it’s a brilliant book which takes you inside the skin of this character and her condition. Because I work with people with dementia, so it’s a topic near to my heart. Because I’ve written on the subject myself (Remember Remember). Because I love a book that challenges me to think about important issues. Because I personally identify in many ways with both the author and her principal character, Alice. Enough reasons for my choice, huh?

By chance, dementia has been making headline news again this week too, so I felt it was doubly appropriate … not that the issue is going to go away any day soon, of course.

As we get better and better at curing illnesses, and health and life-expectancy improve, so the number of people contracting this particular set of diseases which affect the brain, memory and behaviour, grows. However, it’s a sobering fact that global spending in this area is five times below the level allocated to the field of cancer. It’s also a fact that many people now fear getting dementia more than they dread a diagnosis of cancer.

You’ll probably remember that last December, the G8 summit advocated a concerted global attempt to combat this growing scourge – in a nutshell, more spending and better coordination in order to find effective treatments. Common sense really. They drew attention to the horrific statistics at the time: approximately 44 million people currently suffering from it; a new case every four seconds; a global cost of 440 billion euros. A predicted increase to 135 million by 2050 (according to The Alzheimer’s Disease International Federation); numbers doubling every two decades (according to The World Health Organisation). The G8 pledged to find a cure by 2025. Bring it on!

Sands of timeAnd this week we’ve heard more of the same here in the UK: the government’s hopes, plans and deadlines for action – increasing investment in research, developing new drugs, giving early access to medication and innovative new treatments, world-wide pooling of resources.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if people in their forties today – the prime minister, my children, their generation – loved members of families, with bright todays, and promising futures … people like Alice – could be spared the horrors of losing touch with themselves and their memories? Maybe books like Still Alice ought to be compulsory reading for anyone in a position to do something to further this aim; to remind them of the human impact of dementia. Hey, maybe we need readers’ workshops at an altogether higher level!


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