It’s a scene from everyday life. I go to the tank station and pay at the till. The cashier is not wearing a face mask but both his hands are covered with black gloves that I presume to be disposable. He hands me the receipt and, without changing his gloves, attends to the next customer. Recent studies having shown that the coronavirus can survive on surfaces for hours, it is quite possible that the cashier has protected himself, but not his customers.
I have always found this strange – the sight of vendors wearing disposable gloves to hand you what you have just bought, accepting cash payment using the same gloves, and giving you back loose change. As if viruses somehow disappear from the outer surface of your hands just because you are wearing gloves.
The behaviour of the man at the tank station follows the same egoism as the behaviour of all those wearing face masks in the street, and those clearing the supermarket shelves. It results in a nurse coming out of a 48-hour shift in an overcrowded hospital, not finding food. It causes retailers not being able to deliver the face masks and hand gel I use, forcing me to stop treating patients in need of dental care. In goes without saying that, following advice from the Dutch dental association, I would have stopped anyway, with or without face masks and hand gel.
It’s pretty obvious that stock piling food and toilet paper is as egoistic and amoral as wearing a face mask you don’t need. I would be interested to find out if the same people who buy three weeks worth of canned baked beans, also buy three weeks worth of toilet paper because, if that were the case, one action could possibly explain the other.
For those wearing face masks whilst not being ill, not only are they acting in a selfish manner that is also stupid because unnecessary, they are also doing the health service a disfavour. Whereas I won’t cause much inconvenience by delaying dental check-ups for a few weeks, the chronic shortage of face masks not only in hospitals, but also for GP’s, is really becoming a problem.
The latest figures for the Netherlands show that 3631 people have been tested positive for COVID-19. On 20th March, the official figure for the number of infected hospital workers was 725. A big problem in the Netherlands, and elsewhere, is the potential shortage of intensive care facilities, comprising beds and ventilators. But if the present trend continues, an even bigger problem may be the chronic shortage of hospital staff fit enough to work around the clock.
The solidarity that is being shown in response to the greatest public health problem most of us have faced, is not to be underestimated. Initiatives are being set up in order to help those who are in need. The population is, on the whole, listening to and acting on, government advice and decisions. Governments have suddenly found the money to help us all in our efforts of solidarity towards others by financially supporting the effects of self-isolating. And even the EU has temporarily suspended the need for its Member States to remain within the public deficit limit of 3%.
But let us not kid ourselves. You only have to see the way so many Italians have fled the infected north of the country to the relative health of the south, to realise that this solidarity is tinged with the acrid smell of fear. It is the fear of something so minute, somewhere between life and nothingness, that is threatening to tear apart our way of life.