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ScienceFebruary 28, 2020

A practical guide to dealing with the arrival of the coronavirus in New Zealand


There is a surge of cases of the virus outside China. Australia says it expects Covid-19 to turn into a global pandemic. We cannot afford to panic in New Zealand. But we must prepare, writes Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

Update: since publication, Coronavirus has been confirmed as having arrived in NZ. The following is a practical guide covering how we should respond to this news – here is our coverage of the government and ministry of health’s latest on this evolving situation.

It’s now clear to me that the new coronavirus responsible for Covid-19 is starting to get ahead of efforts to contain it. Over the last few days, hundreds of new cases and several deaths have been reported in countries outside of China. It seems incredible really, that in the space of a few weeks a virus we never knew existed is threatening to turn our world upside down.

But let me be really clear: we cannot afford to panic. When we panic, we actively harm our ability to respond to difficult situations. So, let’s stay calm and start preparing. What happens in the months to come is going to depend on how we all behave.

See also: How close are we to a vaccine for Covid-19? 

I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction, but one problem with the apocalyptic books, movies, and shows we all love is that they leave us with the impression that the only way to deal with a world being turned upside down is to grab some weapons, batten down the hatches, and protect our resources from everyone around us.

The reality is, the communities that survive disasters the best are those that work together to share their resources and make sure no one is left out in the cold. In other words, don’t hoard and hide! Instead, be kind.

So, with that in mind, how should we be preparing for when Covid-19 hits our shores?

Start making plans with your household/family/neighbours

Regardless of how healthy you are, how much yoga you do, or how many smoothies you drink, you are going to be susceptible to catching this virus. Whether you would get a mild or serious infection isn’t known, though the data seems to suggest that severity increases with age and if you have other underlying health problems. With that said, we all need to start behaving like we could get infected and not be deluding ourselves that it couldn’t possibly happen to us. Is your will up to date? Does your family know your wishes for end-of-life care? Do you know theirs?

Everyone needs to understand how to minimise the chances of getting infected or infecting others. This means planning how you would self-isolate if needed and being honest with people if you start to experience symptoms. I was horrified to see the clips of Iran’s deputy health minister sweating and coughing his way through press conferences and interviews. It’s now been confirmed he is infected. How many people might he have infected through his actions?

If you experience symptoms, stay away from other people, and call your doctor or healthcare provider rather than turning up at their offices or at the hospital. Remember, your symptoms might be mild, but you could spread the virus to someone else who could end up having a very serious infection, perhaps even dying.

Wash your hands!

Businesses should start planning for how they would cope if their staff couldn’t come to work. Could people work remotely? If you haven’t heard anything from your workplace about this, see if you can start these conversations. I really hope the government is thinking about how they could make emergency funds available to people who can’t afford not to go to work.

Have you thought about how will you cope if you’ve got children and their day-care/school shuts down? Think about having some books, box sets, games, and activities to keep them and you entertained. In some countries, churches have been a hotspot for Covid-19. Has your church discussed how it would minimise the risk of spreading the disease?

Start practising good hand and sneeze/cough hygiene. This virus is mainly spread through droplets being coughed/sneezed onto people and onto surfaces which if people touch, they can then pick up the virus too. Wash your hands a bit more frequently, preferably with soap and water and for at least 20 seconds (sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice), and make sure you dry them well. Always cough and sneeze away from others and into your elbow rather than your hands. Try to be mindful of how many times you touch your face and try not to. Avoid shaking hands with people.

Facemasks are not that useful for preventing infection. Most people don’t wear them properly and tend to fiddle with them which increases their chances of transferring virus particles from their hands to their mouth/nose/eyes. Facemasks can be useful in reducing the amounts of virus-laden droplets spread by someone infected, but if you can’t get hold of any that’s no reason to panic.

Start stocking up your pantry – but no panic-buying, please!

Think about what your family would need for two weeks and if you can start slowly adding a few extra items each time you go shopping. Don’t panic buy and don’t hoard. That leads to shortages. Remember, the name of the game here is not to panic.

You want a pantry full of nutritious things. Think rice, pasta, cereals, grains, beans, lentils, tinned fish, tinned veg and fruit, dried nuts and fruit, stock. Don’t forget about oil and flavourings. Though I can’t stand the stuff, I’ll be adding some powdered milk to my pantry too. I know I said nutritious, but I’m making sure we’ve got some treats. Popcorn, lollies, chocolate, and biscuits all go down well. If you’ve space in the freezer, you might want to consider freezing some meat and bread.

Don’t forget the other essentials

You’ll want to make sure you have bin bags, alcohol-containing hand sanitiser, soap, toilet rolls, paper towels, tissues, and sanitary products, as well as medicine cabinet staples like paracetamol and ibuprofen. If you take prescription medicines, talk to your doctor now about whether you can get some extras. We may well see medicine shortages in the months to come so discuss with your doctor how to deal with this.

Also make sure you’ve got the usual household products like floor and toilet cleaners, multi-surface cleaning sprays, dishwashing liquid or tablets, bleach, cloths, and laundry detergent and softener. These will be particularly important if someone in the house is ill and needs caring for at home. If you have pets, make sure you’ve got everything they need: dry and tinned food, litter, and any medicines they may take. Keep the car filled with petrol if you can.

Keep misinformation in check

There is such a huge amount of misinformation about Covid-19 online – complete nonsense about where the virus came from, and how to treat it. And lots of it is just to get clicks and shares. But it’ll also fuel people’s fear. Think twice before sharing stuff on social media. Be sceptical. Check it using more reliable sources, like the World Health Organisation. Or ask your friendly local scientists!

In summary: prepare, don’t panic. Check-in with your family, friends, and neighbours. Does everyone have what they need? The elderly, single-parent households, those with young kids, and those with limited incomes will be especially vulnerable at times like this so we need to keep an eye out for them. Infectious diseases don’t care who we are. We’re all in this together.

Update: since publication, Coronavirus has been confirmed as having arrived in NZ. The following is a practical guide covering how we should respond to this news – here is our coverage of the government and ministry of health’s latest on this evolving situation.

Keep going!