It's hard to dismiss global pandemics as a rare event, especially considering there were 3 outbreaks in the past 20 years alone. With the increase in globalisation and travel, new diseases are spreading faster and are becoming harder to contain even with tough quarantine measures. As we've seen with the COVID-19 coronavirus, the fast infection rate has caused massive government responses, shutdowns of entire cities in attempts to contain the infection and a race to find a cure. But what should people do if they want to decrease their risk of infection from global pandemics? Below, we outline 4 ways to improve your chances of staying healthy during global health emergency crises, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example.
Understanding the Virus is Key to Prevention
If you don't know how a virus is spread, then the chances are high that you won't be able to properly protect yourself. To combat this, we recommend doing research on the virus and noting how similar viruses were handled in the past. For instance, we know that coronaviruses like COVID-19 are part of a zoonotic family of viruses that include SARS and MERS. They originate in animals and cause mild to severe respiratory symptoms when transmitted to humans. These viruses are spread via respiratory droplets between people in close contact with each other—typically defined as a distance of around 6 feet (1.8 metres). The highest chance of infection occurs when an infected person sneezes or coughs, as the expelled droplets become airborne and can enter another person's respiratory system through the mouth or nose. Coronavirus pathogens may also remain infectious on surfaces for a small amount of time, although it is still unknown how long the COVID-19 virus can live without its host. Asymptomatic transmission (transmission via people who are not exhibiting symptoms) is still being looked at as a driver of the spread, although most cases of infection indicate that the infected person had exhibited at least mild symptoms when passing the infection on to others.
Coronavirus Pandemics in the 21st Century
|First Outbreak Date
|^ As of February 14th, 2020
So now that the nature of the virus is understood, what should be done to reduce the risk of infection during an active pandemic? Since coronaviruses are spread person to person and are similar to typical respiratory illnesses like the flu or common cold, the best action would be to avoid contact with people exhibiting symptoms. However, since that is hardly realistic in a densely populated city, the next best thing is to wash your hands often, avoid touching your face and sanitise your home and work area (including your phone). The efficacy of wearing standard surgical masks as a protective measure is still debatable since the virus is small enough to pass through them. However, people who are exhibiting symptoms should still wear masks as it can help reduce the spread of infection to other people.
Decrease Stress and Focus on Long-Term Health to Reduce Risk
As global pandemics come and go, it is important to think about how your body may respond to future outbreaks. In most cases, coronaviruses will only cause mild to moderate upper respiratory infections in healthy adults, akin to a bad cold. However, coronavirus strains like SARS, MERS & COVID-19 can be severe for certain groups of people, such as the elderly and people with underlying illnesses.
Focusing on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and decreasing chronic stress levels may aid in keeping your body primed to fight infections. This can be done by eating a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep and exercise, quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake. You should also get regular check-ups to catch chronic conditions in their early stages when it's still possible to reverse the damage. Reducing stress is hard in fast-paced and expensive cities like Singapore, but it's necessary to keep your immune system functioning properly and reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as hypertension and heart disease. To actively de-stress, you can increase your activity levels, take up a yoga or meditation class, and improve your social relationships. You should also focus on controlling your breathing during moments of acute stress and remember to take small breaks when things become overwhelming.
Avoid Risky Areas When Travelling During Active Epidemics
When a global pandemic happens, cities that are at the epicenter of the outbreak are usually quarantined, making them virtually inaccessible to travellers. However, if you have to travel during an active pandemic, there are several ways you can protect yourself even in riskier areas. If you know where and how the outbreak began, then you should do your best to avoid those areas. For instance, the prevailing hypothesis for COVID-19 is that it began at a wildlife market, so travellers should avoid places where wildlife is in close contact with humans in a non-regulated environment. Once at your destination, you should stay aware of developing news to see which areas are being quarantined. If you are caught in a city that is showing the first signs of an outbreak, you should avoid large crowds until you can get to a safer destination. You should also note the risk of infection when flying. Once back home, you should consider getting a check-up to rule out the infection, as there is an asymptomatic incubation period.
If you haven't departed on your trip and you find out about an outbreak at your destination, you may be able to cancel your trip and get reimbursed by your airline or hotel. Alternatively, you could get reimbursed via your travel insurance policy. However, you should be aware of any updates provided by the insurer, especially if you waited until the last minute to buy a plan. If you bought a travel insurance policy after an event like a pandemic becomes public knowledge and government warnings are issued, insurers typically won't cover any related claims.
Knowing Your Health Coverage is Crucial in Preventing Large Bills
Sometimes you can do everything right and still get sick. Because of this, it is important to have a good health insurance plan that can cover you if you need to get treatment. Viruses that are transmitted person to person can mean higher risk of infection in close quarters, including hospitals. This means you may want to get consider a plan that provides full coverage for wards that are more private. For instance, increasing your coverage from a B1 ward, which has 4 beds per room, to an A ward, which has 1 person per room, only costs an average of S$17 more dollars per month. Furthermore, you should also be sure that your health insurance will cover you fully for hospitalisation and ICU treatment, since novel viruses may need longer treatment and observation periods. Singaporeans who work abroad and expats who don't qualify for MediShield and don't have company-sponsored coverage should look into getting an international health insurance plan.
What to Do If You Are Exhibiting Symptoms
Symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to SARS and MERS, which includes fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. Some patients also exhibited sore throats and headaches. If you are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, you should seek medical attention immediately. If your symptoms are mild but you have been in an area where an outbreak was detected, you should consider getting checked as a precaution. To avoid infecting your fellow citizens, you should stay inside and don't go to work, to the park or any places where you can infect other people. The COVID-19 virus has a basic reproduction number of 2.2 people, so even letting out a small cough means you can spread the infection to 2 other people who are close to you.
Serious cases of the disease will require hospitalisation but mild cases can be treated at home with quarantine protections in place. Since there is no cure or vaccine as of now, the focus lies on alleviating the symptoms and reducing the risk of infecting others. According to the World Health Organization's (WHO) home care guide, this includes staying in a well-ventilated room, washing your hands often, limiting your contact with family members and wearing a medical mask that is thrown out after each use. You should also clean and disinfect common areas like bathrooms and kitchens and avoid exposing others to shared utensils and toothbrushes.
Things to Keep in Mind During Global Health Crises
It's scary to see a small outbreak become a global health emergency in a matter of weeks. Our self-preservation instinct further makes us fearful of anything related to the illness. However, it is important to stay respectful and avoid making pariahs out of the affected people or nations. No one goes through life with the mindset of getting ill or spreading disease to thousands of people. Understanding that can keep you sympathetic and help you focus on keeping yourself and your loved ones healthy rather than ostracizing people and pointing fingers. If you want to keep yourself isolated, reduce contact with others or wear something that makes yourself feel safer, then do so respectfully. Lastly, it may help to put things in perspective. While pandemics are scary to read about, the common flu kills thousands more people per year than the current coronavirus.