Covid-19 is now officially a pandemic: Here’s what you need to do about it.

Opinion: It is not a time for panic. It is, however, a time to draw up a pandemic preparedness plan. Not sure where to begin? Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles explains.

Now that Covid-19 has officially been declared a pandemic by the WHO, it’s time for us all to make a pandemic preparedness plan.

As I explained earlier this week, there are several phases to an epidemic. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we are one of a dwindling number of countries that is managing to keep the COVID-19 coronavirus out. We could stay like this for the foreseeable future. Or we could find ourselves on the path to an outbreak next week. What that path looks like depends on all of us.

I’ve said if before and I’ll say it again: we cannot afford to panic. Instead we need to stay calm and start preparing.

And that’s where a pandemic preparedness plan comes in. The great thing about making a plan now is that you can give it a test drive before you actually need it. That way you’ll find any flaws and be able to fix them.

A few days ago I drew up a pandemic preparedness plan for my lab. I recommend every household as well as every company, charity, business and other organisation make their own plan. It’ll help us all play our part to stop the spread when COVID-19 arrives for real.

Pick a ‘pandemic pal’

Get a ‘pandemic pal’, especially if you live by yourself. This will be the person you keep in daily contact with. Make a plan for how you will deliver food and medicines to each other if needed. If either of you gets sick, check in twice a day. Make sure you have back up plans for the care of children, pets, and anyone who may need extra help should you become unwell.

Minimise your chances of getting sick

Here’s something we can all start practising now: no more handshakes, hugs, or hongis for the time being. Instead, do an elbow or foot bump. It’ll feel really weird at first.

Regularly and thoroughly wash your hands after you’ve touched shared surfaces, especially before eating, and avoid touching your face. This coronavirus will likely be able to survive for hours to days as tiny droplets on surfaces, which we may inadvertently touch. Then, when we touch our mouth, nose, or eyes, we can infect ourselves. So, wash hands for 20-30 seconds (the internet is full of good ideas for songs you can sing to pass the time) and make sure to dry them thoroughly.

If you work in a shared space or you have to hotdesk, consider working from home if you can. If that’s not an option, or you are out in public, strive not to touch things with your fingers. You could try using your knuckles for flicking light switches and pressing lift buttons. Try pushing doors open with your hips rather than your hands. Use your sleeve to pull doors open.

If you are an organisation where people hotdesk, spaces should be properly cleaned after each person has finished using the space. Here’s some advice on how to get rid of coronaviruses from surfaces. All businesses should be thinking about the possible ways people could contract COVID-19 at their workplace and what precautions they could put in place when needed. For example, cosmetic company Sephora have announced they won’t be offering custom makeovers in store. This is because of the potential risk of transferring the virus from person-to-person via their makeup or brushes and sponges.

Stay home if you are sick

Your plan should have clear instructions for what to do if people have any symptoms, even if they are mild. It’s quite simple really. If anyone experiences any coughing, shortness of breath, fever, tiredness, feeling achy, sore throat, or runny/sniffly nose, they should stay at home. This will help to minimise the spread of Covid-19. What we want to avoid is something like the person in Tasmania who went to work while awaiting the results of his Covid-19 test. It was positive. He works in the hospitality industry. Now authorities are wasting valuable time and resources trying to trace all the people he had close contact with so they can be isolated.

If you do have symptoms, and you are worried, call Healthline on 0800 358 5453. But remember, most people will get over Covid-19 without needing to go to hospital. Do not just rock up at your GP’s surgery or the hospital without calling ahead. We cannot afford for healthcare workers to be in isolation because they have been unnecessarily exposed to Covid-19.

Households should be preparing for how they will cope if isolated or ill. Organisations should be planning for how they could continue to function if key people were ill, isolated at home, or if all businesses were instructed to close.

Organisations should also be discussing how they can ensure that workers who are ill stay at home. What sick pay do you offer? If you are a large company with deep pockets, now is the time to treat your staff well. For everyone else, I’m hoping the government will step in and announce how they will support people. If we ever needed proof that a universal basic income was a good idea and tax cuts a bad idea, I think we’ve found it.

In summary: make a plan. You don’t even need to start from scratch. Test it out. Check-in with your family, friends, and neighbours. Does everyone have a plan? Do they have what they need? How we get through the months ahead will depend on all of us.

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles is a microbiologist who knows a lot about bacteria, viruses and infectious diseases. She is based in the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology, located within the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences' School of Medical Sciences.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from The Spinoff, COVID-19 is now officially a pandemic. Here’s what you need to do about it, 13 March 2020.

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