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The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc worldwide since its initial identification in Wuhan, China earlier this year. As of now, almost 330,000 people have become infected. The threat is real, and the lessons that we all learn throughout this ordeal need to be remembered. Concerns about the global food supply, local hygiene practices, social distancing and our interdependence are hard lessons to learn, but necessary.
We should all be concerned about our global food supply. The outbreak was traced to a “wet market” in China selling fresh meat, fish and produce. The sale of certain types of animal-based food products is thought to be the likely source.
This outbreak could have also occurred in other places where the same type of wet markets exist. Animal products around the world are sold in a variety of venues and many of these do not follow optimal sanitary guidelines.
It’s critically important that these possible dangers be identified and mitigated as much as possible within the cultural context of the local community. This starts with education about possible infections, and protective measures taken to prevent the spread of disease.
In the next five years, India set a goal of creating 111 million latrines to reduce open areas used as bathrooms, potentially infecting the water supply or causing other unsanitary situations. In Africa, there are still places where clean water does not exist. Although we may think of these places as too far removed to worry about, infections can spread to our communities, and with modern travel, to our homes as well.
What happens in other countries does have a direct impact on everyone. The infection from Wuhan has travelled around the globe within months and is not yet finished. Everyone has a vested interest in making sure that people around the world have access to clean water and practice basic hygiene to protect the entire planet.
We’ve always known it’s important to keep hands free of germs, but now it’s a matter of saving lives.
Civil Beat/Stewart Yerton
Hygienic practices are not just for communities, they’re also for each and every one of us. Hand sanitizers are nowhere to be found these days. Even soap is difficult to come by. Instructions on proper hand-washing etiquette are everywhere online, and people are starting to really notice if they have been careful enough with touching their face or other places where germs might be transmitted. Patients are wearing face masks if they are coughing, and many are staying home if they are sick. These are not new recommendations but with the fear of the coronavirus spreading, people are now on heightened alert to make sure they follow these basic, simple practices.
Although people may underestimate the effect of hand-washing, it is one of the only ways to prevent the spread of many different infections, including influenza, diarrheal illnesses, the common cold and COVID-19.
Covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing is another mechanism to prevent the airborne spread of disease. People are less likely to sneeze in public without being mindful of covering their mouths and noses than ever before. In the past, this might be common sense, but these days one sneeze gets everyone’s attention.
Most importantly, for everyone who feels that their actions won’t make a difference, consider the reports documenting how many people need to be tested when only one person is diagnosed with COVID-19.
Social distancing is another lesson that we can all learn from the COVID-19 spread. The recommended distance of at least 6 feet corresponds to the average distance airborne infections can travel, but isn’t exact. However, being in close quarters or spending time in a group has always been a potential risk, and now people are realizing that one person with a contagious illness can be the source for many others.
It’s not new to restrict people from going to social events when they are sick. These group gatherings are restricted for a reason — to help slow the propagation of the virus and hopefully prevent those at risk from getting sick.
Most importantly, for everyone who feels that their actions won’t make a difference, consider the reports documenting how many people need to be tested when only one person is diagnosed with COVID-19. If people were to think of all the individuals they came close to in the past two to three days, the list might be very long, especially for those in the tourism industry.
People from all over the world come to Hawaii on vacation. Some are sick when they come and don’t know it or find out they have been exposed once here. It only takes one person to get that infection and bring it home, inadvertently infecting their loved ones and starting the spread in a school, nursing home or an entire community.
Everyone counts when it comes to infection prevention. Every time people wash their hands, they decrease the likelihood of spreading the virus. Everything we do here in the U.S. directly impacts other nations, and vice versa.
We are not the only country affected by this outbreak, the entire world is on watch. For this moment in time, all of humanity is focused on a single mission. We can learn from one another’s experience and do everything we can to keep every one of us safe.
Lives depend on it.
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Kathleen Kozak, M.D., is an internal medicine physician at Straub Clinic and Hospital. She is also a part-time medical director for UHA Health Insurance and is the host of “The Body Show” on Hawaii Public Radio.