“We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life. We will, therefore, protect people’s lives, then their livelihoods.”
Nana Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana
28 March 2020
Cleanliness is next to godliness, according to the old saw.
By that metric, I’ve never been so godly. Because I’ve never been so clean.
I shower before every hospital shift. I feverishly fend off microbes at work with slavish devotion to gowns, masks, gloves and goggles. I wash my hands—over and over and over—as if my life depends on it (it does). Palms, backs of hands, fingers, thumbs, fingernails, wrists—rub, rub, rub, while I mutter the Happy Birthday song twice from beginning to end.
After I get home from the hospital I strip down to my undies in my garage. (I forgot to close the garage door yesterday, unfortunately: my elderly neighbour caught an eyeful as she tottered by on the sidewalk with her dog—that she didn’t immediately suffer a massive coronary is one of life’s small miracles).
I tiptoe into my house in my underwear, dump my hospital-contaminated clothing into the washing machine for sanitizing, and evade four giggling kids and two happy dogs as I make a beeline for another long, hot shower.
It’s a routine many of my colleagues will relate to these days, as we try to survive the COVID-19 pandemic despite wallowing in virus as we attend to patients.
Not all doctors will survive.
An ominous portent was established early in the COVID-19 outbreak by Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor first to publicly sound the alarm about the novel coronavirus; for his efforts he was sharply reprimanded by Chinese authorities. Dr. Li died from the virus on February 7; he was soon joined in China’s overwhelmed crematoria by a number of his colleagues.
The same somber tale is being written in other countries. Earlier this week, for instance, amidst the unfolding catastrophe in New York City, the virus snuffed out the life of renowned neurosurgeon Dr. James Goodrich.
Italy is, to date, the worst impacted jurisdiction, by far—more than seventy doctors in Italy have succumbed to COVID-19.
To be clear, it’s not just doctors who are in peril. Everyone serving at the front is at heightened risk: janitors, nurses, paramedics, respiratory technicians, clerical staff, and so on.
I’ve decided to ditch the Happy Birthday jingle that accompanies my handwashing routine. Eye of the Tiger seems better suited to the grim battle at hand.
An eerie calm has descended upon emergency departments in Alberta. Emergency room volumes have dropped dramatically because (most) citizens are obediently hunkering down at home. Less children are getting sick because they’re not swapping cooties at school. Skiing accidents, hockey injuries, and the like have dropped to zero. No one is falling from monkey bars—city playgrounds are closed. There’s less trauma all around: less car accidents, less construction mishaps, less bar fights.
But the calm is about to be shattered as COVID-19 launches a full frontal assault on Albertans.
Already COVID-positive adults are seeping into emergency departments, coughing and short of breath. Intensive care beds are beginning to fill. Albertans have begun to die from the virus. The first victim passed away on March 19; as of yesterday, April 3, the number of dead stood at 18—a doubling interval of (approximately) every four days.
The seepage will quickly become a tsunami. We will soon be overwhelmed by the sick and dying. If the present rate of doubling continues unchecked, roughly 2000 Albertans will have died from COVID-19 by the end of April.
Excruciatingly difficult days lie directly ahead. Sorrow and fear will be our frequent companions.
But not all is darkness. The night will be long, but the sun will rise on the other side.
And we have heroes to inspire us, to brighten our way as we head into the gloom.
A few shining examples:
Bruce Urban, owner of Western RV Country in Calgary, has pledged to park an RV in the driveway of every front-line medical worker who becomes COVID-positive, so that they can isolate from their families while remaining close to those they love.
Medical students, their education rudely interrupted by the pandemic, have banded together across the country to offer child care and pet care services so that doctors can go to work.
Jeremy Hedges, president of 3-D printing company Inksmith, rapidly re-purposed his factory’s laser-cutters to mass-produce protective facial shields for health care workers. His company will soon manufacture enough face shields to meet the needs of every hospital in Canada.
Sadly, this crisis has also generated zeros—people who are getting in the way, people who are making this worse; people who still refuse to observe the social distancing guidelines that are key to slowing the spread of this virus; people who hoard hand-hygiene products and face masks desperately needed by health care workers; people who despicably attempt to turn a quick profit by reselling hoarded supplies at exorbitant prices online.
But the biggest zero, in Alberta at least, is Health Minister Tyler Shandro, a man who chose—in the face of the greatest health crisis we will ever see—not to lead, not to inspire, but to pick a fight with doctors.
At a time when doctors are labouring tirelessly to save the lives of patients while putting their personal safety and the safety of their families at risk, Mr. Shandro rammed through draconian cuts which put the viability of those doctors’ medical practices on life support—and put the safety of all Albertans at risk.
Mr. Shandro is like a fire chief, utterly dependent on a band of top-notch firefighters to put out a raging inferno, who chokes off the fire hose supplying the critical water needed to douse the fire.
His actions are beneath contempt. History will judge him and his government harshly.
For Alberta’s beleaguered doctors, shandemic has become synonymous with pandemic .
But I don’t want to focus on the wretched Mr. Shandro and his shameful behaviour today.
I don’t want to focus on zeros.
I don’t want to focus on hoarders, profiteers, and self-interested politicians.
I prefer to focus on heroes.
I prefer to focus on Bruce Urban; on Jeremy Hedges; on those self-sacrificing medical students; and on so many like them who have set the bar for us all. I prefer to hold them high as beacons for the dark days ahead.
I prefer to let them inspire us to be heroes of the sort described by Arthur Ashe:
True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever the cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.
Let us serve each other.
And remember: unlike cleanliness, heroism is next to godliness.