It used to be acceptable to go to work or travel with a cough or the flu. That’s been changing over the last 10-20 years, and people who cough and sniffle in public are increasingly treated like people who smoke in the same places. Good.
But now the stigma of being sick in public is even worse:
Let’s be clear – if we manage this well (and we will) Ebola will be tightly contained in almost all countries. Managing well means contact-tracking, where everyone who comes into contact with an infected person is tracked, quarantined and cared for until they are deemed safe. This is the standard technique to prevent diseases taking over, and it was also used to slow the spread of HIV. Unlike HIV, which was always contagious, and even when no symptoms were evident, Ebola is only contagious for a limited time, and only when the patient is obviously sick. So Ebola is inherently easier to manage and scaremongering aside we will all move on.
How do we know? Well if Nigeria can do it, we all can.
But even under a well managed regime it’s still going to be very awkward to be visibly sick in public places in the next while. Here’s how I see it right now. Do you agree?
- It’s not acceptable to go to kindergarten or school when ill. The virus will spread and one family’s inconvenience becomes magnified by a classroom and their families.
- It’s almost completely unacceptable [fixed typo] to go to work when ill. The virus will spread and one person’s brave “work at any costs” attitude can remove tens of others from work.
- It’s becoming unacceptable to fly or be on public transport when ill. We are in very close proximity to each other and disease will spread very easily.
- It’s not smart to not be treated if symptoms persist.
But society is not setting us up for success here.
- Some parents find it difficult or unaffordable to take time off work, either to deal with either their own sickness or that of their children.
- Some people are not living in environments that allow them to get and stay well, for example very draughty homes in winter.
- Some employers are intolerant of workers taking “excessive” amounts of time off.
- Airlines make it expensive or impossible to move travel dates due to sickness, forcing travellers to take flights where they should not. (Air New Zealand’s pursers even shake the hands of essentially every business class or passenger with high status at the beginning and end of long-haul flights – something I find hygienically abhorrent and difficult to opt out of. )
- Doctors visits still cost money, and even finding a doctor is harder than it should be.
We need to continue to collectively change our behaviour. If we do so we’ll not only slow the spread of disease, and increase our happiness, but we will also increase overall productivity.
As Employers we can be smarter about sick (or child-sick) days, making sure employees understand they have an obligation to do the right thing and stay home. This is easy to apply for businesses where working from home is a genuine option, but more important to apply in customer service businesses where staff have contact with many people.
Schools seem to be a lot smarter about dealing with sickness, but let’s also investigate other options to help kids stay interacting with the class and content while they are away at home in quarantine. Preferably without affecting the parents too much.
As a Society let’s get intolerant of housing that is subpar, building on a movement that already has momentum. And let’s increasingly look askance at people who bring their illness into public.
As above all let’s take Personal Responsibility, and I see this happening a lot more. Stay at home if you are ill, and if you absolutely must be on a plane from Auckland to Wellington at 6am on the 13th of October with your coughing and spluttering, then please strongly consider wearing a surgical mask, as is common in more and more countries.