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Coronavirus and older people... how we're coping in Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph writers Mary Johnston and Don Anderson explain the steps they’re taking to avoid contracting the virus


Calm and collected: Mary Johnston and husband Pete are just back from a cruise

Calm and collected: Mary Johnston and husband Pete are just back from a cruise

Calm and collected: Mary Johnston and husband Pete are just back from a cruise

Mary Johnston: I may have had coronavirus. How would I know? Comparatively few of us are being tested, which means there could be thousands with it, going about their business, spreading it and causing real danger to public health.

For all I know, I could be guilty of this because I recently returned from a cruise to the Caribbean, during which news of this crisis broke.

While on board, I watched the coverage of the ship off the coast of Japan that had been quarantined, with passengers confined to their cabins. The ship I was on had over 4,000 passengers and almost 2,000 crew.

After a couple of days, the captain made the announcement that, due to emerging events, there would be some preventative measures implemented.

He said he was abiding by global health directives and told us not to panic.

There was already stringent hygiene procedures on board, with hand sanitisers just about everywhere and staff at the entrances to every restaurant offering hand-spraying.

On top of this, self-service in the buffet restaurants was stopped. You had to have plates handed to you by a gloved waiter and had to ask for, or point to, what you wanted to eat before being served.

I'm very lucky, not only to have escaped it (probably) but, for first time in my life, to have been asked to write from the perspective of an older person (I refuse to answer to 'elderly').

I'm doubly lucky to have a very robust immune system.

Never have I ever experienced so much drama, or people globally being worried about something like this.

My husband, Pete, has just reminded me about the world panic around the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Said husband is currently self-isolating because, like thousands of others, he has the symptoms of this now officially declared pandemic.

We've no idea if it's just a regular winter cold, but he has underlying health conditions and is in his seventies. He's protecting others from him, rather than being self-protective.

There's no way of knowing if a runny nose, accompanied by a dry cough, temperature and breathlessness, is the dreaded coronavirus, a simple head cold, or the start of flu.

The flu, as we know, can be extremely severe, with the potential of being fatal to some.

Apparently, Covid-19 is rarely as bad in most of those affected. Hollywood star Tom Hanks, who's tested positive, claims to barely feel unwell.

We're being told to act in the best interests of all, but how many will? Beware of armchair 'experts'. Listen to scientific advice. Act responsibly Mary Johnston

I got back from my cruise feeling great and refreshed, only to start feeling a bit poorly after a couple of days.

I definitely had a temperature, a runny nose and a cough and felt achy enough to stay in bed.

I put it down to having been on three flights to get home.

Mind you, the guy beside me from Miami to Heathrow coughed and sneezed almost the entire time.

I couldn't wait to see my grandchildren. The youngest is under a year old and, from the minute he came to see his granny, he was smothered in hugs and kisses.

This virus is, thankfully, extremely uncommon in children. I am presuming his symptoms, which he developed within a week, suggest I had a bad cold that I passed on to him, rather than anything worse.

My husband usually does the supermarket shopping but is staying away for now. We have not engaged in panic-buying but are hearing stories of stores being sold out of toilet roll, kitchen roll, anti-bacterial handwash, wipes and hand sanitisers.

Panic-buying hits the most vulnerable people hardest, especially the elderly, who have been advised to stay home, and those who can't get out to top up.

Boris Johnson said: "This is the worst public health crisis of our generation."

I feel for those employed in healthcare, those who take care of others. It's all very well telling people who can to work from home, but few can.

I also feel for those who, wrongly, continue to go to work because they've mortgages, or rent, to pay and mouths to feed.

We're being told to act in the best interests of all, but how many will? Beware of armchair 'experts'. Listen to scientific advice. Act responsibly.

Unfortunately, people who don't have the virus are frightened to go out in case they catch it, whereas those who have it are frightened to go out in case they spread it.

This current crisis is reminiscent of an old sci-fi movie predicting the end of the world.

Mary Johnston is a writer and broadcaster

Don Anderson: The beginning of this week began with the end of last week, if that doesn't sound idiotic. I was meant to be in Tenerife this week, but I spent the end of last week untangling flights, transfers and a hotel reservation because of that virus inching across the world like the waves of an incoming tide on Portstewart strand.

Contemplating the plight of guests in a Tenerife hotel, pleading from balconies with reporters for information, imprisoned with people who might have Covid-19, was discomforting, to put it mildly.

That particular hotel wasn't going to be our hotel, but no matter. I didn't want similar for myself and my wife, both in our seventies. Hence the flurry of cancellation phone calls.

The more I looked at Tenerife on the map, the more the island looked like an anchored cruise ship. Heaven help that section of the leisure travel trade, with writers describing the vessels as floating petri dishes.

I don't think that I can be alone during this week in experiencing an evaporation of layers of a later-life happy-go-lucky attitude.

It began with acknowledging that it mattered little if I got my money back from the holiday. If we had gone and survived (as probably would have been the case), the prospect of having to isolate for a fortnight on return tipped the balance with a clunk.

Inevitably, thoughts turned to what might happen if, like people in China and Italy, we both had to stay inside for a fortnight, or longer if, more likely when, things get worse.

Some of us oldies got a glimpse of what it soon might be like at worst during the Ulster Workers’ Council general strike in May 1974. That was when essential services really did teeter on the edge Don Anderson

I don't relish some of that future. We went to the supermarket and saw the panic-buying. In the aisles, we dodged pallets of toilet rolls as shelf-stackers tried to keep up with those, who by now might not be able to see their toilets, buried under a pyramid of paper.

No pasta to be had, either, perhaps because everybody thinks all pasta is made in stricken, isolated Italy, ignoring that with a rolling pin, flour, water and an egg, if available, you can make your own pasta easily at home.

You can’t make toilet rolls, but when you’ve read this newspaper, do as we once did in olden times. First, buy more newspapers, read them and then cut them up into squares and... need I instruct more?

But, joking aside, towards the end of this week, I knew that, when the experts and pundits declared that the situation would get worse before it got better, they were undoubtedly telling the truth.

Some of us oldies got a glimpse of what it soon might be like at worst during the Ulster Workers’ Council general strike in May 1974. That was when essential services really did teeter on the edge.

To give you an idea, at the end Ballylumford power station at Larne was running one single generating set — with not a soul in the building.

Farmers were pouring milk down the drains because nothing else could be done with it and other farmers were looking at shovelled piles of dead chicks in their yards.

I don’t think something precisely like that’s going to happen again, but if younger folk want to know what it’s like when the pillars of society begin to totter, talk to people who lived here through the latter half of May 1974.

We have been storing up some food. Tinned vegetables, tinned fish, tinned tomatoes, flour, a big sack of rice and dried pulses are among the list, but we haven’t overdone it. Panic-buying hits those who cannot do so.

Towards the end of the week, older people were being advised to restrict themselves to their own homes and be cautious about admitting anyone.

Into my mind flooded memories of those guests in that Tenerife hotel, huddled at their bedroom windows, but it will be better for us than that because we will have the run of a complete house and we can cook our own food. Irish soda bread is quick and relatively easy to rustle up.

It will also be better because of what Cambridge University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine did together in March 2018.

Using a smartphone app to work like a contagious virus, and with 30,000 volunteers, they simulated the spread of a highly infectious disease and generated vital new information to help pandemic researchers prepare for potential outbreaks.

The BBC recorded the experiment in a TV documentary entitled Contagion: The BBC Four Pandemic. A reviewer in the Guardian newspaper called it “an almost miraculously pedestrian production”.

Oh dear. Today, that study is the basis of infection modelling by the Government to save lives.

The project was prescient and the 2018 documentary can claim to be one of the most important TV programmes about research to date. But we don’t heed inconvenient warnings, such as being told we are now with coronavirus where the Italians were about a fortnight ago.

My week ended watching worrying partition in action. Different public health action imposed in Strabane and Lifford, Belcoo and Blacklion.

We are Irish, so of course, we can put a border in a petri dish.

Don Anderson is a writer and commentator

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