OPINION

How sociable people need to learn to be unsociable

Canberra Times' journalist Steve Evans has returned from an overseas holiday and placed himself in 14-day isolation. Picture: Karleen Minney
Canberra Times' journalist Steve Evans has returned from an overseas holiday and placed himself in 14-day isolation. Picture: Karleen Minney

Here I sit, alone at home, miserable and wondering how I can cope with only my own limited company for a fortnight.

Already, the street outside seems forbidden and remote.

No sooner had I arrived in Canberra airport at the end of a long series of flights from Britain than Scott Morrison announced that those who arrived in Australia from abroad would have to "self-isolate" for 14 days.

Technically, I don't have to - I arrived before the ban and I have no symptoms - but better safe than sorry.

I feared a block on travel was on the way so I cut my holiday short to come home. Now I will "self-isolate" - the bleak new word in our global vocabulary.

Even before arriving, I was getting a hint of our new world.

In London where I was for a week, there were no signs of panic but lots of signs of worry.

Where once the tube was packed with commuters, there were seats to spare. People were careful not to sit next to each other. When they entered the carriage, their eyes darted around, looking for space to avoid human contact.

Buses and streets were uncrowded. Concerts were half full.

A friend is worried about her 97-year-old mother who lives alone. She can't dress herself or cook so she needs help but her body is too frail to withstand the virus which help might bring.

I don't get ill, I thought. A bit of flu maybe, but that's normal and you build up immunity. I know now that this is different and serious.

Another friend has a serious lung condition. He and his wife have found the most remote place they know and vanished to it.

A third friend has a weak immune system from chemotherapy. She - and I - are fearful.

In Britain, it was a bit of a joke to touch elbows rather than shake hands. It doesn't seem like a joke now.

In Canberra, the taxi driver from the airport was making a calculation: if everyone is rushing home now, his trade will be up - but then it will be down when people are back in their places of isolation. I gave him business arriving but there won't be more from me for the duration.

How do taxi drivers isolate themselves from a virus borne by customers?

Self-isolators don't travel or go to the cinema or to work. For some, video links and the phone and the internet will be our sole means of sociability and economic viability. For others, hardship will be inevitable.

The flights from Britain were less full than usual. On the Qatar Airways flight from London to Doha, I had three seats to myself to lie down. That's never happened before.

Governments of sensible countries like Britain and Australia are trying to make complex calculations to which there are no correct answers. It's a matter of balancing risks.

In the Middle Ages - and in totalitarian places like China - putting whole towns into quarantine to stop the spread of plague was easier than it is for open, modern societies like Australia.

Italy is trying but I have to say I heard an awful lot of Italian spoken at the tourist spots in London. Perhaps, the visitors were from towns outside the affected, infected regions or perhaps some had thought: "It won't happen to me".

And I had a bit of that view. I don't get ill, I thought. A bit of flu maybe, but that's normal and you build up immunity.

I know now that this is different and serious.

Apart from health, economics matters.

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A travel ban puts the profitability of even the best run airlines into jeopardy. Will Qantas keep running flights with rows of empty seats? Who will pick up the tab - the tax-payer or the shareholder?

Should the authorities try to slow the spread of the virus in the hope that hospitals aren't overwhelmed by a sudden and perhaps imminent spike in numbers?

If ever there were a case where we should trust the experts, this is it. The situation is ripe for falsity to spread - well, like a virus - on social media. There will be conspiracy theories, have no doubt of that.

My inexpert advice is: turn to trusted sources of news like this paper. Listen to what the government's scientists say. Don't get your information from doubtful "sources" on Facebook.

Even this, though, will be problematic. In Britain, the government's scientists say: don't rush to shut everything down. Other scientists say this is an under-reaction, potentially a fatal one for tens of thousands of people - tens of thousands!

When scientists disagree, the scare-mongering bit of the media may see clicks in promoting fear.

We need to keep it in perspective. The vast majority who contract the virus will survive.

We will go about our business as best we can, from home in my case.

Others will minimise contact with people, going to the supermarket when it's quiet, thinking of vulnerable people, delivering them food and love.

Cool heads and warm hearts are what's needed.

Footnote: With all the panic buying, the 97-year-old was asked if she needed to stock up on anything. She replied: "whisky".

  • Steve Evans will write a diary of isolation for the next 14 days.
  • For information on COVID-19, please go to the ACT Health website or the federal Health Department's website.
  • You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
  • If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)

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This story How it feels in the new world of 'self-isolation' first appeared on The Canberra Times.