July 5, 2009 was the day I turned 20. It was also the day I woke up with swine flu. I was staying in the then-Duxton Hotel in Wellington, midway through filming the short-lived (and thus aptly named) TVNZ entertainment show "One Night Only" when I woke up one morning to projectile vomit the green olives I'd consumed as a midnight snack the night before out of my nose. What a way to enter one's twenties. I'd have much preferred a stonking hangover and a bacon and egg McMuffin, but it wasn't to be.
The recent novel coronavirus outbreak reminded me of my brush with "the swine" (as my friends called it). It wasn't pretty. The day my symptoms began, after spending the morning vomiting, I was called into the studio where I was told that I needed to put "mind over matter". After being denied food and drink for around six hours in an attempt to prevent more vomiting, I couldn't stand up or walk by 6pm, and my parents, who had travelled down to celebrate my birthday, rushed me to Hutt Hospital. Happy birthday to me.
I spent the next six weeks on the couch, being nursed back to life by my poor mum. To this day, it was the worst virus I've had, and I have immense sympathy for those currently battling the new coronavirus. I also have enormous respect for those who are tirelessly treating and caring for the sick. The doctors and nurses at Hutt Hospital when I was ill were (and I'm sure still are) wonderful.
Coming down with swine flu (or H1N1, as it's more formally known) gave me a first-hand insight into just how amazing our medical system is, and how important even basic medical innovations have been to our survival as a species. From our understanding of how viruses are transmitted and how to create vaccines to prevent them, to medical devices to determine diagnoses and support healing, to basic old paracetamol and ibuprofen, the medical knowledge we have at our disposal in the 21st century is an incredible testament to human ingenuity and our determination to adapt and survive.
Which is why, at this stage at least, it looks fairly likely that in the developed world this coronavirus will be a survivable illness for the majority of patients it infects (the elderly and those who have other serious health problems or who are immunocompromised will, of course, be at greater risk, and every precaution should be taken to prevent the transmission of the virus to them). I don't for a second mean to minimise the suffering of coronavirus victims and their families, nor to suggest that taking precautions against infection is unnecessary for the general population, but rather to caution against widespread panic and hysteria in a Western country like New Zealand.
The 2009 outbreak of swine flu reportedly killed 49 people in New Zealand (it killed approximately a quarter of a million globally; mostly in developing countries). To provide some context, then-Director of Public Health Mark Jacobs told the media that seasonal Influenza generally killed around 400 people per year in Aotearoa. In 2017, 869 people died in New Zealand of influenza and pneumonia. Though this new virus may result in more cases of pneumonia especially, it doesn't appear (or at least not yet) that this coronavirus is some new terrible superbug with horrific superpowers. Many of those who are infected will recover well at home. An unfortunate minority will have more serious symptoms. According to the World Health Organisation, about 2 per cent of those infected will die (contrastingly, the WHO estimated around 10 per cent of those infected with SARS died).
Unless the WHO determines that the illness is capable of morphing into something much more sinister, New Zealanders living in New Zealand should take a deep breath and have faith in our medical professionals. If anything, we should cast our minds further afield to developing nations. With weaker health systems, precarious access to clean water and significant underlying deprivation, it is the citizens of the developing world who will fare worst. While obviously avoiding illness altogether is preferable, if you do have to become sick, New Zealand is probably one of the better places in which to need medical assistance.
The best things we as New Zealanders can do is practice basic virus-preventing hygiene (washing your hands with soap and sneezing into your elbow, for example), give thanks to Michael J. Savage for our public health system and, if we're able, support aid efforts in less fortunate countries.
The worst thing we could do would be to use the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to stoke racism. Already, I've read reports of the new virus sparking racism against people of Chinese descent. How utterly ridiculous (and reprehensible). For one, given the ubiquity of global travel, and how easily illnesses like coronaviruses can spread, pretty much anyone could give you the bug, regardless of where they're from. For another, who are these awful people turning tragedy in China into justification for their racist views?
Let's not lose our heads. For now, it appears that authorities worldwide are working together to contain the outbreak and protect citizens as best they can. And if we do end up with confirmed cases in New Zealand, after my experience with swine flu, I have immense confidence in our medical professionals.
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Let's hope for the best, take precautions to prevent the worst, keep calm, and carry on. And try not to be racist dickheads while we're at it.