COVID-19 unplugged

Our physical distance has its down side. Now that we’re starting to see modest signs of progress, it’s a good time to consider what it has achieved so far.

Our best efforts at bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to a halt rely on dispersal of the entire global population. Yet we haven’t gone as far as every man woman and child for themselves. We’ve relied on the courage of our first responders, front line health care staff and care home workers if and when we get sick. Even if we don’t, essential services have to be kept going. For the most part, we’ve followed instructions and stayed out of others’ way. Whether enforced quarantine or voluntary homestay, the social isolation feels unnatural. As John Donne said:

No man is an island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


Islands of infection

You’d have thought that tight border enforcement would hinder the spread of contagious diseases like COVID-19. But SARS-CoV-2 has a knack of finding chinks in our armour. The majority of Australian cases were imported through international travel including cruise liners. Selective restrictions on travel from high prevalence locations did not stop the virus travelling different routes via countries that were slower to act. Then states like Western Australia closed its borders to travel between other states within Australia to exploit its geographic isolation and become an island within an island.

Tasmania also used its isolation to enhance its COVID-19 controls, until local transmission occurred in a district hospital just as the two person rule was coming into force. A previously low infection rate escalated rapidly, closing two hospitals. Physical distancing needs to happen at multiple levels from intercontinental travel, to communities, social groups and individual people. That means additional physical barriers such as gloves, gowns and face masks for healthcare workers, disinfectant and water or sanitiser for hand hygiene, the 1.5m rule and so on.  It is a whole package that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

In Scotland, the Outer Hebrides have had a remarkable COVID-19 journey so far with few cases and no deaths (as of 25th April), due in part to the cancellation of the island ferry service. Islanders are familiar with interruptions to their connections with the mainland during the winter months. They are used to having to get by in their remote communities. These tough folk lay down fuel for the long bleak winter every year, the scatter of crofts along the west coast of Lewis from Callanish to the Butt a monument to rugged individualism. Further west, the St Kilda archipelago is a memorial to an earlier epidemic that decimated an island population. Island communities that rely solely on geographic isolation can be unusually vulnerable when infection crosses their borders. If COVID-19 does get a hold in the Outer Hebrides, their isolation will make a coordinated response that much harder.

How to unplug COVID-19

The virus’s power source is its ability to pass unseen from person to person in spattered or smeared body fluids. If we want to unplug SARS-CoV-2 and switch off COVID-19, we must continue to disperse to deny it every opportunity to pass from person to person, and disrupt its transmission pathway. To defeat COVID-19 we need to behave like human islands with our own physical and behavioral boundaries. The challenge is to do so for long enough to end the pandemic without losing our social connections and our mental health. Note, the quotation is “No man is an island entire of itself; ..”

Journeys of the mind

While busy unplugging COVID-19, it is becoming painfully clear that we need to take care of our mental health. Routines and self-discipline help. For those who love to travel, if only to meet with those we hold dear, there is plenty of scope for imaginary journeys. Not travel documentaries that make you a passive observer of someone else’s journey. There is much more room for the imagination in travel literature that engages with a landscape and its inhabitants. Poacher’s Pilgrimage is one such account of a journey through Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. For some, the sounds, tastes and smells of a distant culture add depth to the imagination; ‘ feel the breeze of the Hebrides on the other side of the world.’ Tide Lines, 2016.


Micrognome, 26th April, 2020.