I am working as a psychiatrist in a large hospital in Stockholm, Sweden. I will never forget the night between 11th and 12th of April this year, it was the Holy Saturday for many Christians around the world. Sweden already reported up to 80 deaths per day due to COVID. I was on call, and after midnight a colleague from the emergency department called me for a patient with severe agitation. The emergency room had completely transformed from a crowded, noisy place to a strange, almost surrealistic place in charge of receiving and treating almost only suspected COVID individuals.
Patients were in their own rooms connected to oxygen supplies, up to 10- 15 litres of oxygen per minute. Health professionals wearing gasmasks were performing imaginary acrobatic somersaults from one room to another. Only the constant beep of the machines was the same, but the rhythm of the beat was awkward.
Since then I have heard about some of my colleagues from all around Europe who got sick, some of them requiring a ventilator. Some of them are fully recovered and back to work, others are still recovering. I hope we will never forget the efforts of the frontline and essential workers. Many of them payed with their own health and some with their own life during this pandemic.
It is Wednesday 11th of March, I’ve just arrived home from work. I am sipping my tea and listening to the news. The World Health Organisation declare COVID-19 a pandemic. It is an expected declaration; the number of new cases has increased exponentially around the world. I think about to a common film sequence from the films on Second World War — that sequence when people across Commonwealth listen live on radio to the Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany. I understand the intensity and solemnity of that moment. The time is expanding.
Nine months have passed since then, we made it through the first wave. And now, the second wave of COVID-19 is here … with anxiety, new cases, full ICU beds, deaths, lockdown and face masks, but also hope for a vaccine.
I remember the anguish of the first wave, the medical staff with bruised faces and intense gazes, gasmasks, the empty streets, job losses, essential workers, the morgues, the PPE… the love, compassion, altruism, empathy and the solidarity.
For me, health is freedom; freedom from sickness, infirmity, dependency on someone or on the medical system.
To preserve this freedom in a pandemic is challenging and requires a lot of solidarity.
Different forms of lockdown and restrictions imply a compromise on other freedoms, particularly the freedom of movement and of gathering. This is unbearable for many of us and the uncertainty about the future amplifies the agony. But the history of pandemics tells us that this is going to pass and solidarity is the way out of it.
What is solidarity?
The Oxford Dictionary of English defines solidarity as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group (origin mid-19th century from French “solidarité”)”
Acts of solidarity are usually public and aim to bring about social change. We go out to protest to express our solidarity with the marginalised — Black Lives Matter activists, refugees seeking safety –, or in solidarity with people and animals affected by climate change, deforestation, forest fires… We gather on the streets in solidarity against injustice, discriminations towards other human beings or other species (solidarity between species).
“The keys to defeating COVID 19 are unity and solidarity. That is true in families, neighbourhoods and communities, and it’s true at the regional and global level.”
— TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS, THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION
In times of pandemic we are all vulnerable. The COVID-19 crisis has devastated almost every aspect of our lives and ethnic minorities, elderly people living at home or in nursing homes and individuals with underlying conditions have been disproportionately affected.
The solidarity I have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic is impressive — particularly during the first wave. “It’s difficult to be a clinician and not to work clinically during the pandemic”, as one of my colleagues tells me.
I meet retired doctors and young medical students who raised their hands in support of healthcare workers and volunteered to help at emergency departments and intensive care units (ICU). One of my friends is a basic scientist, she works in a laboratory for COVID testing, helping the hospital to cope with the large number of samples. There are many more people like her. International research collaboration on COVID 19 evolved like never before and in a record time we have identified the virus and have developed promising vaccines.
The most impressive acts of solidarity and altruism occur in local communities, anonymously and genuinely. There have been many volunteers to help the NHS in the UK with reducing pressure on the health system (deliver medicine, driving patients to appointments), neighbours help the vulnerable who self-isolated with groceries , inmates help the morgues workers, therapists volunteer to offer psychological help to those affected by stress reactions while self-isolating, fitness instructors offer exercises to people who are quarantined. There are many groups on social media encouraging people to seek and to offer help. Canadians called it “caremongering”.
Even the industry replied with solidarity as the automobile industry manufacture ventilators, designer companies manufacture masks, gowns and hand sanitizers. Opera and theater plays are available online. Musicians gives virtual concerts to raise money for the pandemic relief.
In these pandemic times, the most valuable act of solidarity is social distancing — avoiding crowded palaces, close contact with others, and confined places.
Social distancing is the practice of maintaining at least 2 meters distance from other people. It is the most efficient way to reduce the spread of the virus and in this way to protect ourselves and the most vulnerable.
The evidence for using a facial surgical mask is still under evaluation, some studies have found that it can reduce the spread of the virus, while one randomised control trial in a population with a low rate of transmission of the virus found no clear effects. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t all be wearing our masks in public!
Other recommendations are to avoid touching your face and to frequently wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds.
Stay home if you are sick and test yourself for coronavirus. Isolate yourself 14 days after being in contact with someone confirmed with coronavirus infection.
But keeping to social distancing is probably one of the most important things we can do.
It is best to avoid indoor environments such as shops, malls, museums, libraries, bathhouses and gyms where possible. Plan to safely travel to the grocery shop and pharmacies. Avoid unnecessary journeys. Avoid traveling from areas with a high prevalence of the virus towards an area with a low prevalence of the virus.
Work from home if you can. Avoid participating in face-to-face meetings, concerts, performances, sports training, matches and competitions for example. Where possible, avoid having physical contact with people other than those you live with.
Over the past 9 months we have definitely become more prepared and optimistic about how to deal with the pandemic. The anxiety has dissipated a little bit, we do not read the same desperate news about the lack of preparedness in the face of the pandemic. People are seeking help earlier, there are protocols and treatment guidelines for symptom relief and when to use the only approved antiviral drug. We have vaccines in different testing phases, there is hope.
Social distancing is not an easy practice but is the best way in which we can overcome these difficult times and it is probably the greatest act of solidarity.
Keep calm the pandemic will soon be over! I hope we will be able to hug, kiss and shake hands again after Christmas.