No, you won’t get the coronavirus from Chinese food. And don’t drink bleach – The Guardian

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Much to his family’s dismay, my elderly cancer patient, a retired chef, now cannot stand the sight of food. His wife frets at the standard of her cooking, no matter how much I reassure her that it’s not her, it’s his body, slowly winding down. But there is one thing that his eyes still welcome. Even though he eats “less than a baby”, he loves the sight of spaghetti, comparing the deliberately overcooked strands to silken threads sliding down his raw mouth.

I have convinced a devoted wife who would serve him a degustation menu at every meal that a small serve of pasta drenched in meat sauce will satisfy his modest requirements. Yes, it’s OK to have the same meal three times a day, if it’s either that or nothing.

This week, we ran into an unprecedented roadblock. The local grocery store has run out of pasta. So has the one up the road. About to turn 90, she no longer drives. They don’t deliver phone books anymore and she doesn’t know how to google. Who still has spaghetti? Will the shops also run out of meat?

“The hospital doesn’t sell pasta, does it?” she asks hopefully. I am simultaneously exasperated and embarrassed.

The next patient is a woman with an intellectual disability who has mild viral symptoms. Her elderly parents have brought her in for her annual check and she looks unusually worked up. It turns out that her parents have similar symptoms and she is fearful that the whole family will be “locked up” in hospital because they may have the coronavirus. My reassurance that she has no risk factors for the virus probably fall on deaf ears because she suddenly wails, “And if we’re all here, who will care for my cat? Will you call my neighbour? I love my cat.”

I realise that the biggest favour I can do everyone is to bundle her home as quickly as possible to be reunited with her pet.

As an oncologist I witness any number of crises, but I can’t help thinking that, given what we currently know about the coronavirus in the Australian context, our self-induced panic is hurting our innocent and most vulnerable fellow citizens.

Dry and long-life foods are flying out of the supermarkets. So are toilet paper, hand sanitiser and face masks. Photos of stark shelves are being circulated in surprise and jest.

Elsewhere, those in search of a quick profit are snapping up items to hawk them online and families are lining entire spare rooms with storage shelves.

Yes, it’s a free country, I know. And, store limits on toilet paper aside, if you want to deplete the grocery shelves, there is no law saying you can’t. But this is also a country of enormous wealth that is a net exporter of food with a stable government, a civil society, and a universal healthcare system that is (again) admirably rising to the challenge of providing clear, calm, sensible and truthful information as it unfolds.

Australia is not China, which damningly withheld evidence of the coronavirus from its own citizens. It is not like countries that said they simply didn’t have any cases although authorities thought this highly improbable.

And it is not the United States, where in an election year, unbelievably, a virus has become a political weapon. We should appreciate all those who are lending their expertise in a rapidly evolving environment without care for personal glory but let’s also acknowledge that they cannot script individual behaviour.

Stockpiling masks or using them routinely is unnecessary and they are much better reserved for those who need them, including health professionals and sick patients. Washing hands with soap and water is highly effective; there is no need to hoard hand sanitisers. Bottled water is redundant, as is a garage emptied of cars and filled with food. Experts strongly recommend getting the flu shot as the influenza and coronavirus seasons may peak together in winter.

Who should we listen to during a health crisis? In a country blessed with one of the finest healthcare systems in the world, I’d pick health experts, professional bodies and the government over social media every time. While social media has democratised medicine, it has also provided a platform for those spreading hoaxes, inaccuracies and plainly unconscionable gossip.

No, you cannot contract the coronavirus from an “Asian-looking” doctor. Or from eating Chinese food. And please, please, don’t drink bleach to rid yourself of the virus, the “cure” being more fatal than the disease.

But it’s easy to appreciate how, in trying to differentiate fact from fiction, many people just check out and what we end up is a miseducated and disempowered general population, when the best thing we can do as a society is to equip ourselves with knowledge. The coronavirus outbreak is causing understandable anxiety but unjustified panic. We can do better by our fellow citizens.

I had never contemplated “mateship” until I came to Australia, but I thought it a fitting term to embody the spirit of a nation. The idea greets us in wonderful ways: when city dwellers weep at the devastation of bushfires; when we honour a Vietnamese refugee as our governor; when we celebrate Eid and Diwali with the same enthusiasm as Christmas and Halloween.

Australians like to think of themselves as people with big hearts and open minds. The world knows us for the same things. This is a perfect time to be altruistic. In fact, to live up to the grand idea of mateship might take something rather ordinary. Don’t buy all the pasta. Don’t use all the facemasks. Save some toilet paper for others. There are people who need these things for sustenance and those who live in “the lucky country” should spare a thought for the luckless.

Ranjana Srivastava is an Australian oncologist, award-winning author and Fulbright scholar. Her latest book is called A Better Death

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