Coronavirus: what are the limitations of self-quarantine?

As the media across the globe works on whipping the general public into a frenzy, Tannice Hemming examines the limitations of self-quarantine, as recommended for all those who may have been in contact with coronavirus. Can this measure really halt the spread of this potential pandemic?

Quarantine limitations: Not everyone can work from home

Technology has both freed and shackled the working population. We’ve access to email every minute of every day and whether you consider yourself a workaholic or not, you’ve probably at least read a work email out of hours, even if you didn’t reply to it or act on the detail it contained. Some of us struggle to leave work behind, bringing back files and working into the night because of short staff or just a workload that’s unrealistic. 

Many of us work from home – as a writer and part-time contractor within the field of health, I rarely need to remove my pajamas to earn a crust. Indeed, my husband, a software developer, can work from home when I need the childcare to attend a meeting that does require my presence. So many of us now can use the advances of technology to interact with our colleagues -and servers- in the office. Which makes the idea of self-quarantine little more than an inconvenience to those who can work this way.

But what about the countless people who can’t work from home? There’s plenty of them. Retail workers, bank staff, healthcare workers, drivers of all types – gas engineers? None of these occupations can be done from home. The prospect of two weeks of self-isolation might initially seem an attractive idea, but not when you need to keep the wolf from the door. The government has confirmed that companies will have to pay statutory sick pay to any staff who are forced to self-quarantine, but this amount will represent a major drop in wages for many who simply cannot afford it.

School’s out 

With schools now closing down after several children returned from half-term holidays to North Italy, where many towns are now on lockdown, parents will struggle to afford to take the time off work. If it’s not you who is self-isolating, but your children who are forced to, what pay will you receive then? How can parents afford to suddenly take time off work when they are forced to by a lack of childcare?

It’s not just the difficulties of dealing with reduced pay due to statutory sick pay that will be the largest worry for those who rely so heavily on the gig economy. What of the estimated 4.7 million of us who rely on zero-hour contracts and are ‘self-employed’? One such caller rang LBC on Wednesday – “I’m dreading telling my boss I think I could have been exposed to Coronavirus”, he said; “I’m self-employed”. An oxymoronic sentence that truly sums up the most under-examined concern of the advice to self-isolate. What if people simply won’t?

In my last article on Coronavirus I talked about self-isolation or quarantine of children when they’re recovering from something more commonplace. So many of us refuse to stay away from others when we’re ill, preferring to soldier on and even expose the immune-compromised to dangerous afflictions like chicken pox. I had one friend who was on holiday when a neighbouring family’s child came out in the familiar rash. They decided not to stay in their rooms and were seen out and about in the resort countless times, no doubt spreading chicken pox to everyone they came in contact with.

Legal powers to prevent the spread of Covid-19

China has been accused lately of employing ‘draconian’ measures and there have been varying reports of people being carted off into quarantine against their will. The government here in the UK have already issued new legal powers to keep those who might have the virus in isolation – yet I wonder how effective that might be were the virus to really take hold of the country. The power to handcuff suspected sufferers and force them back into isolation were instilled into British law because a British citizen tried to escape quarantine at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral. Everyone there had been compelled to sign a contract indicating they understood that they would be required to stay for 14 days, but the man clearly disagreed with the notion and wanted to leave.

Another caller to LBC on Wednesday told of a further difficulty when it comes to self-isolation. What if the person who is self-isolating doesn’t really understand what’s required. A gas engineer, he was invited to someone’s house to service their boiler. Once he’d been there for a while, the woman revealed that she was in quarantine, but near to the end of the mandated 14 day period. He was obviously then compelled to go into quarantine himself, for fear that he could now be infected.  

Financial market fears

Aside from fears about our personal and public health, the biggest concern coming out of the news seems to be the economic difficulties the Coronavirus is causing. The markets have today been announced at their lowest levels since 2008 as investors react to the strangulation of movement around the globe. Nigeria has today announced its first case and the FTSE is down more than 4.5%.

It’s clear that whilst there is a lot of scaremongering going around and that the world’s media are relishing the headlines, things are starting to become a lot more worrying, with public health officials issuing more and more serious warnings. 

What started as a virus that seemed a long way from home, in the wild animal markets of China, now seems to be rapidly closing in on places far more familiar for the lesser well-travelled, affecting Europe and increasing the chances that the virus will end up closer to home than we like. At the time of writing, Wales just confirmed its first case from someone returning from Italy, making the number of cases in the UK rise to 17. With no vaccine forthcoming, all we can do is keep washing our hands and rely on the honesty and integrity of anyone who might have come into contact with the illness. Here’s hoping that the upcoming public awareness campaigns are enough to help people understand how crucial self-isolation is going to be in stopping the spread. 

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