the new rules of Public Displays of Illness

Eufemia Didonato

Children’s nursery rhymes have always sounded vaguely sinister. There’s a good reason why horror film directors turn to playground ditties – usually slowed down, accompanied by an abandoned swing – when they want to conjure creepiness. But as much as the accidental death of an egg man in a bow-tie […]

Children’s nursery rhymes have always sounded vaguely sinister. There’s a good reason why horror film directors turn to playground ditties – usually slowed down, accompanied by an abandoned swing – when they want to conjure creepiness.

But as much as the accidental death of an egg man in a bow-tie is unsettling to people of any age, in a Covid-19-ravaged world, one nursery rhyme is more ominous than the rest: “Ring-a-ring o’ roses, a pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down.”

Chilling. But it raises a good point. At this time of year, every man, woman and child is sputtering their way through the day. And since coughs and sneezes spread diseases, what are the autumn/winter 2020 rules about public displays of illness (PDIs)? We’re talking about the rogue sniffy noses and tickly throats that characterise these months, but have nothing to do with Covid.

Well, since there haven’t been enough guidelines lately, here are a few more…

How to cough

Unless you’re Tecwen Whittock or Theresa May, the idea that an errant cough could make you the least popular person in your social circle was probably new to you this year. But – ahem, ahum, excuse me – there is now no greater faux pas in a crowded indoor area than loudly clearing your throat, let alone actually coughing.

If you dare clear your aggravated windpipe, be ready to receive the kind of what-on-earth-do-you-think-you’re-doing looks usually reserved for people who have set themselves on fire or started eating kippers on the 07.43 to London Waterloo. At the very least, expect someone to say something like: “No offence, but that cough sounded… dry?” and then start moving swiftly away from you.

Honey and lemon, chain-sucking Lockets… both will probably lower your chances of a rogue cough, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

In that case, the advice is the same as for sneezes: 1) Move away from people if you can 2) Put on a mask, to catch stray droplets 3) If you don’t have a mask, cough into the crook of your elbow, as if doing what kids call “dabbing”. This way you’ll not only look cool, but it’s also the most hygienic way of catching germs.

How to sneeze (especially when you have a mask on)

I’m sure you remember the rumour about how, if you suppress a sneeze, your eyes can pop out of your head. Well, the truth isn’t far off. In 2018, a man was admitted to hospital barely able to swallow or speak after pinching his nose and clamping shut his mouth to stop a sneeze. It led NHS specialists to warn that trying to contain a sneeze could lead to a brain aneurysm.

Long story short: don’t suppress them. But what to do in a face covering? I have yet to sneeze while wearing a mask, but imagine it’s the facial equivalent of that old prank of cling-filming a loo bowl. The medical advice, given that a sneeze’s molecules can travel at around 100mph and many masks have gaps, is to still cover your mouth and nose with either your hands or elbow.

(And carry a spare face mask and tissues with you, to avoid the indignity of having to wear a soiled, sloshing mask on your face for the rest of the day.)

How not to flinch when someone splutters near you

So far we’ve been focusing on the sneezers and coughers. But what about life for the sneezee? Because it might not always be appropriate to shoot daggers at, or spray Dettol over, a person showing outward signs of illness this winter. Like if the sneezer is your boss, for instance.

In those situations, take inspiration from two contrasting methods: salsa dancing and the Queen’s Guard. A key tenet in the former is a quick, deliberate step backwards. 

The Queen’s Guard have a superhuman ability to go for hours without flinching. How do they do it? Concentration, discipline, training, fitness and a patience born of the knowledge they’ll be sacked if they move a muscle. So, that’s your choice of methods. I suppose it depends on how scared you are of your boss…

How to cope on a video call

I’m not a scientist, but I’m certain Covid-19 cannot spread via Zoom. So there is no medical reason to save others from the audio/visual bonanza of your otorhinolaryngological expulsions, but there is certainly a social one, which boils down to: no one wants to see or hear it. Definitely not in their headphones, and certainly not in surround sound.

So, if you have time, hit mute, turn your camera off, and maybe even overdub the sound of something really healthy, like a pitch-perfect vocal harmony or yourself saying “Tested negative again, by the way!” to cover your tracks.

How to handle your child’s cold

Thanks to still-developing immune systems, habitually licking the floor and not respecting complex and ever-changing government guidelines, children are bound to pick up a bug or cold between now and Christmas.

So what to do if little Timmy A-tishoos his way into the playground, to the horror of parents, teachers and nearby wildlife? The official advice is to look out for the telltale Covid-19 symptoms: a new or continuous cough, a high temperature, and a loss of sense of taste or smell. Any of those, and you’d better yank them out of class pronto.

On the other hand, if your child just has a runny nose but feels generally well, it’s fine to send them to school. Hooray. Just don’t be surprised when the other parents at the school gates begin salsa-ing backwards…

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