Opinion

Please don't touch this column with your face

Tabatha Southey: As a near-pandemic spreads around the world, please wash your hands. And don't touch your face. That won't be easy. But, remember, wash your hands.

I had a couple of routine medical appointments this week and I was greeted with, “Have you been outside the country in the last two weeks? Or have you been in contact with anyone who has been outside the country in the last two weeks?” at every turn. In the face of (don’t touch your face) a nascent pandemic, this is nothing but reassuring.

There are reports of cases of COVID-19, the coronavirus of the hour, in at least 81 countries now, with a few new nations being listed off every day. Listening to the news is like following some kind of dark NORAD Santa-pandemic tracker.

The question about my travels and contacts was put to me kindly, but professionally, and I could not help, when I heard it, imagining the staff meeting where, no doubt, this query and possible responses and the correct responses to those responses and additional precautions and contingency plans were discussed. I feel grateful to all these people who trained hard to work these jobs on the often dull, but difficult, and frequently messy, fleshy frontline that is health care.

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They are part of what makes me want to be a good coronavirus citizen, to not, one way or another, make this situation worse.

I just washed my hands. I am not touching my face. I am not. I am 100-per-cent on board for all handwashing how-to videos that are popping up online. I am sanguine about the delayed release of No Time to Die, the ill-timed, aptly named new James Bond film, which— after “careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace”— the producers are holding back until November. It’s a James Bond movie; it will keep.

Avoiding crowds (France has already banned large indoor gatherings), I have vowed not to see any movies with more than 37 per cent (or less than 15 per cent, one must avoid the “So bad it’s good” crowd) on Rotten Tomatoes. Although now that I’ve shared my plan, COVID-19 may turn out to be a boon to the shitty movie industry.

“Can I get one ticket to the 11:40 a.m. showing of The Tax Attorney’s Apprentice please!” I will shout.

“It’s sold out!” box office will shout back to me, where I am standing in line. Although, keeping a prudent social distance from everyone else in line, I’ll be out past the lobby and watching the TV demo displays at the electronics store across the street.

“I liked Two Hour Loop of a Colourful School of Fish well enough,” I look forward to telling my loved ones over our not-panic-purchased (having a 62-year supply of canned tomatoes is just my natural state of being) bowl of fusilli, “but Ninety Minutes of Colourful Birds in Flight will get my vote in the Weirdos in the TV Section’s Choice Awards. Although both films could have used more handwashing.”

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I am not touching my face. I suggest we all stay calm, wash our hands, and the next time you are washing your hands, remind yourself not to be racist. It’s deadly.

Let’s fill what’s left of our time after scrubbing up with an online How to Handwash Video Film Festival, best score being a gripping contest between 27 different versions of Happy Birthday, sung twice. I look forward to the rise of a vibrant online handwashing instructional video fandom. I want to see hardcore Washies rushing to their computers to watch the newest entry in the genre, “Real indie stuff, the University of Birmingham’s chess club newsletter produced it, it’s wild.”

“No spoilers!” the Washies will tweet, just wanting the simple pleasure of clicking play not knowing whether the video reminds viewers to pay careful attention to their, often overlooked, thumbs before or after mentioning cleaning under their fingernails. I look forward to the very fine fan art based on the 461,180-word alternate universe fanfiction where Purell runs a coffee shop and Tito’s Vodka is recommended for use as a hand sanitizer by the CDC.

No one is ever going to hear Happy Birthday the same after this possible pandemic. At the very least, all the party guests will, Pavlovian-like, two lines in, plunge their hands straight into the cake and start rubbing up their thumbs.

While symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of a cold and have included pneumonia in both lungs, fever, cough and difficulty breathing, if you have a sore throat and a runny nose the odds are you don’t have COVID-19. In fact, the odds are, at this point, you don’t have COVID-19 anyway (there are currently 48 diagnosed cases in Canada) but please join me, in either case, in not asking your family doctor for antibiotics. 

Trust me, your doctor has heard of antibiotics. You’re not proposing something new that they have not considered, like some kind of alternative available-orifice meets semi-precious stone thing you heard Gwenyth Paltrow go on about once that you believe it can’t hurt to try, although it probably can. Antibiotics will not help you if you do not have a bacterial illness, and COVID-19 is not a bacterial illness, and yet, when you can’t wash your hands (wash your hands), using some hand sanitizer is a good idea, if you can find it.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in China: My travels through a land in lockdown

There is currently a run on hand sanitizer in my neighbourhood, where one store had it for $57 a bottle, briefly. It sold out. I remember when drinking hand sanitizer wasn’t a status thing.

Hand sanitizer is so hard to get that I Googled making my own, a search that has probably algorithmically aged me 30 years. The “Singles in Your Area” ads are already being pushed out for ads for bright pink orthopedic clogs.

I do like to make things from scratch, and the World Health Organization helpfully has a page on the production of hand sanitizer. There are large vats involved in the recipe, which is clearly intended for clinics in areas where easy access to medical-grade sanitizer isn’t the norm.

I would be making bathtub hand sanitizer for the entire neighbourhood. The kids would come by with little buckets. I would tell them not to touch their little faces. We would not shake hands and, while many handshake substitutes have been suggested, I’d like to offer up an alternative to the handshake substitute, a substitute substitute: just don’t. Don’t shake hands and then don’t replace it with anything. It’s OK, nobody is grading your greeting, you can just say “Hello” without physical contact of any kind and without performing some sort of short dance number straight off the floor of your great uncle’s second wedding.

Your money is far, far better spent on cleaning supplies than on a face mask, but don’t judge anyone you see wearing a face mask. Wash your hands. Self-isolate if you feel ill.

I sincerely applaud you if you’re not remotely worried about coronavirus, right up until you are insensitive to, or careless around, anyone who is. Whether they’re immuno-compromised, or have a pre-existing ailment that makes them more vulnerable, or are elderly and know that it’s the elderly who are taking the brunt of this thing, or they’re just plain wigged out, it’s OK to be worried.

Let’s be kind, but before you go, I have a confession. Throughout writing this column, I have been lying to you. Despite my protestations to the contrary, I have in fact been touching my face. I have tried everything possible to stop myself from touching my face. So far I have taken up knitting, attempted to put the impulse to good use by petting my dog’s face instead, and I have just sat on my hands. I spent a lot of time chopping chili peppers in case pain would teach me to stop. Nope. Ouch.

I duct-taped a live raccoon to each hand. I attempted to launch a Man in the Iron Mask-inspired fashion trend. I strapped a third live raccoon to my iron mask.

And still. I touch my face. Constantly. It’s honestly a little hard to type with both hands practically attached to my countenance, and the raccoons. I love them. Many countries call them “wash bears.” I have heard they scrub their hands.

And with that, pressing the keys with a pen I’m holding in my mouth, I wish you all very good health.