I was told a story today about a little boy in class who coughed and sneezed, and never covered his mouth or washed his hands. When the little boy was asked by his classmates to do so, he simply said he was "trying" and went back to his old habits. We all know of someone like that with less than stellar habits of hygiene. Normally, in this day and age, where we scoff at the idea of our mortality and think that dying from the plague is the stuff of yore, we allow this egregiously unclean behavior to slide. But now with the coronavirus looming large, something niggling inside is triggering us.
I'll tell you what that uncomfortable feeling is. It's something that we should never have let go of as a concept, and something that will likely never go away. A cough can kill, a sneeze can put you six feet under. Irrespective of the point in history at which we look, irrespective of which politics and policies and borders were in play, transmissible disease which killed was always dominant. And in spite of our current conceit, thinking we are beyond such primitive mortality, we don't have to look so far back to find numerous examples of disastrous epidemics and pandemics.
I suppose the reason for our glibness about infectious disease is the beautiful advent of current public health policies, current hospital practices around infection control, vaccinations, and antibiotics and antivirals. We have indeed made great strides in terms of keeping mortality from infection at bay. Yet, lest we get too complacent, we need to remember that at the end of the day, we as individuals are still only basic organisms, one by one by one, highly susceptible to the ingenious warfare engendered by our infectious foes. We may outwit, but so will they. And when we slack off, even in terms of basic hygiene, we may die.
I would propose promulgating a worldwide etiquette of health. We understand that good hygiene is self-respect, but as the underpinning of good health, good hygiene is love for your neighbor, too. Perhaps we could come up with a reasonable list of evidence-based, courteous behaviors around minimizing the transmission of disease which could be taught regularly to young and old, a consistent hand-wash here, a mask when sick there. For, at this point in time, unfortunately, there are still too many of us who don't fully comprehend that a sneeze can kill.