Editorial: Protect yourself against COVID-19, but not at the expense of your community

As UBC moves all classes online, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic feel like they’ve arrived at our doorstep in a hurry. And despite the constant news cycle, it has been a week characterized by uncertainty: uncertainty about how classes and exams will proceed, uncertainty about what to do and how to feel and uncertainty about how bad things might get.

Last Friday, we wanted to make a video about how to make your own hand sanitizer at home. While we had no problem getting most of the ingredients, there was one thing we couldn’t find: isopropyl alcohol. The Shoppers Drug Mart on University Boulevard was sold out. The Shoppers in Wesbrook Village was sold out. The Save-On in Wesbrook Village was sold out.

We called some other stores in the area and we got the same answer at each: out of stock. One store simply said, “We’re sold out of everything right now.”

All that not finding isopropyl alcohol meant for us was that we couldn’t make a video. But for other people, the consequences of not being able to reliably access things like hand sanitizer and masks can be much, much bigger.

This is a scary time. It’s understandable to feel afraid and it’s important to take steps to protect yourself — but it’s also important to remember that you have a responsibility to help protect your community. Ultimately, the personal safety measures you take shouldn’t come at the cost of the safety of others, especially the most vulnerable members of society.

‘A race to the bottom’

In situations of great uncertainty like this, the reaction to want to over-prepare is understandable. Standing in Safeway or London Drugs staring at a shelf, it’s easy to spiral and fall into the mental trap of “If I don’t buy this right now, I might not be able to for a while” or “If I don’t buy this right now, and as much of it as I can, someone else will.” It can provide a sense of control in a situation where we feel powerless.

But as easy as falling into that line of thinking is, we should take a moment to think about how that mentality affects the rest of our community.

For example, stockpiling and hoarding masks — which are most effective when worn by people who are currently sick to prevent spreading illness to others — has led to global shortages that are putting health care workers at risk.

“Without secure supply chains, the risk to healthcare workers around the world is real,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the director-general of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) in a March 3 news release. “We can’t stop COVID-19 without protecting health workers first.”

The same logic applies to hoarding things like hand sanitizer and isopropyl alcohol.

Frequent hand washing with soap and water is more effective than sanitizers, which the BC Centre for Disease Control recommends for use when you don’t have access to a sink. But for people who are housing insecure or homeless, wipes and hand sanitizer may be the only reliable means to stay clean and protected.

It is also important to remember that not everyone has the ability to buy a month’s worth of food, toilet paper or other essentials in one shopping trip.

According to the 2019 AMS Academic Experience Survey Report, 45 per cent of UBC undergraduate students reported having been concerned about how to feed themselves in the past year. Meanwhile, eight per cent reported lacking “an adequate nighttime residence.”

So before you go out and buy three months’ supply of Campbell’s soup or Purell hand sanitizers, take a moment to consider the fact that for people who are experiencing financial insecurity, empty store shelves will make an already precarious situation that much worse.

Stockpiling and shortages driven by fear can quickly turn into a race to the bottom that disproportionately affects our community’s most marginalized members.

‘This is the time where we all need to do our part’

This can be a hard message to square with the philosophy of social distancing. When we’re being encouraged to avoid large groups of people and be more cautious in our interactions with others, it’s easy for protecting yourself to take on a quality of paranoia that feeds the zero-sum attitude behind things like hoarding hand sanitizer.

But that’s not the way we should be thinking about social distancing.

Doing things to keep yourself healthy is as much about others as it is about you. Social distancing is also important in curbing the spread of viruses and is as imperative to protecting those around you as hygiene. By coughing into your arm or a tissue and washing your hands afterwards, you’re helping prevent any germs you may have from spreading to others.

This is especially important to protect not only the elderly, but also peers with compromised immune systems.

“This is the time where we all need to do our part,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in a March 13 press conference. “And these are the things we do to protect ourselves from getting ill, but also we know that this virus is most likely to be spread to the people who are closest to us. So we need to do this to protect our families and our close friends and our communities.”

This approach is key to keeping yourself safe while ensuring you’re not robbing others of the ability to do so. In public health crises like this, we all have an obligation to look out for each other.

So please, in the weeks to come, when you’re faced with a choice like how much soup to buy at No Frills or whether to get just one more bottle of hand sanitizer, take a minute to consider the needs of the rest of your community. Keep yourself safe, but take only what you need, listen to what public health authorities are telling you and think about what the most vulnerable in our community need to keep themselves safe too.

This crisis will likely be one of the most historically significant times of our lives, won’t you want to be able to look back on it with the knowledge you did everything you could not just for yourself but for others too?

Stay up to date on UBC information related to COVID-19 by visiting ubyssey.ca/covid-19/