The Covid-19 pandemic will seriously impact life in the short term as well as the long term. There are some obvious negative effects - social distancing, not being able to work, the impact on the economy, and of course, death. I’d like to look at our situation in a different light for a moment, perhaps consider one of the inconspicuous effects of the pandemic.
Washing our hands whilst singing Happy Birthday may be somewhat normal in this current climate but to a doctor in the 1800’s it would’ve seemed nonsensical. The story of handwashing is an interesting one and had it not been for the data-driven deductions of Ignaz Semmelweis many more women would have died during childbirth. As assistant to the director of Vienna General’s maternity clinic, Ignaz Semmelweis acknowledged that puerperal fever, which greatly contributed to the high maternal death rate during childbirth, was something that neither he nor the other doctors at the hospital really understood. The doctors at the hospital proposed apparent causes for the high death rate, higher in fact, than the rate for giving birth at home. One suspected cause was by miasma - an unpleasant or unhealthy smell or vapour. The widely agreed way - at the time - that germs were spread. Unsatisfied with the mediocre explanations, Semmelweis gathered data on the deaths in the hospital in an attempt to construct a clearer picture of the problem. Unfortunately, it was not until the death of an older professor who during an autopsy with a student died due to the student's knife slipping and accidentally cutting the professor causing cadaverous particles to enter his bloodstream that Semmelweis made his realisation. Could this death be similar to the deaths of so many mothers in the maternity ward? After all, it was commonplace for doctors to hop from the autopsy table to the maternity ward without cleaning their hands, introducing these same cadaverous particles to the patients. At the time, germ theory was not established and it took great effort to inculcate the practice of handwashing into the routine of most doctors. Fast forward 150 years and reluctance is still high. And why? With the great advancements in medicine since those times are doctors still responsible for x number of deaths due to insufficient hand washing. Doctors routinely don’t follow the handwashing guidelines provided to them and it’s killing people. Will Covid-19 finally foster the handwashing revolution or will we continue to sloth around in our mounds of data pointing to a quick, easy and cheap way of saving lives. I hope for the former but something tells me that after this pandemic our recently established habits will fade away once again until the harsh reality of another pandemic knocks at the door.