Our Emerging Understanding of the Outbreak — Reflections on Covid

William A. Haseltine
5 min readApr 10, 2020

A few days ago, I was in touch with a friend who sits on the board of a European family business. His story reflects the evolution that many of us have lived in the face of Covid-19. First, the whispered rumors of a possible pandemic. Then, confusion over how to handle the emerging outbreak. And finally, a realization of the scope of the disaster we are confronting together.

I share it in the hopes that it helps readers feel less alone in this time of isolation and social distancing. As we look toward the future, our stories will continue to evolve. We don’t yet know when we will be free of the virus. We don’t yet know how much longer social distancing may last. But we do know that life for all of us will be different, wherever and whenever we emerge from the crisis.

Photo credit: John Vincent

In late February, I remember traveling from my base in London to Paris to attend a board meeting. When I walked into the room, one of my colleagues refused to shake my hand. It was quite odd at the time for someone to refuse a greeting because of the disease. France had just a dozen confirmed cases of Covid-19, all of them in travelers who had been abroad. But my colleague warned me that day to pay more attention to what was going on. He dealt regularly with Chinese companies and, according to him, the virus was much more contagious than anything anyone in France had reported. That was it for me, the moment when I first realized the potential scope of what we were facing. Suffice it to say, I went to wash my hands before the board meeting started.

Over the next couple weeks, the level of concern over the outbreak intensified across Europe. Large gatherings were banned in many parts and handwashing signs popped up in businesses and community spaces. But other than these relatively minor efforts, governments across Europe seemed reluctant to sound the alarm.

That is until March 9, when the prime minister of Italy ordered a national lockdown. I spoke to one of our companies in Northern Italy a few days later and the overall picture became clear to me — it wasn’t the death rate from the virus that was of concern, but its ability to spread quickly and cripple enough people to overwhelm hospitals, bringing the healthcare system to its knees. The picture they painted for me was far different than what I had read about in the news to date. It wasn’t just that hospitals were overloaded. It was the stories of people dying at home, decaying in spare rooms since funeral homes couldn’t handle all the bodies. The stories of nurses and doctors having to choose which patients would be the ones to receive critical life support and care. The stories of whole generations of families being wiped out in a single day.

This was my second moment of realization.

The day after that call, I canceled all my upcoming travel plans and returned to Paris. In the UK at the time, there was a rumor that the government was implementing a “herd immunity” strategy. Essentially, they would do nothing and wait until enough people in the country contracted the disease and built up natural immunity, thereby stopping the spread of the disease. France, on the other hand, had indicated that they would take a more aggressive approach. I called my mother and was able to persuade her to return to Paris as well, finally convincing her of the need for her to quarantine herself at home.

Convincing my mother’s generation of the need to protect themselves against the escalating crisis is no easy feat. Her generation transformed Western society, bending it in many ways to their will over the course of their lifetimes. Government issued orders limiting liberty and personal freedoms are not as blindly accepted as previous generations may have done. In addition, for older men and women like my mother, who have lived lives with access to high quality healthcare, there is a feeling that they are still living on the side of youth and not among the old who are most at risk.

Just a few days after we arrived in Paris, the French government ordered a national lockdown. We stayed together at home, none of us leaving or going outside except for grocery shopping. Each time one of us would leave, we donned gloves and a mask and carried a government mandated paper — dated, timed and signed — that specified why we were on the streets. There were four allowed reasons to leave the house: to buy food or medicines, to see a doctor or go to hospital, to fulfil duties as an essential worker, or for daily allowed exercise, which was one hour of movement within one kilometer from home. Each time we left the house, we had to fill out a new form.

I spoke of my first two moments of realization — the board meeting in Paris and the phone call with colleagues in Italy. The third moment of realization was much more personal and hit much harder than the other two.

First, my mother learned that a close friend of hers tested positive for Covid-19. It was her daughter who had passed the infection on to her, during a car ride that lasted less than an hour. Shortly after, we learned that the virus had spread to everyone in their family, including the husband of my mother’s friend who lived with a motor neurone disease. Within forty-eight hours, he was dead.

This is when the penny dropped, and the risk became real. It is one thing to read about the disease from a distance. It was another thing to see how quickly the virus spread through the home of our longtime family friends and how quickly the life of a loved one was lost. On the same day that our friend passed, the UK finally ordered a lockdown after much public frustration with their delay. Now, there as in France, a government form­ is required to leave the house. It is a step forward, but one that I hope has not come too late.

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William A. Haseltine

William A. Haseltine PhD is a scientist, businessman, author and philanthropist. He is President of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International.