Outbreaks of infectious diseases bring with them periods of great uncertainty. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) (2020) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. In the days and weeks ahead, the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries will climb higher. As events develop, limited resources and capacities are stretched even further, and decisions regarding a public health response are being made quickly, despite limited evidence for decision-making. Public health officials, policy-makers, healthcare workers and public health practitioners require guidance as they make complex bioethical decisions.
Coronaviruses are a large family of common viruses responsible for a variety of illnesses, from the common cold to more severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia. They are ‘zoonotic’, being transmitted between animals and humans. The new strain includes symptoms of cough, a high temperature and shortness of breath. Generally, the symptoms are more severe in the elderly and those with long-term conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease, though the young are not invincible.
Some countries are struggling with a lack of capacity, a lack of resources and a lack of determination. Nations have introduced extensive measures so as to reduce person-to-person transmission of COVID-19. The UK has moved its risk status for COVID-19 from low risk to high risk. The government has implemented extraordinary restrictions on the public as attempts are being made to halt or slow down the spread of the virus; this also includes the indefinite closure of most schools and all restaurants and pubs. All members of the public are now required to reduce the time they spend with others.
Measures taken in response to the virus are taking a heavy toll on societies and economies globally. There is a fine balance between the protection of health, reducing economic and social disruption, as well as continuing to respect human rights.
Working together across all sectors locally, nationally and internationally can mitigate the social and economic consequences of this pandemic; but this requires every sector and individual to engage and become involved. A whole-government, whole-society approach is advocated by WHO, that is built around a comprehensive strategy to prevent infections, save lives and minimise impact.
Countries around the world are being called upon to activate and scale up emergency response mechanisms, improve communications and inform people about the risks, and how they can protect themselves, emphasising that this is everybody's business.
Paramedics have a key role to play in helping to treat and contain this virus, and are facing an increased burden in helping to get through the outbreak. Public health organisations, government health officials and employers are putting in place and activating plans to ensure that people receive the right advice, care and support, and that all health and social care workers have the best information, environment and equipment to do their job. Many frontline responders who are routinely challenged during epidemic outbreaks provide valuable contributions as they prevent and avert potential catastrophes.
Paramedics, working in partnership with each other and patients, use their professional judgement to assess risk to deliver safe care, informed by relevant guidance and the values and principles set out in professional standards and codes of conduct.
Let's look out for each other, because we need each other—now more than ever.