Locking It Down: Australia, where are we, really?

When the outbreak first hit in Australia, I was a mess. The national response was a mess. The state responses were many and varied. A cruise ship with diagnosed COVID-19 passengers was docked in Sydney harbour and disembarked without further testing.

Essentially, we scrambled to get our shit together. Behind the scenes, in Victoria at least, action was being taken, but there were a few gaffes and it felt like there was no way to get reliable information.

I live and breathe on the assurance that I can find the information I need, at all times. That’s the foundation on which I rest my confidence as an adult, as a scientist, and as a problem-solver. You can make bad decisions with good information, but you can’t make good decisions without it (except by luck).

So I was not coping so well for a few weeks there.

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ADHD and Other Letters: Listen to how you talk to yourself

(alternative title: “Mate, do not punch yourself in the face just to get in first, it’s not a good strategy.”)

(why yes, I did have some trouble with the title, why do you ask)

At this point, I’ve read a good deal about ADHD (naturally; I am who I am). I’ve been reading the descriptions and explanations and therapeutic recommendations. I’ve been reading the experiences of other people, particularly other adult women, since that’s a very particular subset of ADHD folks.

A very common message in these sorts of books is one of acceptance: accept that ADHD is neurobiological. It’s a part of you, and it’s not a moral problem, and it’s not shameful. It does come with strengths as well as the more obvious difficulties. There’s emotional dysregulation, but there’s also a tendency towards passionate interest and dedication. There’s forgetfulness and chaos, but there’s also a strong correlation with creative problem-solving. There’s a noisy, distracted brain that freaks out and can’t concentrate, but there’s also a vast sea of ideas.

Mainly, though, we tend to focus on the challenges and the difficulties. Forgetting things all the time. Losing your train of thought. Losing your keys. Endless lists and post-it notes, endless calendars and diaries you forget to check. The inability to perceive time passing, a world that exists only in now and not now. Difficulty deciding to do things. Difficulty deciding anything. Fatigue and brain fog. An inability to manage and organise life in ways that seem very, very simple to neurotypical people.

Then there’s the shame. Why is it so hard to stay tidy? Why is it so hard to be organised? Why lose things? Why don’t you just concentrate? Why don’t you just try harder? You’re so sensitive. You’re so defensive. You’re so exhausting.

Most ADHD people (if not all) hear this litany at some point throughout their lives. It’s cruel and it’s miserable; it comes from a very human and understandable place – if you don’t have any form of executive dysfunction, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it’s like and why can’t you just do it for god’s sake…

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Locking It Down: Probability, Risk and Seemingly Bizarre Rules

All over the world, various communities and counties are going into lock down. Restaurants and bars and cafes are closed; theatres and cinemas are darkened and silent; the formerly bustling streets are echoing in their emptiness.

We’re alone, together.

It’s a hard thing we’re being asked to do. Social isolation isn’t something that comes naturally to the human animal, and even those of us who are introverted by nature are finding that the occasional smile from our favourite waitress or the light hug from a sibling we don’t see often are things that we need.

We’re trying to hide from an enemy we can’t see, and our brains have not evolved to deal with that.

It’s hard to understand, but understanding it is the only way we’re all going to get through this – well, we’re not all going to get through this, but we want as many of us as possible to come out the other side with our relative health and measurable sanity intact.

This article centres on the Victorian state situation in Australia, and it’s four days old (which is about five years as time currently passes), but it’s an excellent example of the problem I’d like to address in this post.

From the article, quoted from Fiona Patten of the Reason party:

“If someone is driving their car to put their baby to sleep, that should be OK. If someone lives in a small apartment, with very little natural light, it should be OK for them to sit in a park and read a book.”

From Liberal Democrats MP, David Limbrick:

“If they don’t make sense, people will start to ignore them and that will undermine efforts to control this virus,” Mr Limbrick said. “I think there’s a lot of activities people can do where they can remain socially distant from other people, that are currently prohibited. I feel like the Government is prohibiting everything to make the messaging and policing simpler.”

All right, that is enough to set the scene. We’ve all heard some strange and seemingly contradictory rules, and it’s frustrating to everyone. Most people want to do the right thing, but as a society we don’t tend to blindly follow rules well. We want a solid rationale, and partly that’s because we’d like the reassurance that we’re not just wasting our damn time.

More importantly, if we understand the rationale, we’ll be able to work out what to do in edge cases that don’t seem to be covered by the rules. We can derive from first principles, and think about the virus itself and how it works.

Want to understand some of this seemingly bizarre reasoning? Read on!

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ADHD and Other Letters: There Really Is A Wall

Today I want to tell you about the wall.

I began to suspect I was autistic a few years ago. This was before I stumbled over descriptions of the way that time is perceived in ADHD folks, and had my “holy… holy shit?!” moment. So, at this point, I was reading about the varied presentations of autism, including sensory processing issues, difficulty with certain (otherwise benign) stimuli, difficulty reading social situations, filtering input, and so on.

I worried about labels. I worried about accusations of “claiming it for attention.” I worried about making excuses. I read all the stories and explanations, feeling seen and heard and understood, my heart squeezing painfully in my chest, while also housing my own little imposter syndrome farm.

To say I was overthinking would put it mildly.

And then it became very simple.

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Locking It Down: Gloves and Surface Contamination

Apparently today is “Kate tells the internet how to use (or not use) gloves correctly.”

The trouble with a lot of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is that it seems very obvious on the surface and as such these items do not come with user manuals; in fact, it’s really not obvious. “Just put them on” is not the whole story. Telling people to wear gloves is useless – worse than useless, it’s actively detrimental – if you don’t explain how to wear them.

I will explain how gloves work, and why it’s bad to wear them if you don’t know these things.

I will also present an argument for how, unless you are a healthcare worker or you work in food preparation, in most situations you should not wear gloves. Really. I want you to stop. STAAAHP.

I’ll also source some info on surface contamination, because that’s the main source of the anxiety here.

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COVID-19 / SARS-CoV-2 / 2019-nCOV / “coronavirus” : how can I help?

Edit: Updated 8/4/2020, to reflect the improved flow of good information in Australia.

Maybe you feel helpless right now. Maybe you’re frustrated and upset and angry, and you want to channel that into something.

Heavy exercise is an option. Physical labour, if you’ve got a yard that requires tending.

Failing that, I have a few suggestions:

1) for scientists

If you’re involved with medical research – not COVID-19 research – I strongly urge you to see if you have any RNA extraction kits, specifically for automated platforms, that contain unopened reagents or unused cartridges. Specific focus on those that target sputum, swabs, blood, serology (I’m dumping every keyword out of my head onto the screen here). These are urgently needed. I cannot possibly state this strongly enough.

I know that these are expensive items, and research so often runs on a shoestring, and I have no idea how remuneration would be handled. Whatever you can spare. Maybe even what you can’t. Please contact the testing facility in your state and see what they need.

Addendum: This applies even if you’re not in Australia! Kit shortages exist worldwide. Here is a shot of scientific community in action. Make it happen. Spread the word.

2) for communicators and critical thinkers

Edited: since I first wrote this, the situation has changed, at least in Australia. Information as a whole is flowing more smoothly, and tends to be in more agreement across multiple sources. I certainly feel less pressure to communicate and translate than I did. We seem to have a higher testing capacity, although it still has to be restricted according to certain triage criteria.

My cynical soul is cautiously optimistic.

I think part of this has been the push for action from the state premiers of NSW and Victoria, since those states were hit the hardest; this ended up dragging federal representatives, kicking and screaming, into some semblance of a rational response. I can’t say that for certain – that’s just what it looked like from the outside. My attention span for the minutiae of Australian politics is… limited.

I still have some concerns, but they’re no longer towering, overwhelming infernos.

The maxim “people can’t make good decisions without good information” still holds, and if you have concerns about the information you’re getting (and I don’t mean odd blips of one or two people in the data, that’s all being managed on the fly; mistakes happen, they are corrected, another mistake happens; these are not usually enormous in magnitude), it’s still worth digging, curating and filtering.

I’m not sure if it’s worth arguing with the conspiracy theorists about 5G, because holy shit, that is a giant pile of horse puckey, but if letting such flat out silliness stand unchallenged is not something you can do, what the heck. Go to town. Be the voice of reason (and possibly justified snark) for people reading over it.

Honestly, anyone in this category is probably already doing all this, and maybe needs to take a break from it (like yours truly). But if you’ve got the mental batteries, we need to widen that net.

3) for SCUBA divers

Here’s an odd one. In Australia, we’re not there yet, but we may end up in a situation where we need oxygen cylinders faster than we can fill them. If you have a cylinder, consider loaning it to the cause. It obviously will need to be O2 cleaned and there will be an issue with valve fittings (I’m really hoping some enterprising person will turn up with a sterile 3D printer and solve this one), but the more cylinders we have that are filled and ready to go, the easier it will be to keep the supply coming.

Probably steel or aluminium is fine. If anyone knows otherwise, correct me.

These are pricey items, and it’s hard to let go of them knowing they’re going to be disassembled (and I’m assuming that you’ll get them back eventually), but oxygen is still the major treatment for viral pneumonia. Maybe you could save lives.

(I’m going to look into how to organise this, but it may take me a bit. If we’re lucky, we won’t get to that point, because refitting dive cylinders is an extreme endgame, but I was asked by someone who was trying to outline long term logistics, so I figure it’s not utterly implausible)

4) for Australians

Australia experienced appalling catastrophic fires this summer, and the bushfire smoke was suffocating and awful. In order to cope, a fair few people in New South Wales and Victoria got their hands on P2 masks – both the disposable kind from Bunnings, and the machine washable cloth sort where you replace the filter.

P2 masks are functionally identical to N95s, and healthcare workers are in desperate need. There simply are not enough to go around, and it’s only going to get worse.

The temptation to keep a hold of your stash is strong, and understandable.

But if you do get sick, you’re likely to need medical treatment. You want your doctors and nurses to be wearing masks, because otherwise, they could act as vectors. They could catch your illness and pass it on. They could carry disease from other patients and give it to you (which may matter, even if you already have it, because of the increase in viral load. I’m not sure on this one, but caution is certainly indicated).

Your own best interests are served by passing these on, especially to GP clinics, nursing homes, palliative care sites, and the at home doctor service, as these groups don’t have access to the dwindling national stockpile.

Also, cloth masks need to have the filters changed regularly; the masks themselves need to be swapped over and washed regularly as well. Without the reusable filters and without being changed, cloth masks significantly under-perform disposables. Best not to wear them for more than an hour at a stretch.

They must also fit correctly.

Please, please consider donating your masks. Healthcare workers are risking their lives every day to take care of us.

Alternatively, if you are handy and you would like to make masks, it’s actually not too hard to find filter material to include as an insert. There’s a good Twitter thread on that here (with limitations acknowledged).

5) for everyone

Do you know any doctors? Any nurses? Hospital staff currently pulling ludicrous shifts?

Reach out. Ask if they need a hand. Do they need someone to do a grocery run for them and leave it on the front porch? Do they need someone to walk a dog? Maybe they just need a friendly ear, or a tupperware container full of casserole.

We need them to stay upright and functional, which is the rational argument. The compassionate argument is that they are all going through a lot right now, including cleaners and receptionists, and many of them are taking huge risks. We should take a moment to appreciate that.

While I’m on that, it’s been noised about, but remember that people involved in essential supply lines are also out there in the community, facing the risk of transmission and also copping a shitload of abuse they don’t deserve. Be kind to retail workers, shelf-stackers, and yes, Centrelink staff. If you’re frustrated and scared, try to remember that’s not their fault.

Maybe reach out to some of them as well.

There are a tonne of community groups popping up all over the world where people are asking for what they need and offering help. Community is an empowering thing, which is an odd thing to say from someone as profoundly anti-social as I can be at times, but it is. We all need to know we’re not alone, especially when we’re forced by circumstances to maintain physical distance.

All this helps.

I’m a bit tapped out, folks. References may come later, and I’ll add to this when my brain starts working again.

Utter Nonsense

Me: *opens email*
Email from Strandbags: We promise we are cleaning everything really well!
Me: “In the event I URGENTLY need a handbag, sure. I don’t feel like that has ever been an urgent need of mine.”
Voiceover: “Oh, AS IF you didn’t ‘Click & Collect’ a new handbag last week.”
Me: “Hey, that was LAST WEEK. It’s been DECADES since then. Also. It was quite a sale.”
Email from Westfield: We are absolutely committed to cleaning all the things! Your health matters!
Me: “Look, to get to Strandbags, I gotta go through you. I’m not sure I want to. You’re a shopping centre. You’re like ground fucking zero of this nightmare.”
Voiceover: “No, that would be an airport.”
Me: “Shut up, you.”
Email from Myer: In these troubling times, we will personally clean, clean and clean again! We’ve never been cleaner!
Me: “I’m not sure you can clean enough for this. You’re a department store that specialises in pricey brands. Except sometimes you have cheap makeup. And look, I’m gonna have to be real damn hard up for copper eyeliner for that need to outweigh my desire to not act as a vector of death to an unsuspecting public.”
Voiceover: “Oh come on. Like anyone’s unsuspecting at this point.”
Email from my gym: We take your concerns about coronavirus very seriously, and we have limited our group fitness classes to 15 to maintain social distance.
Me: “Okay… I uh… I am picturing that room and… that is not going to work…”
Email from my gym, continues: Also we are definitely cleaning everything very thoroughly! Even more than before!
Me: “And yet. I am still not going to come and sweat all over the rest of the sweat and breathe in the air of sweat. I HAVE ADJUSTABLE DUMBBELLS AT HOME.”
Voiceover: “…I mean, you haven’t used those since your last gym visit, which was… how long ago?”
Me: “Dammit, V.O., I’m sick! Just because I’m not expectorating large gobs of my own respiratory tract doesn’t mean I’m in any state to do front squats.”
Voiceover: “Are we going to do the rest of these?”
Me: “No. Life is too short.”
Voiceover: “For this, anyway.”
Disclaimer: these are not direct quotes from the emails in question. It’s more like paraphrasing.