Behavioural change

15 June, 2020 / editorial
 Will Peakin  

“Cross-contamination, laddie!”

I grew up in the seventies and eighties; an era of individual freedoms and the age of unbridled consumption.

“Don’t waste the world’s resources, laddie!”

I don't think we should ever shake hands again, to be honest with you

I was never sure why my dad added “laddie!” to each of those statements that he frequently dispensed as admonishments to me, his youngest son. He was Irish, not Scottish. He had Scottish friends, however, and was called Kelvin – after Lord Kelvin, the Belfast-born physicist who studied at Glasgow University. The title came from the river that flows through the city and was in recognition of his achievement, among other things, in determining the precise temperature of absolute zero.

My grandfather, who emigrated from Dublin to Surrey, must have had a strong sense of destiny because his son also become a physicist. I was also given Kelvin as a first name, but it was one of three and I’m known by the first, William – so my dad must have been hedging his bets.

My dad was ‘a character’; swearing at inconsiderate drivers with a string of expletives that could last for several minutes and whose components would vary in their application – between verbs, nouns and adjectives – within one apparently unending sentence. “Oh, Kelly,” my mum would sigh, from the passenger seat of our Ford Zephyr, as I giggled quietly in the back. My dad could also drink a pint of beer, standing on his head.

But he was a great mentor as well as characterful father, answering my juvenile questions with long, scientifically precise answers. Why is the sky blue? Where do the bubbles in my fizzy drink come from? Thanks to him, I know precisely why and where. His protracted answers become an in-joke after I ended one of his explanations with another, genuine, question: “Dad, did I ask you a question?” From then on, he would smile and began any long, scientifically precise answer to a question I had asked with: “Ah, now, you’ve ‘asked me a question’.”

I remember him now, sitting on his knee as a toddler, as he drew me a circuit diagram (after I had asked him what a circuit diagram was), a cigarette clamped precariously in the corner of his mouth, secondary smoke and ash swirling in the air (he did give up when I was a teenager), and wonder what he would have made of this exceptional moment in our lives. He was certainly ahead of his time in his thinking about the corrosive nature of thoughtless consumption. So too was he, on the dangers of viral and bacterial spread.

When he went to the pub, he opened the door with his elbow if he could – never his hand – or a sleeve-covered hand if he had to pull the handle, and he would hold it open for friends or family with his foot. He kept his change in a plastic money bag to reduce contact with his clothes. When he got home, he washed his hands like a surgeon, and washed the taps and door handles. He put any shoes worn both out and inside the house in the washing machine. I think bleach was sometimes introduced during this process and my mum (who was a teacher and as much of a mentor to me, in her own way, as my dad) would despair as, inevitably, his shoes and clothes would discolour and over time begin to disintegrate.

“Oh, Kelly,” she would sigh. But, as he said once again to me on discovering my just-discernible infant thumbprint on a block of cheese in the fridge: “Cross contamination, laddie!” So, I have for decades now been very conscious of contact with random surfaces and the potential for the transfer of any kind of matter to the hands, nose, eyes and, ultimately, your internal organs. Airborne matter, also; though that is – worryingly – less tangible than a physical surface. Despite this, it was an apparently trivial detail – amid the daily loss of life and the UK Government’s erratic response – concerning social etiquette that, two weeks into the lockdown, brought home the enormity of the change we face.

On 7 April, Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told The Wall Street Journal’s podcast: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically.” He was, in fact, merely reiterating World Health Organisation advice that predates COVID-19 and is borne out by an Arizona University study published in 2005(1).

So many of our personal behaviours and interactions will have to change, permanently, even as environmental surveillance projects to map SARS-CoV-2 in the public domain continue(2). Ways of working, also. The irony, for the dental profession, is that their working environment and procedures are designed specifically to minimise transmission. As Patricia Thomson notes in this edition (p32-33): “[We] have …weathered many crises we all considered existential at the time. We adapted to HEP B and C, AIDS/HIV, vCJD…”. Yet the profession has been in a state of suspended animation since 23 March, with all the associated financial and health consequences. Even now, with the plan to ‘remobilise’, a return to ‘routine dentistry’ seems unlikely; a belief reinforced by the National Clinical Director’s comments to this magazine (p20-23).

(1)Occurrence of bacteria and biochemical markers on public surfaces. Kelly A Reynolds, Pamela M Watt, Stephanie A Boone & Charles P Gerba. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, Volume 15, 2005, Issue 3, Pages 225-234.


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