I’ve had some god-awful thing for two weeks and counting. Thought I was getting better, started to do my usual thing, crashed. Persistent cough. Headaches. Sneezemania. Reams of mucus (sorry). Plenty of others have similar symptoms. But try getting any sympathy for being part of the 2019 unnamed great epidemic of coughing all night and sneezing all day.
The GP tells me it's a "virus" so when people ask me what I’ve got, that's what I say. At which point no one cares.
I've tried to pin it down. Certainly lots of people aren't well. Mario Tascone, chief operating officer of Chemist Warehouse, reveals a 30 per cent spike in sales of cough and cold medication compared to this time last year. ABS figures released on Thursday show, for those of us employed full-time, a spike of nearly 40 per cent for sick leave of up to nine hours and a more than 20 per cent in those taking sick leave of up to 19 hours, comparing this August to last. But there is zero scientific evidence that those increases in sick leave are due to my mystery illness. Unless your disease has a moniker, you’re in no man’s land.
There’s not much understanding for those experiencing the great sneezing all day, coughing all night epidemic of 2019.Credit:Not for syndication
Far more instructive to be able to say to colleagues and friends you’ve had a positive test for the flu because it’s accepted you will be off work for days, maybe weeks. Or god forbid, you’ve got measles (way too many cases this year) or chicken pox. Again, you’re ill, but you have the satisfaction of people knowing exactly what’s required: quarantine.
The running nose, the sneezing, just the use of tissues, tells you that you’ve got some kind of a bug which is likely to be contagious. Of course it could be rhinovirus which doubled this year compared with last year, says Craig Dalton, a spokesperson for Flutracking. But there's hundreds of viruses so who knows and each test costs money.
So do you stay at home with something that has no name?
University of Queensland associate professor in virology Ian Mackay acknowledges that unless your disease is identifiable, it’s hard to get much sympathy. He likes my list of flu, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox and adds Ebola. These are diseases with brand awareness. He says bluntly it would be great if people stopped coming to work when they are “hacking up a lung”.
“The most practical thing is – don’t come to work when you are symptomatic and producing secretions,” he says.
Australia is in the grip of presenteeism – which is fantastic if your aim is to spread your virus. “Everybody feels they have to come to work in case they are seen as weak, or not good enough . . . [instead] get your boss to support your decision to stay home and to say that publicly,” he says.
Workers might feel they are trying to maintain productivity by coming to work when sick but your productivity could wipe out the entire office. Mackay's got clear directions. Only come to work once you’ve stopped sneezing and using those tissues. Coughing can be more contained and we already know we have to cough into our elbows. Sneezes can be so sudden you forget where your snot is.
New research from the University of Arizona’s Kelly Reynolds advises bosses to email workers: remind people to wash their hands or use hand sanitisers. Disinfect surfaces of commonly touched shared objects. The list of the grubbiest places in the office is truly offputting – for instance, thank Gaia we now have automatically opening exits. Those handles are hotbeds of horror.
Cough’s just about gone. My aim is to stop sneezing. I’m down from 30 a day to about two. Just in time for hayfever to get me.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.
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