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Updated on 20 Mar 2020. Posted on 13 Mar 2020

Treat The Coronavirus Like You're The Mother Of An Immunosuppressed Four-Year-Old

"Do you personally want to be responsible for putting a child on life support? No."


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Kate Burrows.

When skywriting appeared over Sydney, Australia on Thursday that said "wash hands", Claire Burrows was delighted.

Her 4-year-old daughter Kate is one of many people with compromised immune systems who are especially vulnerable to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"She has had two liver transplants so she is immunosuppressed and at very high risk of any bug or virus," Burrows told BuzzFeed News. "So people running around with hand sanitiser is great... we already live like this, welcome to our world."

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Burrows said her family had been to "hell and back" as they had nearly lost Kate a few times.

"Her response to the coronavirus will be so much more extreme than her brother's response as he has a good immune system," she said.

Kate is already vulnerable to the common cold or flu. She needs to take immunosuppressants to manage her Biliary Atresia, a condition where the bile ducts to the liver are narrowed, blocked or completely missing.

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"We live this heightened sense of concern and worry about any bug that is going around at all times," Burrows said. "Maybe people will become a little bit more aware that keeping healthy keeps others healthy."

Burrows is glad the virus has forced people to be vigilant about washing their hands and not going to work or school when sick.

"Do you personally want to be responsible for putting a child on life support? No."

On Friday Burrows was waiting to see whether she could have a few months' worth of her daughter's medications delivered. If it isn't possible she will have to go to a hospital to get them.

"I'll have to walk past the emergency department and put her or myself at risk via exposure just to get medication to keep her safe."

El Gibbs has been on and off immunosuppressants for more than 30 years as she has inflammatory arthritis and associated complications: lung, heart and skin issues.

"I tick all the boxes really of the people who are at risk of getting a serious form of this disease," the 48-year-old told BuzzFeed News. "I already take significant precautions during the flu season... I've had pneumonia before."

She has cancelled her travel plans for the next few months to lower her chances of contracting COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019). Gibbs said she is frustrated with many people's "cavalier" attitude during the pandemic.

"I'm angry and sick of people saying it is not a big deal and that everyone is overreacting," she said.

One of the reasons Gibbs, who lives west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains, works from home is to avoid being on public transport and near people who are sick.

"I wash my hands ridiculously and wipe down my walking stick and all of that kind of stuff," she said.

Gibbs dislikes people with a disability being described as "vulnerable" in the current circumstances facing the world: "We're made vulnerable by factors outside of our control. I'm made vulnerable by people being dickheads and not taking precautions."

She hopes people check on the disabled and older people in their lives.

"See if they need supplies dropped off as a lot of people might not have the money to go out and buy things and they might have missed out on the great toilet paper crisis of 2020."

Bianca De Marchi / AAP

Empty shelves of toilet paper are seen at Woolworths Town Hall in Sydney, Friday, March 13, 2020.

Melbourne man Gerald Wiblin has type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, the hormone that moves blood sugar (which rises after you eat) into cells to be used as energy.

Wiblin has decided to self-isolate.

"As of today I’m basically not leaving the house," the 31-year-old told BuzzFeed News on Friday. "This is the first time I've really considered the severity of my lower immune system.

"For me the stories out of Italy have been the turning point."

All nonessential commercial services and shops in Italy have been temporarily closed, including restaurants, bars and hairdressers.

"I need to go out to the pharmacy and stock up on insulin in the next 24 hours," he said. "If I go shopping I'm going to a 24-hour place at like 3am to avoid people."

A small study published in the Lancet involving 191 people who contracted the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China showed 48% of these patients had a comorbidity, with hypertension being the most common health complaint (30%), followed by diabetes (19%).

"If this had happened six years ago I would be fucked and have to keep working to pay the rent," Wiblin said. "I’m in a fortunate situation where I have savings and I’m counting on not working for at least the next two weeks minimum and maybe four."

Wiblin is currently waiting on blood test results but his doctor refused to do an over-the-phone consult as it isn't a bulk-billed service, so he's going to wait a month to collect them in person as he doesn't trust there won't be patients with the new coronavirus in the waiting room.

"Just because you're young and not susceptible doesn't mean you're not putting the elderly and lots of other people like me at risk."


Gina Rushton is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Gina Rushton at gina.rushton@buzzfeed.com.

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