The coronavirus pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands across the world. It has devastated lives, shattered economies, and ruined lives with the enormous amount of mental stress arising out of the susceptibility of humans and the strangeness of the virus.

To help people calm down and keep their sanity, one doctor has taken to Twitter to dispel myths regarding the virus. Dr. Faheem Younus is the head of the Infectious Diseases department at the University of Maryland, Upper Chesapeake Health. Dr. Younus’s social media myth-busting has made him a common name across countries, united by the social media platform. 

The graduate of King Edward Medical University in Pakistan’s Lahore has become one of the most trusted names when it comes to COVID-19, he has over 156 thousand followers on Twitter and his tweets are often shared on other social media platforms. The Kashmir Walla spoke with him over email. Here are some excerpts of the conversation.

TKW: Why did you start tweeting on COVID-19 and why did you choose Twitter?

Dr. Faheem Younus: In March, when cases of COVID-19 started emerging all over the world, my friends, relatives, and colleagues contacted me, as I am an infectious disease expert. The number of messages was so large that it was impossible for me to respond. My work was extremely demanding at that time.

My daughter suggested that I should answer them on Twitter so everyone can efficiently find their answers at the platform. When I first tweeted that thread of ten common myths, it went viral and was reviewed by over 21 million people. That’s when I recognized that there was a broader opportunity to serve humankind through this medium.

How do you feel coming across as a ray of hope for people looking for accurate information? 

Hope is the core teaching of Islam. We are always taught from childhood that the Quran says “there is ease after hardship, aye there is ease after hardship”. We should never despair. So honestly, it’s the training of our parents and our elders who faced hardships and remained optimistic.

Several users on Twitter have praised you for helping them with their mental health. How do you feel about it?

It’s not about the messenger, it’s about the message. My goal is to bring some sanity in this COVID-19 narrative that is usually driven by the extremes. People have been gracious but I’m not looking for any reward or gratitude or praise. It’s purely a service to seek God’s pleasure.

What is the best precaution against COVID-19? 

COVID-19 is likely to stay here in one way or another. Under the pandemic situation, it’s best for us to wear facemasks whenever we are outside in public places, wash our hands often, and avoid indoor crowds whenever we can. With this method, you can continue to live your life, not be paralyzed, and yet keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

 What do you suggest for a person if he gets infected?

Nearly 80 to 85 percent of the patients typically get better within one or two weeks.

Another 10 percent may end up requiring hospitalization. 

I don’t want people to minimize the importance by the fact that typically around 0.5% will die as a result of this disease. For an individual, that is a message of hope but for a nation of millions of people 0.5 percent can be a very large number.

What is the recommended diet for an infected person?

What we know is that obesity is a risk factor for poor outcomes with COVID-19. So eating a balanced diet and bringing your weight closer to normal is the best advice I can give. So far there are no studies to suggest that one particular diet boosts immunity or kills the virus. Social media messages promoting certain food, in my humble opinion, are not based on published science.

For how long does the person infected with the virus infect others?

People are typically contagious a day or two before developing the symptoms and up to 10 days after symptom onset. Of course, there can be variations and exceptions here and there but these broad guidelines are sufficient for us to keep ourselves safe.

Can washrooms that are used by COVID patients be used by other family members?

Under ideal conditions, bathrooms for COVID-19 patients should be separate from the rest of the household. I do understand that it can be very difficult for some families. Under those resource-limited situations it may be best for the patient to wear a mask, limit their time in the bathroom, and then clean the surfaces with a disinfectant before leaving the bathroom. Pay special attention to the door knob, the faucet handle, or the handle of the commode, or other frequently touched surfaces.

Is it safe to enter a room or reuse the utensils of a COVID-positive patient?

Once that patient has recovered you can clean the room and utensils and start using it.

Is it safe to bathe a person who died of COVID-19?

The best practice is to wear a face shield, an N-95 mask, gloves and a gown and limit the exposure to less than 10 minutes if possible.

There’s a lot of misinformation regarding the virus’s survival on surfaces, can you throw some light on how it spreads from the surfaces we touch?

Survival of the virus on the surfaces is one thing but that virus causing disease is another. That has not been fully proven in household settings. We pay special attention to surface cleaning in hospitals and other places where COVID-19 patients are residing. If you don’t have someone with COVID-19 in your house, then you shouldn’t worry about surface contamination too much. Regular cleaning with appropriate hand washing should be enough.

There have been reports of reinfections in Hong Kong and other places. Is that alarming? 

It’s all premature and over sensationalized in the media. You have to put it in perspective. Over 25 million cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed across the world and if all we have is a handful of reinfections, that’s not news. Granted, it has huge academic value for us physicians and scientists but it should not worry the common person on the street. Science is still evolving and we are still learning about this virus every day.

Why does COVID-19 behave differently with different people?

The honest answer is that we don’t know. Genetic determinants always play a role in viral illnesses. This is nothing new. Take for example enteroviruses. They cause disease almost every year. But it’s different for different people. For one person enterovirus may cause a fever and a cough, and another person it may cause diarrhoea and rashes, and another person it causes meningitis, and then it may cause heart failure in some. This is known for many viruses but the good news is that a huge majority of these infections are self-limiting and not deadly. 

Is a vaccine around the corner?

China and Russia have already started administering the first vaccine. The UK and USA are likely to approve a vaccine before the end of this year. The key question is as to when it will be available to the public at large in developed and developing countries. We don’t know for sure. I believe it will be a gradual roll out to doctors and nurses and first responders followed by immunocompromised patients and then the general population.

Are natural remedies proven to prevent or cure COVID-19?

So far there are no herbs proven to cure or prevent COVID-19. What we do know is that herbs have active chemicals and can cause harm if taken with other medications or in a higher dose.

 Is it safe for children to go to schools?

This is a very complex question and there is no one right answer for everyone. If community spread of COVID-19 is under control, for example in countries mentioned above, it’s perfectly fine to open schools. If community spread is still ongoing then it’s not a good idea.

When will we be able to live normal lives?

No one knows. It may take months or it may take years depending upon how well we manage this pandemic. Realize that there are countries like South Africa, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, New Zealand and others where they are back to normal life because they worked as one unit. I have always said that as long as this virus is more united than us, it will keep winning.

A message for Kashmiris?

I hear you, I feel you, I love you.

Would you like to add anything else?

I’m so grateful to God Almighty that while this pandemic has posed so many challenges, it has also brought strangers together. I have received immense love from Kashmir and so many other countries. I would like to offer my prayers and services whenever possible. Hopefully, one day, when this pandemic is behind us, I could visit this beautiful part of the world and get to shake hands my brothers and seek the prayers of my sisters. Be well. And remember, there is ease after hardship. 


The interview originally appeared in our 7-13 September 2020 print edition.

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