The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kosovo continues to rise sharply, and multiple new deaths from the virus are recorded daily. No matter what we may wish to convince ourselves, this virus is real, and it is not simply going to go away any time soon.
At the same time, we can’t keep completely shutting ourselves away in our homes forever with no physical contact with the outside world. Since the early days of total lockdown, we’ve all had to start making our own choices and to constantly weigh up the risks of daily activities.
The trouble is, with all sorts of rumors circulating — online, on social media and within our local communities — it can be hard to know what to believe and how to make the best decisions. It’s sometimes made more confusing because COVID-19 is still such a new virus, meaning fresh evidence about it is being discovered all the time.
For a list of COVID-19 symptoms, scroll to the bottom of this article
But one important thing that has not changed is that there is still no known medicine for preventing or treating COVID-19.
That’s why the best way to help keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safe is to keep taking steps to avoid infection in the first place. To do that effectively, we need good information and to keep our own knowledge on the virus as up to date as possible.
So we’ve scoured through the latest information from scientists and health experts around the world to help you do just that.
Everyone keeps going on about masks, but why should I wear one?
Masks are widely recommended by scientists and health professionals as an important part of helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes that masks are particularly advised in settings where other preventive measures — such as maintaining physical distance from others — are not possible.
That’s because one of the main ways that COVID-19 has been shown to pass from person to person is through respiratory droplets. These can be transmitted in a number of ways, even if people are not showing any symptoms and don’t know they’re infected.
Think you may have COVID-19?
If you suspect that you may have COVID-19, you should call 038 200 80 800.
If you have serious symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. (If possible, you should try to call ahead before visiting your doctor or health facility.)
If you have mild symptoms and are otherwise healthy, you should be able to manage your symptoms at home. You should strictly self-isolate at home as far as possible, including from other people within your own household, and monitor your symptoms.
For example when an infected person sneezes or coughs, but also when they speak or sing — these acts can project respiratory droplets into the air, which can then infect others through their nose, mouth or eyes.
These droplets can also land on surfaces, and infect others who subsequently touch the contaminated surface before touching their own nose, mouth or eyes.
Masks, when correctly worn over both nose and mouth, can therefore provide a barrier to prevent respiratory droplets from passing from one person to another, either directly or via surfaces. In Kosovo, as in some other countries, they are currently mandatory when outside your own home.
But I’m young and healthy, so I can afford to take the risk
There are a number of reasons why you are being asked to wear a mask, and only one of them is about protecting yourself. But let’s take a look at that reason first.
While the risks of having severe complications or dying from COVID-19 have so far proved greater for older people and those with certain health conditions (such as lung or heart disease, diabetes or conditions that affect the immune system), the virus is still dangerous to young people. Young people, including children, with no known underlying health conditions can get severely ill — and die — after contracting the coronavirus.
Overall, the majority of people who test positive for COVID-19 experience mild or moderate symptoms and can recover with supportive care. But the remainder require hospitalization and treatments ranging from oxygen therapy to ventilation in critical cases.
Studies have shown that wearing a mask can mean you are up to 65% better protected from the virus.
As we all know, the number of hospital beds, medical staff and ventilators in Kosovo are all limited, meaning that if the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly, there is a real risk that Kosovo’s already fragile health system could be completely overwhelmed.
On top of this, there is much still unknown about COVID-19 and doctors and scientists still do not know the long-term health implications for people who have had COVID-19. Emerging research and anecdotal reports suggest that some patients who only experience mild COVID-19 symptoms (or no symptoms at all) may suffer later complications — including blood clots and strokes. There are also reports of “long haul” sufferers, whose experience of the illness has lasted for months.
Studies have shown that — when worn properly — wearing a mask can mean you are up to 65% better protected from the virus than if you don’t wear one.
I’m still prepared to take the risk. That’s my personal choice.
Even if you are still not convinced of the need to help protect yourself, the main reason for wearing masks is actually to protect others.
Most masks are more effective at helping to prevent the person wearing them from spreading the virus to others.
So even if you are one of those people who doesn’t get seriously ill, by properly wearing a mask you are helping to make sure that you don’t spread the virus unknowingly. This isn’t therefore just about your own health, but also about looking after everyone around you.
But this doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have COVID-19 — I feel fine.
You cannot know if you have COVID-19 based on how you feel.
It is possible to be infected with the virus and not show any symptoms at all — this is known as being asymptomatic and is the case for a minority of infected people. Studies suggest that younger people, including children, are more likely than older people to be asymptomatic.
Importantly, those who are asymptomatic can still spread the virus.
You may also have been infected with the virus but are not yet showing symptoms — this is known as being presymptomatic. On average, people with COVID-19 begin to show symptoms 5-6 days after becoming infected. However, the incubation period between being infected and showing the first symptoms can be up to 14 days.
You have no idea if you are infected or not, so wearing your mask might help save somebody else’s life.
WHO says that based on the evidence available to date, people with COVID-19 are most infectious at and around the time they develop their first symptoms — including the days immediately prior. You could very easily be spreading the virus while having absolutely no clue that you are doing so.
If you have already had COVID-19, you can still infect others after you have stopped feeling sick. It is still unclear how long people who have had COVID-19 remain infectious, and this can depend on a number of factors. But the current WHO advice is for infected people to remain isolated for at least 10 days after their first symptoms appear, plus a further three days after their symptoms have ended.
In short, you have no idea if you are infected or not, so — if for no other reason — wearing your mask might help save somebody else’s life.
OK, so I can wear a mask and then just go about the rest of my life like normal?
Wearing a mask when around others is only one part of the picture. It is a very helpful tool to help limit virus transmission, but it must also be accompanied by other precautions. Although specific official measures relating to virus control are changing periodically, there are a number of things that we should all do as individuals to help keep ourselves and those around us as safe as possible.
One important step is to avoid groups of people and crowded spaces. This is why activities involving groups of people are banned in many countries where the rate of virus transmission is high (including in Kosovo, where groups of more than five people are currently banned in public places).
The scientific evidence suggests that virus transmission is much more likely to occur inside than outside.
It is also important to continue maintaining a physical distance from other people — especially those who are sick. Research has shown that if you are at least 1 meter in distance from someone with COVID-19 you are significantly less likely to be infected by them (or to infect them); if you keep apart 2 meters, your chances of infection significantly reduce further. In Kosovo, you are currently required to keep at least 2 meters apart from other people.
Maintaining strict personal hygiene practices is also vital. This means cleaning your hands frequently and thoroughly (for at least 20-30 seconds), using an alcohol-based hand rub if hands are not visibly dirty, or soap and water.
You should also cover your nose and mouth with a bent elbow or paper tissue when coughing or sneezing, then dispose of the tissue and clean your hands immediately after use.
And you should refrain from touching your mouth, nose and eyes — these are the entry points where you can become infected with the virus.
Why are cafés and bars only allowed to serve outside? What difference does being inside make?
The scientific evidence suggests that virus transmission is much more likely to occur inside than outside. This is largely to do with airflows.
Remember how the virus is thought to mainly spread through respiratory droplets? When you are outside, there is much greater air circulation (even on a day without wind) than if you are inside. This means that respiratory droplets disperse much more readily outdoors.
When you are inside, there is often very little airflow to disperse any droplets, meaning that they hang around longer and in greater concentrations. This means that not only is there more chance that you will come into contact with infected droplets inside, but also that the amount of droplets you come into contact with is more likely to infect you.
This is significant, because the amount of virus that is transferred from one person to another has an impact on whether the infection is transmitted: The more virus that someone receives, the more likely they will become infected.
There is also growing evidence to suggest that the virus may also be able to spread in certain conditions through tiny particles called aerosols. These are emitted when people talk or breathe out but are much smaller and lighter than respiratory droplets and can therefore remain in the air significantly longer (up to a number of hours) and travel further. WHO has admitted that transmission via these aerosols cannot be ruled out in “crowded, closed or poorly ventilated settings.”
While the risk of virus transmission is reduced outside, it is not eliminated and the other preventive measures should still be taken.
But I heard that the sun kills COVID-19?
No. There is currently no evidence that the sun kills COVID-19.
However, the evidence suggests that virus transmission is a lot less likely outside than it is inside, for the reasons explained above.
I can’t avoid being inside with other people though.
If you have to be inside with other people you can still take steps to reduce the risk, including those already mentioned above (keeping a physical distance, avoiding crowds, wearing a mask and maintaining strict hygiene standards).
You should also try to ensure that the space you are in is well ventilated by leaving windows or doors open to maintain an airflow.
Air conditioning is not necessarily helpful, and can in fact increase the risk of spreading the virus in some circumstances. That’s because, depending on various factors — including the type of AC unit, the settings and the amount of fresh air it is drawing in — air conditioning can sometimes recycle the same air, including any infected droplets.
The amount of time that you spend in the proximity of others can also impact the level of risk. If you must spend time inside with others, you should try to limit that time as much as possible.
So, the virus can be transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes — how long can the virus survive on surfaces?
There were early reports of patients having recovered from COVID-19 and subsequently catching it again. However most scientists now believe that this was more likely down to testing, with individuals having been told they were recovered from the virus when in fact they were still infected.
But WHO stresses that it is still too early to know if people who have had COVID-19 develop immunity, and how long any potential immunity may last. One study has suggested that antibodies — an important part of the body’s immune response — may only last for a few months for this virus, meaning the chance of a person becoming infected more than once would be increased.
These are questions that will be monitored by scientists and medical professionals closely in the coming months.
I’m a smoker — am I safer?
There have been a number of studies looking into any correlations between smoking and COVID-19 infections and effects. However, few have been peer-reviewed (meaning most studies have not yet been scrutinized by other experts to assess whether they meet appropriate standards).
The limited evidence that is currently available suggests that smoking is associated with increased severity of disease and death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
When will my life return to ‘normal’?
This is the million dollar question, and it is one that nobody has the answer to at the moment.
It is reasonable to assume that we will never completely return to the world as it was before COVID-19. This has been a worldwide event that is having an impact on almost all aspects of our lives, from high level politics and economies to all of our individual relationships, outlooks and mental health.
For the foreseeable future, we all have to learn to live alongside the virus as safely as possible.
There have also been warnings from leading scientists and health experts that we will not be able to simply eradicate the virus completely.
We therefore have to begin shifting our mindsets from looking forward to a time when the virus will be gone completely, to looking forward to a time when we are able to live alongside the virus more safely than we can currently. This will require greater medical breakthroughs in terms of finding effective treatments for COVID-19, as well as discovering ways to improve our immunity, such as through effective vaccinations.
How close are we to getting a vaccine?
Some estimates suggest that we may see a vaccine approved in “early 2021,” or even by the end of this year, although there are still many factors that could affect this.
Huge steps forward have been made in trying to find a safe vaccine and the signs are that this could be achieved in record time. However, this is a process that usually takes many years, and in order to ensure that the vaccine is safe and effective there are some steps that simply cannot be sped up any further.
There are currently more than 150 registered COVID-19 vaccine trials taking place around the world, at various stages of development, and some have shown promising early results.
Once effective vaccines have been approved, they still need to be manufactured and distributed on a huge scale, meaning that they will not be available in all places at the same time. It is also still unclear how effective any vaccine may be, since vaccines can vary in terms of the level of protection they provide as well as how long they remain effective.
Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, we all have to learn to live alongside the virus as safely as possible.
That means adapting our own behaviors. And it also means regularly updating ourselves on the latest information and risks so that we can make informed decisions to help keep ourselves and those around us safe.K
Most common symptoms:
- dry cough
Less common symptoms:
- aches and pains
- sore throat
- conjunctivitis (pink eye)
- loss of taste or smell
- a rash on skin, or discoloration of fingers or toes
Serious symptoms (seek immediate medical attention):
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- chest pain or pressure
- loss of speech or movement
You can fill out an online self-evaluation questionnaire with your symptoms, here: https://kosova.health/en/
Images: Arrita Katona / K2.0.
The article is part of the Human Rightivism project, which is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) through its Human Rightivism Program. The author’s views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).