The mother of all good advice: Keep calm and make sure you wash your hands

Mum survived World War II, hospitals in the Outback and sharing a backyard thunder box with six siblings. She reckons she’s got this.

Mar 11, 2020, updated Mar 11, 2020
The best way to contain coronavirus is not to stampede around supermarket aisles but simply to wash your hands. (Photo: CDC on Unsplash)

The best way to contain coronavirus is not to stampede around supermarket aisles but simply to wash your hands. (Photo: CDC on Unsplash)

My mother turns 81 tomorrow. And the only thing she wants for her birthday is for everyone to stop fighting over toilet paper.

Country Queenslanders are a plain-speaking bunch at the best of times. And the older they get, the less inclined they are to suffer fools.

So don’t ask this octogenarian from Mackay what she thinks of modern city folks whipping themselves into an End Of Days frenzy over a virus that, for most of us, will manifest at worst as a mild cold.

Especially when the best way to contain that virus is not to stampede around supermarket aisles like a herd of startled wildebeest, but simply to wash your damn hands.

Wash your hands! Mum is an old-school nurse, one who was travelling remote Queensland alongside the Royal Flying Doctor when she was still a teenager, and who arrived at her posting at the Augathella Hospital when she was 21 years old, only to discover she was now the matron.

“Well, the real matron was overdue to go on leave and there was no one else available,” she says. So she got on with it.

Things were a bit different back then. If you needed an anaesthetic, they’d rig you up with an iron mask with a cloth over the top, on to which the nurse would drip ether from a bottle.

And if you needed medicines, you’d head around to the pharmacy, where Mum – who was also, by necessity, the hospital pharmacist – would dispense the liquids prescribed by the doctor into glass bottles. Those bottles had to be sealed with corks, but since cork was in short supply, the hospital would recycle the used stoppers by scorching them overnight in a firepit. With her hands too full already, Mum gave one of the hospital’s regular patients – a young rodeo rider who’d had one too many falls on his head – the task of ferreting through the cooling ashes each morning to collect a new supply of stoppers.

“He was as silly as a two-bob watch by then,” Mum says, “but he liked to help.”

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away in a laboratory in Oxford, a bloke named Howard Florey had only recently worked out how to cultivate certain moulds and harvest a magical thing called penicillin. In the years to come, the mass production of penicillin would save hundreds of millions of lives, but that miracle was yet to arrive in outback Queensland. In the mid-1950s, by far the most reliable and readily available weapon against infection was still personal cleanliness.

“Wash your hands!” Mum pronounces. “There’s no point buying toilet paper if you don’t know how to wash your hands after using it.”

It may sound quaint, even amusing, to those of us who have grown accustomed to having an array of antiseptic sprays, wipes and creams at our disposal, not to mention ready access to some of the world’s best medical care and pharmaceutical support.

But common infections really were a matter of life and death back then.

Mum was four or five when she stepped on a prickle in the back yard, and the thorn became lodged in her foot. More than seven decades later, she still bears the scars from where the local GP sliced open her foot, leg and, ultimately, her groin in a desperate bid to “drain the poison” that was advancing up her body from the septic wound.

And when she was nine, she lost her adored older brother Alan, when his poor heart finally succumbed to damage from rheumatic fever. He was only 13 years old.

So this almost 81-year-old has probably earned the right to be scathing of our collective hysteria about coronavirus. I doubt she knows what a modern snowflake is, but if she did, I’m sure she’d say we’re acting like a blizzard of them.

Make an old lady happy. Stop bullying each other in supermarkets. Show some common sense, look out for your neighbours, and take proper responsibility for your own hygiene.

As for toilet paper, Mum has some good advice.

“As kids, one of our jobs was to tear up the newspaper and hang it on a nail in the thunderbox,” she says of the outhouse that serviced Grandad, Grandma and their seven kids in Mackay.

I try to bait her by asking why they couldn’t just go to the shops and buy toilet paper. I know the answer; they couldn’t afford it. Besides, in the years after WWII, they were still living with rationing.

But then Mum lets slip about a certain luxury that we snowflakes of the 21stcentury could only dream about.

“Well, Dad was the shopkeeper back then,” she begins. “And whenever he got a carton of apples delivered, they’d each come wrapped in a sheet of green tissue paper. So,” and for a minute, her eyes become misty with the sheer joy of it, “for a few days after the apple delivery, we got to use that in our thunderbox.”

Imagine the bliss! It must almost have been worth hoarding.


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