Patient Zero


When did people stop covering their mouths when they cough? When did they stop teaching their children to cover their mouths?

And most important – is there a polite way of asking someone to stop spreading their germs?

I was in the doctor’s office last week and watched a little girl of perhaps 4 years-old, with her mother and grandmother, tear about the waiting room with nary a word from them.

She climbed around the room, walking on chairs with her dirty snow boots. That not being enough, she stood with her filthy boots on the play table for little children, stamping her feet all over it.

The crescendo came when she started coughing like a TB patient, just hacking away, no hand over mouth, her maw wide open, sharing all her germs with everyone in the room.

What was I supposed to do then? I let it go because I didn’t know what to do. I finally figured it out when she came over to me with a, “Who are y– hack! Hack! Hack!!” right in my face.

“Excuse me,” I said, covering my mouth hoping to stop the invisible germs. “Excuse me… Your daughter is sick and I don’t want what she has. Can you please call her back?” I asked.

You’d have thought I kicked the little germ-filled urchin. The furious gaze I got from her mother was almost enough to stop me in my tracks. Of course the mother did nothing to stop her daughter, but she did give me the evil eye. The little girl coughed on me again.

“I’m serious. I don’t want to get sick. Please call her back,” I said to the seething mother. To the child I said, “Honey, I don’t want to play. Please go back to your Mommy.”

The little germ bomb raced back over to her mother, not perturbed in the least.

“Stay away from that mean old lady,” the idiot mother said to her daughter, “she’s not nice.”

Yes, that’s right. Because if I don’t want to get sick that makes me not nice.

Your failure to follow simple hygiene and manners is a reflection on me.

That little girl is hardly the only one I see spreading their germs with the whole wide world.

In the supermarket the other day I saw a man sneeze into his hand, and then put that same hand back onto the shopping cart he was pushing. I guess that was better than the woman in the deli who didn’t bother with her hand at all. (For the record, unless you have a tissue, the elbow is where you sneeze while in public)

On the same trip to the store I had a woman doing the smokers hack on my back the whole time I was in line to check out, never once covering her mouth.

What do you say to people? “Thanks for the unsolicited germs, I appreciate it,” hardly seem like that’d be received well. “Ewww… Kindly cover your mouth,” wouldn’t go over much better. Mostly it’s because people who see no reason to be minimally polite don’t appreciate it when you tell them to stop being selfish and filthy.

They’re the same people who see no problem coming in to work when they’re sick. “I don’t want to waste a sick day. I can get through it,” is the most common thing you hear.

What the hell? That’s what they give you sick days for: When you’re sick you stay home so you don’t infect the whole office. They’re not to save up and use as hooky days.

It is the height of selfishness to come into work sick. I’ll bet you half the people reading this have done so. “I’m not so bad,” comes the rationalization. “I’ll just keep to myself,” goes the logic.

That, of course, ignores the whole notion of how germs operate. It’s not just a matter of staying in your cubicle, because germs don’t respect cube farms and their imaginary walls. It ignores how you put your hand on the door knob to get in the building, it ignores everything you touch in the break room, when you used the copier and when you just coughed into the air around all your poor unsuspecting co-workers.

I had a boss who used to come in sick, pretending the whole world would grind to a halt if she wasn’t there to be condescending and bullying. I remember her having the flu and sitting in her office with the door open. Her wracking cough could be heard all the way across a busy news room. It was so loud and deep in her chest that sitting a good 40 feet from her made me uncomfortable. She got at least half a dozen people sick in the first week, and then complained when she was short on reporters.

The horrible example that my former boss set rubbed off on her employees, who came into work while sick and infected the healthy. As a result the whole newsroom ended up getting the flu, one by one. The situation got so bad that the General Manager ended up calling an industrial cleaning company to disinfect every surface in the news room and the coffee room, and leave us with a 5 gallon bucket of industrial grade sanitary wipes to continue disinfecting surfaces over the next several weeks.

This was all brought on by a person who ostensibly had the sense enough to be out in a position of authority. What chance does a little kid have if their parent won’t teach proper manners and hygiene in public?

So, it brings me back to my predicament and original question: Is there a polite way of asking someone to stop spreading their germs and cover their mouth? Because every time I ask I get treated like I have a stick up my ass.

It’s the same dynamic for whenever you want to put a stop to someone’s bad behavior that affects you personally. The people who are acting rudely (or against the Social Contract) don’t want to be told that their selfish behavior is impacting someone negatively because then they have to examine their actions. Examining their actions might lead to the vague notion that they could act like a better person and that’s way out of most people’s comfort zone.

If anyone out there has a better idea I encourage you to share with the class. Otherwise I’ll have to stick with the anemic, “Please don’t cough on me,” and suffer through Patient Zero being offended at my audacity.

In the meantime – stop going to work sick and infecting the healthy. And you – over there – cover your mouth. Please.


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