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She was central during the Ebola Crisis. This is her advice on how to navigate COVID-19

What similarities are there between COVID-19 and Ebola? When exactly infected people are most contagious? What is the differences between isolation and quarantine?

19.03.2020

We interviewed Doctor Monica Thallinger, who has experience with war and epidemics to get to the bottom of some of the most frequently asked questions regarding COVID-19.

Here she shares the similarities she observed between COVID-19 and Ebola, when infected people are most contagious, the differences between isolation and quarantine and more.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, especially during these hectic times. Could you please tell us a little bit about your background?

Sure thing, I am a medical doctor and hold a Ph.D. I’m a pediatrician and specialize in anesthesiology. I’ve been working with Doctors without Borders as a field doctor for many years in the Middle East and Africa, dealing with Ebola, conflict and war.

It’s no secret that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is highly contagious. But how exactly does it spread?

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that spreads by small droplets from the mouth and nose that you inhale. These can also land on surfaces and survive for a while. If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face, you can get sick.

When is it most contagious?

The incubation time, which is the time from when you contract the disease until you show symptoms, is on average 5 days but can last from 0-14 days. You will be contagious for a few days before showing symptoms, but this will vary from person to person. This is why people who might be sick are quarantined for 14 days.

We’ve heard all of the advice from washing hands, using anti-bac, self-quarantining, etc. But what is most important for avoiding the spread of COVID-19?

The most important thing is always to maintain good hand hygiene - wash your hands! The second thing is social distancing, to avoid COVID-19 droplets in the air. You have to stay away from people. If you interact with people closer than 2 meters for more than 10-15 minutes, chances are high that you’ll catch the disease if they have it. So be aware of distance, and keep 2 meters distance. This also means that children should not play with other children. You can, of course, go for a walk, but maintain the social distance.

What’s your take on medical masks? Should we be wearing them to avoid spreading the virus?

Masks do not work well to prevent healthy people from getting sick, because when you wear a mask you touch it often, and the virus sticks to the mask and gets onto your face. The hands are the greatest gate for contagion, because we touch so many things, and tend to touch our face all the time without being aware.

Do you see any similarities between working with Ebola and  COVID-19?

There are many similarities, and I have had some epiphanies in the past few days. Working with Ebola, I took for granted that we would probably have behaved differently here. I worked a lot with people in quarantine in Freetown, providing information and ensuring water and food supplies.

The quarantines there were a lot stricter, and the military was ensuring compliance. I see now that people in quarantine in Norway behave very similarly. If people do not understand why the quarantine is imposed, it can have the opposite effect.

Some people do not understand that they shouldn’t go to the cabin because the local health care services are not rigged for an increase of visits, or the air ambulance can’t pick them up there because they don’t have appropriate protective gear.

It is the same mechanisms we see here as I saw in Sierra Leone when implementing rules there is a massive need of information from the government to ensure that people understand why they are being implemented. And even if the information is given, if people are not ready to understand it, not really understanding the seriousness of the situation or not used to handling crises, it is challenging to understand the information.  

Luckily the coronavirus has a much higher survival rate than Ebola.

Many people are scared of getting the virus. How dangerous is it to get it?

We see a fear of getting sick now that is not rooted in reality. Most people who get sick experience very mild symptoms. But, as a society we have to take these measures to protect the high-risk groups that can get very sick. Because this is a pandemic, many people will get sick, which also means that more people will get critically ill and die.

For the large majority, you do not have to worry about getting sick yourself, but you have to take extensive measures to protect those who can get critically ill. It is a social responsibility.

We hear the words quarantine and isolation being used often. What’s the difference?

Quarantine is for people who might be sick - people who have been exposed to sick people or have been traveling abroad. This is a “better safe than sorry” strategy which helps identify new cases before they spread the disease. Isolation is for people who are confirmed sick. The rules for people in isolation are much stricter.

What do you do if you try to call the Corona-phone and don’t get through?

It depends on why you are calling. I often ask people if they knew they had the flu, would they call the doctor? Often they say no, but they are naturally more worried when they suspect it might be COVID-19. For most people, there is no reason to be worried. But if you have respiratory symptoms, you should stay at home to avoid spreading the disease. You will find a lot of valuable information at fhi.no.  According to the guidelines, if you are not in the risk group, you do not need a test.

If you call the corona-phone because you are critically ill and do not get through, you should call the emergency room or 113.

How can those feeling healthy help out?

What we are doing now is trying to flatten the curve, so that people get sick over a longer period of time. This is to avoid everyone getting sick at the same time and to ensure that the hospitals have the capacity to handle all who get sick.


We interviewed one of Noway's most powerful media leaders. Read his advice on crisis communication here.

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