After weeks and weeks of heavy lockdown, European countries are working to relax the quarantine. New York seems to have passed the worst hump, and some areas have not been heavily hit by a coronavirus outbreak.
But this is just the first step, and we have a marathon ahead of us.
When Japan and Singapore were reacting to the coronavirus outbreak in January and February, the world showered them with praise — and rightfully so. But after a remarkable initial stage, they let their guard down and are now suffering a second wave of severe intentions.
If countries that got everything right in the first place and then relaxed too quickly are suffering greatly, what does this mean for places that never got it right in the first place?
Dozens of US states have announced plans to relax social distancing restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus. The state of Georgia has set in motion aggressive plans to ease stay-at-home restrictions, despite protests from scientists and even some local officials. Relaxing the lockdown without having access to robust and reliable mass testing, and without a transmission monitoring program set in place sounds like a recipe for disaster.
We all want restaurants to open and be full. We all want to carry on with our city breaks, our projects, our work, our partiers — our normal lives, in a nutshell. But this kind of wishful thinking will get us nowhere.
The scenario that President Trump, for instance, has been pushing at his daily press briefings have constantly been overly optimistic, downplaying the real risks. The “we have it all under control” from January, the “infections are going down not up” from March, and the recent touting of unproven (and potentially dangerous treatments) all go to show that if we ignore the evidence and project too optimistic of a scenario, it will come back to bite us.
There is strong scientific evidence that a lockdown works to reduce the spread of infection and that if social distancing measures are not taken the number of cases will spike and hospitals will almost certainly be overrun, leading to a devastating loss of lives. A lockdown, however, is only meant as a temporary measure. The idea is to control the spread of the virus and prepare a return to society with social distancing measures and with a reliable system in place to test and detect the spread of infections.
Lessons from Europe: a lockdown works, but it’s slow
However, a lockdown takes at least 2-3 weeks just for the first effects to be seen. Essentially, whenever a lockdown is imposed, you still expect the number of detected cases to rise because more people already have the virus without knowing it yet, and it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear.
Then, as we’ve seen in Europe, the number of cases is quick to rise and slow to drop. For instance, Italy’s new cases peaked on 22 March at 6,500, and have slowly been dropping since. But now, over a month later, they’re still at 2,300 new cases every day.
The bottom line: it’s a slow and tedious process. Staying at home for 2 weeks won’t cause everything to go away.
Summer won’t kill the virus — autumn will make it worse
This idea has been floating around since January, but there is simply no reason to believe the virus will go away in the summertime. We’ve seen in places like Singapore that it can spread at temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).
It is possible that heat slightly slows down the virus, but we don’t know if this is the case and to what extent this might happen. Simply put, it’s unrealistic to expect summer to save us. “[W]e will have coronavirus in the fall,” Anthony Fauci (and many other experts) warned.
This means that the virus will almost certainly be around in autumn and winter when the health burden of other respiratory diseases is expected to increase. This means that there will be even more pressure on the health system, and even more health threats to go alongside the coronavirus.
Changes will last many months
As much as we’d like to see restaurants buzzing and tourism booming once again, doing this prematurely will only spell more problems in the long-run. Even as some businesses resume activity, social distancing will still need to be enforced if we want to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Even under the best scenarios, if restaurants do open up, they will need to reduce the number of tables and ensure some distancing between patrons — and since most restaurants operate at razor-thin profit margins, it’s unclear how this can work out.
Sports will also not be the same for the rest of the year, and maybe even beyond that. Anthony Fauci sketched for Snapchat a best-case vision of stadiums without spectators. Whole teams would be quarantined in hotels, undergoing frequent testing throughout the season. Full stadiums, bars, and concert gigs will probably be the last signs of our return to the previous normal — but we’re a long way from being able to safely do that.
Meanwhile, the prospect of long-term remote working (and even remote learning) is becoming more and more likely. Schools are pondering the risks of kids picking the virus in schools and passing it to their families at home, and whether publicly or privately, most schools are preparing some alternative to this. Companies are doing the same thing for their employees. Obviously, some jobs can’t be done remotely but for the others, working online is becoming an increasingly likely possibility.
A vaccine is at least a year away
When Anthony Fauci said a vaccine is “at least 12 or 18 months away”, many people got that as “we’ll have a vaccine within a year”.
That’s not true — things rarely go exactly as planned, and although we are seeing unprecedented efforts, most experts believe that Fauci’s timeline was optimistic. The mumps vaccine, the fastest ever approved vaccine, took four years from collecting samples to producing a vaccine.
Then, it’s not like once we have a vaccine everyone can take it at once. Producing hundreds of millions of doses and distributing them to the population will be a major challenge in itself. All in all, we’ll be in this bumpy ride for a long time