I am suddenly filled with a mixture of confusion and uncertainty, moments of disbelief (or more truthfully, denial), and, at times, near panic. Then, my more logical perspective resurfaces from the mire of those other emotions, bringing with it a sense somewhat closer to calm and reflection, and attempts at forward thinking. Naturally, to think too far ahead, and in too much detail – trying to second guess the future – is not of great comfort when negotiating uncharted depths, and so I try to anchor myself into the present moment, and as far as possible, salvage the positives. Such is my visceral reaction to the UK “lockdown”, announced yesterday evening [March 23rd] by the Prime Minister, following what has been done in other countries, and while this strategy appears absolutely necessary and correct, the psychological dimension feels almost more difficult to confront than the practical aspects entailed by it. I think this may be connected with a sense of loss of control, which I imagine others might feel too, in all nations across the world, in the midst of the present crisis. That said, I am just guessing, as these are really weird times, the likes of which we have not seen before, certainly not in Britain.
…now, the above was a “note to self”, rattled down on March 24th, and some four months on, having weathered the initial blast of the lockdown, I still find the “one day at a time” approach helpful. In more difficult moments, it also serves as a necessary lifeboat, although where this might be drifting is not in full view. The term “post-Covid” has entered the popular lexicon, which seems to imply that there is a certain destination in sight; a kind of “before and after” line of demarcation, having ridden out the Covid-19 storm, and which promises, if not a “back to normal”, a socially and economically more spirited time ahead, which undoubtedly, all governments are anticipating with bated breath, while those of the EU nations wrestle together over how to fund the post-Covid “economic rebuild”.
The reported cumulative numbers of COVID-19 cases (and deaths) are available from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, currently amounting to a global total of over 14 million, of whom more than 600,000 have died. However, when excess deaths are considered, in the majority of places, a greater number is obtained – sometimes massively so – while in Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, it is somewhat less, and in Norway and South Africa, even below what would be expected under “normal” circumstances. Clearly there are some subtle undercurrents, but precious little doubt that more infections, and indeed deaths, will follow.
The impacts of Covid-19 and its lockdowns on the global economy are of a scale not seen since the Second World War, and yet the World Economic Forum has identified the current situation as one of potentially great opportunity, where economic policy can be redesigned to reduce poverty and increase social mobility. It is indeed typically the poorest and most disadvantaged who have been hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic, which has highlighted the disparities, inequalities and divisions across societies. From a mathematical modelling study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, it was concluded that lockdowns alone are not enough to control the pandemic, but if combined with the majority of the population wearing facemasks, vastly less transmission of the contagion could be expected, with a flattening of second and tertiary waves, and the disease being brought under control. Should no mitigations be put in place, it has been estimated that from a second wave “a “reasonable” worst-case scenario would see between 24,500 and 251,000 deaths related to coronavirus in hospitals alone.” The peak would be in January/February 2021.
In the UK, as of July 24th, it will be compulsory to wear facemasks in shops and supermarkets, with a non-compliance penalty of up to £100, even though there are warnings that the facemask law might prove unenforceable. The effectiveness of facemasks is also supported by a German study, which indicated a 40% drop in infection rate when they were worn on public transport and in shops, while the risk of transmission is lower in outdoor environments. However, the largest study to date, in the UK, has also emphasised the importance of maintaining social distancing. Methods to expand tests onto the scale of millions a week are also being urgently sought, as is thought will be of considerable assistance in controlling the virus; it is also believed that contact tracing will prove a highly effective strategy.
Naturally, the question arises, of whether the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus will eventually go away, or if we must learn to live alongside it, as we have with other viruses, although that of our present woes seems far more virulent than colds and flu. It is an alarming prospect that the immunity from protective antibodies toward the coronavirus may last for only months, and it may prove that “Vaccines in development will either need to generate stronger and longer lasting protection compared to natural infection, or they may need to be given regularly.” The idea is also challenged, that because someone has already had Covid-19, they are subsequently immune to it, despite initially becoming antibody positive. David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy for Covid-19, has warned that since it is unknown how long it might take to develop a treatment or a vaccine, “We have all got to learn to live with this virus, to do our business with this virus in our presence, to have social relations with this virus in our presence and not to be continuously having to be in lockdown because of the widespread infections that can occur.”
This is an extremely sobering prospect, to say the least of it, and it may well be that the practices of social distancing, handwashing, wearing facemasks, will be with us for as long as the coronavirus is, and it is not that the world is currently experiencing a second wave, but never recovered from the first. Meanwhile, with the lifting of the lockdowns, we enter the “post-Covid” period, but where economies struggle to fully recover, unemployment rises, and barely accustomed behavioural changes need to be maintained; hence, this time may be more of a recalibration, rather than setting a new chapter. Not surprisingly, there are psychological implications attendant to living with Covid-19, which also must be considered.
The need to adapt to a virus that may be with us for some while yet, might serve as a broader prompt to forge social equity, community resilience, and a necessary redirection of resources. It is greatly heartening that the US Senator, Bernie Sanders, has exhorted that “this unprecedented moment in American history – a terrible pandemic, an economic meltdown, people marching across the country to end systemic racism and police brutality, growing income and wealth inequality and an unstable president in the White House – now is the time to bring people together to fundamentally alter our national priorities and rethink the very structure of American society.”
As part of this effort, he has proposed that the US military budget be cut by 10%, and the money instead used to address inequalities on home territory; Sanders has also acted to stop funding being available for a war against Iran.
Perhaps this might be the dawn of a new kind of “attack”, one that heals societies from within, and dissipates the anger and fear that drive conflicts of all kinds, and on all scales? In this spirit, The World Economic Forum’s proposition that economic reform be introduced in the service of social equity is similarly to be applauded. Living in an industrially advanced, Western European country, infectious diseases had appeared to be long since vanquished foes, from my childhood memories, and in family histories, but I am rudely reminded that all kinds of complacency are both inappropriate and misguided.
In the strange manifestations of this odd and awkward year – undoubtedly one that has provoked great existential contemplation for all of us – life appears all the more precious, fleeting and impermanent, and maybe a time to be inspired, to imagine what might be achieved by the human family uniting in shared purpose, action and identity.
Teaser photo credit: By Kencf0618 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91834791