As the pandemic spread across the world, unprecedented lockdowns followed. Now, as many of those countries are in the early weeks of lifting restrictions, we see signs of what may be the start of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we cannot rule out a second wave of lockdowns.
The spread of the viral pandemic resulted in one country after another beginning the process of shutting down its society. It began in Asia, spread to Europe, then to North America and across much of the rest of the world. By early April, half of humanity was living under lockdown.
The lockdowns were incredibly controversial. This time period will be seared into the collective human memory for as long as we all live. Its significance to our societies, our economies, our political systems and our own individual experiences cannot be overstated.
People have grown tired of the lockdowns, and understandably so. But business leaders and politicians feel worried about the economy most of all, and want to reopen in order to revive the economy.
Countries in Asia began the process of lifting the lockdowns last month. With the earliest cases of the pandemic and some of the more effective means of handling it, everyone was keeping a close eye on these countries as they emerged from restrictions.
South Korea marked the ending of the most strict social distancing measures last week. Within days, numbers of the infected began to spike. The spike in South Korea’s numbers resulted entirely from one man’s night out going to clubs. South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned Koreans to “brace for the pandemic’s second wave.”
The Chinese province of Wuhan, where the COVID19 outbreak first began and where the lockdown ended the previous month, experienced its first cluster of new infections.
Iran – one of the early epicentres of the epidemic – had lifted its lockdown. But on May 10, Iran put a region of the country under a second lockdown after a sharp increase of cases in the province.
Lebanon, after emerging from the virus and the restrictions nearly two weeks ago, has put the entire country again under a lockdown as infections started to spike. Just ten days after reopening, Lebanon announced a four-day lockdown of the country, prompting grocery stores to once again be quickly emptied of essential items. This is all taking place in the midst of the country experiencing a brutal economic and financial crisis, one which began prior to the pandemic, and resulted in massive protests and social unrest that began late last year and continued even in the midst of the pandemic, as hunger and desperation spread. (Meanwhile, many Americans were protesting because they want haircuts, to go golfing, and for their favourite restaurants to be opened again.)
Europe followed Asia’s example in the lifting of restrictions and ending of lockdowns. This is a slow process that looks different in different countries. Ultimately, however, it follows the same course of slowly removing restrictions and opening public spaces, schools, businesses and borders, and incrementally easing social distancing measures.
At the start of April, virtually all of Europe except for Sweden was under lockdown. By the second week of May, most of the continent had started easing restrictions. The United Kingdom was the only large European country to not be easing (as it was one of the last to impose a lockdown).
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about proceeding “extremely carefully” in seeking to emerge from the lockdowns in order to avoid another spike in infections.
“The risk of returning to lockdown remains very real if countries do not manage the transition extremely carefully and in a planned approach.” – WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
“If lockdown measures are lifted too quickly, the virus can take off.” – Maria Ban Kerkhove, WHO epidemiologist
Within days of Germany starting the process of easing restrictions, cases began to spike. Not only the largest country in Europe (by population, economic weight and political power), Germany is also one of the more successful models of countries in dealing with the pandemic. Despite its size, deaths from the virus in Germany were fractions of those witnessed in Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and France. Thus, with German infection rates starting to increase, fears grow of a second wave.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned, “We always have to be aware that we are still at the beginning of the pandemic… And there’s still a long way in dealing with this virus in front of us.”
The United States, with the most known cases of COVID19 in the world, has witnessed many individual states begin to reopen their societies in the past weeks. As businesses opened and people started to go to public places, infection rates began to spike in multiple U.S. states. The actual effects of reopening will take weeks to know, however. Though various official models suggest that we can expect a spike in cases and deaths over the coming weeks as a result.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the leading experts in the fight against COVID19 in the United States, warned on May 12 that if U.S. states reopened too quickly and ignored guidelines from public health authorities, “you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control,” which would lead “to some suffering and death that could be avoided.” But, he added, “that could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.” Doing so, he added, “could almost turn the clock back rather than going forward.”
A research paper from a Harvard economist examined the past Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, looking at the various successes and failures of lockdowns and openings. He concluded that an assortment of restrictions and lockdowns failed to save as many lives in the past because the duration of the lockdowns was for too short a period: four weeks (one month), on average. The lesson from this, he concluded, was that restrictions and lockdowns “have to be maintained for substantially longer than a few weeks. Most likely, 12 weeks work much better than 4-6 weeks.”
People have entered into a state of mental lockdown. Many have shut down to the overconsumption of information and simply grasp onto the hope that things seem to be opening and that, therefore, the worst is behind us and the future is simply a slow decline from present extremes. This is a very hopeful – and one might say naive – perspective. It is fine to hope for miracles, or even to wish them into being, but misguided to plan for them.
Instead, we should mentally prepare ourselves for a second wave of the pandemic and the potential for future lockdowns as a result. South Korea and Germany are among the most successful and advanced nations in dealing with the pandemic, and when their leaders are saying to “brace for the pandemic’s second wave” and that “we are still at the beginning,” we should take these claims seriously.
We are still in the early stages and months of this pandemic and in understanding the virus itself, so nothing can be said of the near and medium-term future with any certainty. Well, except for one thing: the virus is here now.
“Exactly how long remains to be seen… It’s going to be a matter of managing it over months to a couple of years. It’s not a matter of getting past the peak, as some people seem to believe.” – Marc Lipsitch, infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health
One wave of lockdowns and social distancing is not going to be enough in the long term. Thus, it is important to manage our expectations and understandings. The virus comes in waves and so we must become like liquid, more able to adapt to the contours of the wave and outlast its peaks and crashes.
Our societies must also become more adaptive. This means that we will need to be more willing to spend and support large segments of the population for extended durations of time. If our politicians and leaders do not meet these standards, widespread (unnecessary) suffering will result. But we can and we must adapt to the necessities and realities of the pandemic.
The pandemic does not have to be hopeless. We can and will get through this. But it is a test of our society and our civilization as to how we get through it. Do we prioritize reopening economies or do we prioritize keeping people safe? If we maintain or return to lockdowns, how do we address and meet the needs of the population confined to their homes? How do we meet the needs of those who don’t have the option to stay home?
There is hope in how we answer these questions and how we move forward through the pandemic and emerge from it. But it is important to not waste our hope on the empty notions that this is over or near its end. We are still in the beginning. There is more to come. Prepare yourselves mentally, arm yourselves intellectually, and plan accordingly.
Put your hope in the right places. But plan according to reality. Yes, we all want haircuts and to spend time with our friends and go out for a drink (or ten). But if the cost of that is to see tens of thousands more infections and thousands more deaths, I can make peace with some out-of-control hair. This “sacrifice” is nothing compared to the lives that will be sacrificed from reopening too early.
This is still the beginning. Plan accordingly.
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