A coherent, reliable and realistic long-term plan is what people need.
When Italy imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 10 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, there was still some hope that the virus could be contained through harsh but temporary measures. People hoped that after a few weeks, maximum a few months, they could return to their normal lives. Unfortunately, this hope is fading quickly.
The majority of EU countries have developed outbreaks of various scales, implementing ever more stringent measures with, for example, Spain banning all types of non-vital outside activity, including physical exercise. Meanwhile, the US has rapidly become the most infected country, and many Latin American states are recording thousands of cases each day, with Brazil in particular now having over 15,000 confirmed cases. More worryingly, a recent Guardian article has exposed how China’s reopening of cities and activities may have been premature, given the possible presence of thousands of asymptomatic cases. While many restrictions have now been lifted in the Hubei province, other regions in China are increasing controls and limitations.
Perhaps now is the time then to accept an uncomfortable reality: the virus has gone global and will continue until a vaccine is found. The probability of stopping COVID-19 by quarantining entire nations is very low. Even if states managed to eradicate it, they would then need to completely seal off their borders to avoid importing it anew from other parts of the world. That is simply not a realistic long-term strategy.
So, what’s next? Are we all doomed?
Well, no and yes — at least for a bit. The good news is that total lockdowns will be lifted, probably sooner than later. These measures are generally used in a situation of extreme emergency, when the health system risks collapsing. However, while they are certainly effective in giving the health system momentary relief and in flattening the curve, they are absolutely unsustainable in the long run. No matter how much money the state pumps into the system, after a few months the economy, and consequently the health sector, will inevitably be greatly affected, making the country even more vulnerable should the next wave of contagion hit. China is an economic giant which can survive the lockdown of its most productive province, but for the majority of nations shutting down the totality of non-essential services for months on end would produce an irreparable economic crisis.
I want to make clear that I am not advocating for the prioritization of the economy over people’s health, an accusation which I have seen trending on social media. It’s simply naive to think that these are two mutually exclusive elements. With an economy in tatters, people’s health (especially those of the most vulnerable) will inevitably suffer. Since this is looking to be a year-long marathon instead of a few months’ sprint, the radical quarantine measures will eventually need to be abandoned.
That doesn’t mean life will go back to normal. I think one of the most important things people need to understand now is that while they will probably be allowed to leave their houses once again, other measures are going to stay. Indeed, social distancing, coupled with a sophisticated strategy of mass testing as well as tracing infected people and their contacts, is what is allowing countries like South Korea and Taiwan to contain the epidemic without imposing lockdowns on their populace. These countries have been badly affected by the previous epidemics of SARS and MERS and were consequently much more prepared than the rest of the world to deal with the new coronavirus.
The present lockdowns across the globe are arguably necessary to avoid the collapse of health systems, but they will inevitably have to be followed by realistic measures compatible with a long-term strategy. These may include: massive investments into healthcare, uncompromisingly implementing social distancing, and developing the capacity to test millions of people. Another key aspect of any long-term strategy is transparency. In the coming months the public will need to be informed honestly and professionally, to ensure mental preparedness for a lengthy journey ahead.
On a more positive note, I hope that these future months will also allow us to profoundly reflect on the fragilities of our globalised and capitalistic system, as well as on the importance of solidarity, public healthcare, and scientific development. This crisis indeed has highlighted some basic fractures in many nations’ economies. First of all, the critical state of medical facilities and healthcare in general, weakened by years of cuts and underfunding (if we take the UK). In the future, we will have to radically rethink our investment priorities and direct as much funding as possible towards basic and crucial services like healthcare. The importance of granting financial security to people is also crucial, as so many freelance and independent workers are currently very vulnerable and without a safety net.
The spontaneous acts of solidarity and care here in the UK and elsewhere have seen an increase. I hope that these will be the first of many more steps towards a profound rethink and restructuring of our social and economic habitats, to build a world which is more secure, united, and supportive of those most in need.