China. South Korea. Germany. Australia. All have stifled the grip of the pandemic on their communities. But this virus will not die. This is why new emergency interlocks are emerging around the world.
COVID-19 is back in his homeland: Wuhan, China. A group of cases has broken out in a single residential complex. All of them are asymptomatic – which means they didn’t know they were sick with the contagious disease.
Germany eased its restrictions after a long period of foreclosure. A week later, infection rates are already on the rise.
South Korea closed its nightlife scene after a single clubber visited up to five venues over a weekend – infecting more than 30 people. Contact tracers scramble to identify up to 7,000 other people who attended these sites.
It’s because the much-touted herd’s immunity is not happening any time soon.
There are still many targets that are easy to infect with COVID-19.
All he needs is an opportunity.
And the fatigue of quarantine all over the world risks giving him one.
Wuhan City lifted its month-long emergency lock on April 8. At worst, several thousand new cases have been discovered every day. But draconian foreclosure measures practically wiped it out in just over three months.
But it’s back.
Several hundred asymptomatic cases have been discovered in the community of Hainan province thanks to generalized experimental tests. All have since been confined to their homes.
“We need to investigate and determine the source of the infections and the routes of transmission,” National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said yesterday.
To do this, some 47,000 tests are performed daily across the province. The 10-day campaign will provide a solid statistical indication of the extent of the threat with no symptoms present.
“We must resolutely contain the risk of a rebound,” the Hainan Province health directorate said yesterday in a statement.
But evidence of the dreaded “second wave” of the pandemic is emerging across the country. Seven provinces have reported new cases. Most have revealed previously hidden clusters of the disease.
The city of Shulan recently responded to a local resurgence by immediately closing all of its public spaces. And across China, the race is on to catch asymptomatic carriers before they rekindle the viral fire that swept the country in January.
Everywhere, from China to the United States, from Germany to Great Britain, clear pandemic patterns are emerging.
COVID-19 hot spots include abattoirs, where unskilled workers working in unsanitary conditions are terrified of losing their jobs – or simply cannot afford to take a day of unpaid sick leave. They therefore turn to their overcrowded workplaces anyway.
Another emerging risk is apartment buildings and high density residential buildings. Apartment towers for low-wage workers are the source of an unexpected explosion of cases in Singapore. And huge apartment buildings are a common cause of concern in China – regardless of the social strata residing there.
Retirement homes occupy a prominent place in almost all countries. Close the confines. Support staff juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. Tired and overworked nurses. All of them combine to create an environment that COVID-19 can exploit to infect their easily sensitive inhabitants. Especially when someone is asymptomatic.
FUEL FOR VIRAL FIRE
Everyone who has not had COVID-19 is the tinder of a new pandemic eruption.
And doubts persist that those who had it remain immune for a long time.
This means that collective immunity – the level of resistance within a community necessary to stifle any epidemic – remains an intangible dream.
“Collective immunity is not that magic number where once you reach this point, no one else is infected,” said Shane Crotty, immunologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California. Popular science.
“It would no longer be a real epidemic once you reach collective immunity, [but] the virus would continue to spread, it would still infect people, it would still kill people. It would just be a less common event. “
And this less-than-optimal result seems more than ever to depend on the discovery – and mass distribution – of a successful vaccine.
Until then, physical distance and quarantine measures are the only means available to combat COVID-19.
And we are already fed up.
Health experts know that abstinence is a bad medical tool. It doesn’t work for sex. It doesn’t work for drugs. It doesn’t work for alcohol.
This is why caution seems to have been thrown to the wind at the first signs of relief in South Korea, Germany and Australia.
“Fatigue in quarantine is real”, writes Julia Marcus, professor at Harvard Medicine School.
“I am not talking about the people who organize militaristic demonstrations against the alleged hoax of the coronavirus. I am talking about those who live the heavy burden of extreme physical and social distancing. “
What is needed now, says Marcus, is a more nuanced response.
“An all-or-nothing approach to disease prevention can have unintended consequences. Individuals can focus on unlikely sources of contagion – the parcel in the mail, the runner or cyclist on the street – while underestimating precautions, such as cloth masks, which are flawed but useful.
The worst example of such fixations is “pandemic shame”, where people are publicly attacked for gatherings on the beaches, in queues or in popular places.
What is needed, she says, is a harm reduction approach.
“First, policy makers and health experts can help the public differentiate between low-risk and high-risk activities,” says Marcus.
“Second, health experts can also recognize the contextual factors that affect both a person’s decisions and their risk of transmitting coronavirus.
“Third, (we) can accept that, despite our best efforts, some people choose to engage in high-risk activities – and instead of shaming them, we can provide them with tools to reduce the potential damage.”
Amidst all of this, pandemic experts focus on what has been accomplished.
COVID-19 could easily have been another black plague. This is not the case. Because we have acted.
“I don’t think behavior specialists would have predicted how much we have all come together to overcome this disease,” writes the British professor of biology Ian Boyd.
“The rapid transition to a strategy of social distancing has been a huge success, although it has been difficult.”
This virus is very contagious: when it is not controlled, each victim can potentially infect between three and five others.
Now in Australia and the UK it’s less than one.
And intermittent locks to cancel recurring outbreaks until a vaccine arrives is a good thing.
“Although it can be embarrassing, we can, if we want to, keep COVID-19 under control, even without a vaccine or test,” says Boyd.
“This is not an easy task.”
It is an achievement that has saved thousands – if not millions – of lives worldwide.
“Balancing all of this against the disadvantages of social distance for vulnerable people and the economy will always be a difficult and morally based choice,” he writes.
“It will involve adaptive management – learning what works by experimenting with different methods – and patience. But it should also involve an open debate on the question of where the moral balance between costs and benefits lies. “
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel