After the authorities in different countries announced a relaxation of the restrictions, people started to impatiently waiting for that, maybe even with plans to recover last bits of a confiscated spring.
However, the pandemic did not end, and we all need to mind both the benefits and the risks that come with relaxation.
Beyond the natural desire to return to work for those who have been financially distressed during lockdown, it is clear that many are tired of twisting in the net of restrictions, so they are already preparing, at least declaratively, to resume their former lives: visits, walks in parks, outings to the mall and terraces, forays into barbershops and beauty salons, vacation planning and weekend outings, if the new rules allow.
The arguments for a quick return to normalcy come from different motivations, from the need to urgently revive the economy and the suspicion that authorities exaggerate the danger posed by COVID-19, to the belief that we live surrounded by viruses and many other dangers we need to learn how to get by with.
Others argue that we should largely follow the same rules that are imposed on us now, because the pandemic will not change its evolution just because we cancel the state of emergency.
Those in the second category complain that people have already relaxed — the roads are crowded again, the spaces of markets and shops are crowded with people, many do not wear masks, and the safe distance between people is no longer respected.
The World Health Organization warned in early April that premature lifting of restrictions could lead to a resurgence of the pandemic. But is it too early for everyone or for certain given countries?
Sailing in unsafe waters
What we can say with certainty about COVID-19 and its effects is that this subject is still shrouded in too much uncertainty — this is the conclusion of a bushy analysis signed by journalist Ed Yong for The Atlantic. The identity of the pathogen is one of the few certainties of scientists, Yong writes, reviewing questions to which there are no clear or definitive answers: “Why do some people get really sick, but others do not? Are the models too optimistic or too pessimistic? Exactly how transmissible and deadly is the virus? How many people have actually been infected? For how long must social restrictions remain? Why are so many questions still unanswered?” With so many unknowns, the timeline needed to keep restrictions in place for safety is, in turn, unknown.
In fact, a whole host of social, epidemiological and epistemological factors make this pandemic an overwhelming problem, Yong writes, analyzing each of these factors in detail.
More than 7,500 studies of COVID-19 have been published since the beginning of the pandemic, but despite this impressive number, “we haven’t seen a lot of huge plot twists“, said Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington.
An exception was the information that infected people are contagious even before showing symptoms, which, incidentally, was verified by other studies after it was announced by a German study published in early February.
However, the press covers studies that have not yet been validated by other researchers and turns their conclusions into front-page headlines that deceive and excite the population. One such study was that of researchers at Stanford University, who concluded that 2.5% – 4.2% of the population was already infected, which would mean that the virus is less lethal than previously thought, and that the lockdown is an excessive reaction. However, the methods and conclusions of the study were criticized by other scientists, including statisticians and virologists.
In fact, such debates and refutation of studies are typical of academia, writes Yong, but the difference is that they now take place in a few days, instead of a few months, and are brought into the public eye (and) because studies such as the one from Stanford University are now being published before the peer review, i.e. before going through the evaluation process in which other specialists review the work. The result is that the public is upset by all these contradictory data and has the impression that information that was already taken for granted is now suddenly hidden.
Last but not least, the pandemic has given various specialists the opportunity to offer opinions and solutions to problems in which they do not have competence. Of course, in the eyes of the general public, the specialist’s reputation compensates for any other shortcoming, and the fact that modern specialization has become deeper, but also narrower, remains a detail that no one remembers.
Analyzing all the factors involved in the development of the pandemic, Yong concludes that we still know too little to simply rush into high-stakes decisions (individually and collectively).
How to look at successful models of pandemic control
Sweden’s lax policy is highly valued by supporters of urgently lifting the quarantine, as well as by those who believe that there are no real benefits of tough public health policies.
Recently, the WHO offered Sweden’s strategy as a “model”. Here, classes were suspended in high schools and universities, public gatherings with more than 50 participants were banned, museums were closed, and visits to nursing homes were banned, but schools for children under 16 remained open, and bars, restaurants and cafés can operate if their tables are set at the recommended distance.
“Sweden is a role model if we want to return to a society where there is no isolation,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, a UN emergency expert. Ryan said, however, that it was not a passive attitude of the Swedish authorities, which would have allowed the disease to spread, but the implementation of a public policy “in partnership with the population.” The expert also pointed out that the Scandinavian country has intensified testing and that the Swedish medical system has the capacity to successfully manage outbreaks.
The Swedish model came to be glorified and used to weave conspiracy theories about the totalitarianism of other states, which imposed severe public health measures, but too few realized that it could not be exported everywhere, writes doctor Vlad Mixich, an independent expert on the board of the European Agency for Work Safety and Health.
First of all, most Swedes respect social distancing measures, even if they are recommended and not imposed, because they trust their government. Second, the authorities have taken various measures to restrict traffic (for example, the Swedes have the opportunity to take 4 weeks of paid leave, the number of trains running has been reduced, domestic flights are almost closed). Thirdly, despite the fact that Swedes generally follow the recommendations, the number of deaths, compared to the size of the population, is 3-6 times higher than in other Scandinavian countries, where distancing measures are mandatory.
In fact, Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, does not recommend this model to other countries, insisting on the need to adapt the measures to national specificities.
At the same time, however, Tegnell stressed the need to identify measures that can be continued in the long term, not just for a few weeks or months.
Relaxation: One step forward, two steps back?
Relaxing restrictions is not a consequence of having found solutions to the health crisis that has upset the globe, but because we have no alternative.
After humanity saw that it did not have the resources to stay at home for more than a month, maybe two, and after the miracle it hoped for did not happen, on the contrary: the economic losses became drastic, getting out of isolation is the solution we are heading for. We have no solid arguments for quarantine or relaxation, and the intermediate options are not yet well calculated, analysts believe, but, nevertheless, we are forced to press the relaxation pedal in May. It will be a tough but inevitable exam.
The economic recovery is not as simple a matter as it seems to us, argues journalist Jonathan Last. It is unrealistic to believe that you can “reopen” America, as long as the source of the economic shock is the pandemic, not government restrictions, which “merely ratified the behaviors that the vast majority of people and institutions were already adopting in response to COVID-19.”
Knowing the rate of infection is a key element in shaping public health policies, writes epidemiologist Gabriel Leung of the University of Hong Kong. For at least a year from now, we must be prepared for cycles of relaxation and reintroduction of restrictions, applied “in ways that can keep the pandemic under control, but at an economically and socially acceptable cost,” Leung says.
And, if we give credit to the estimates made by specialists like Leung, we did not reach the day when we may leave the cage without any worries.
Under the sign of caution
Most European countries have partially lifted a series of restrictions or are preparing to do so.
Denmark was the first country in Western Europe to reopen its schools and kindergartens on April 15 after a month of restrictions. The decision was challenged by some parents, who complained that the government was using their children as “guinea pigs”, but Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the decision was necessary to allow parents to return to work and revive the economy.
Greece reopened small shops. In France, starting May 11, traffic will be allowed without a written declaration inside localities, as well as outside within a radius of 100 kilometers, and parks, cemeteries and libraries will reopen.
In Italy, 4.5 million people returned to work on May 4, and individual sports are allowed at any distance from home.
Germany re-opened its schools on May 4, and its example will be followed by Belgium (May 11, with a maximum of 10 children in the class) and Austria (May 18).
Romania announced a relaxation of the restrictions starting with May 15. People will be able to travel free, without any previously signed document stating the purpose of their travel.
Relaxation of restrictions is good news for everyone, but with one condition: to understand that the pandemic is not over. We are heading for “a new state of normalcy, focused on individual responsibility,” says Răzvan Cherecheș, director of the Department of Public Health of the Faculty of Political, Administrative and Communication Sciences at Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania.
“The solution could be to refer to COVID-19 infection as we relate to excessive speed as a risk factor for traffic accidents or to chronic alcohol consumption as a risk factor for liver cirrhosis,” says Cherecheș.
The test we are going to give will be related to the conscientiousness with which we apply what we know. It is, after all, a test of responsibility and empathy alike, which will show not only how well we know how to manage an unprecedented pandemic, but also how much we value the lives of our most vulnerable.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.