Living in Lockdown: What's the Appropriate Response to the Coronavirus?by@e.p.m.vermeulen
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Living in Lockdown: What's the Appropriate Response to the Coronavirus?

by Erik P.M. VermeulenMarch 23rd, 2020
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Erik P. Vermeulen: How should we respond to the current crisis? He says experts give us three options in the absence of a vaccine. No response is not an option, he says. He says suppression/Lockdown is built around the idea of “social distancing” of the population. Controlled transmission of the coronavirus is the main principle of the mitigation strategy. The idea isn’t to completely suppress the epidemic but to focus efforts on protecting the elderly and others “at-risk” groups.

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It is difficult to think, talk, or write about anything else these days. I am now living in a near lockdown society. Schools, restaurants, and more and more shops are closed. People are advised to stay off the streets and keep their distance.

I am a university teacher, and my wife runs a restaurant. We carefully follow the news. New information is released almost every hour. Things are changing at lightning speed. The speed of recent events is scary, for sure.

The outbreak puts things in a different perspective. For instance, vacations, festivals, and sports events don’t matter anymore.

The “only” thing that matters is our health and the social and economic health of our societies. Our future depends on combatting the coronavirus outbreak. A few weeks ago, there was a “don’t panic” approach. Now it’s clear to everybody that the situation is dire.

The million-dollar question, of course, is how should we respond to the current crisis?

Medical experts and scientists in the field of virology, epidemiology, infectious diseases, and public health care are currently in the driving seat when it comes to answering this question. Governments and most of us rely on their opinion. And rightly so, they are best placed to speak with authority on the subject.

But COVID-19 is new. And there is no consensus among experts about the best response. We need more research, more tests, and more and better data.

Until we have a better scientific understanding of the virus and have developed a medical treatment and vaccine, a possible response to the virus can also be found in society.

What Do the Experts Say?

What do the experts say? The way I see it, scientists and other experts give us three options in the absence of a vaccine.

No action. On this point, there is little-to-no doubt. No response is not an option. If we don’t interrupt or try to eliminate human-to-human transmission of the virus, the pressure on health systems will be overwhelming.

The next two strategies appear to be more realistic. They are based on epidemiological and mathematical models that have been influential in helping governments introduce existing anti-virus measures. The Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team published a paper last week that describes the two strategies in detail. We can summarize them as follows:

Suppression/Lockdown. This approach is built around the idea of “social distancing” of the population. Think of home isolation, family quarantine, prohibiting mass gatherings, and travel bans and restrictions. The closure of schools, restaurants, and cafés is usually the next step, sometimes followed by other lockdown restrictions that should help stop coronavirus transmissions.

The goal is to help take some of the strain off the health system. Unfortunately, the strategy doesn’t guarantee that we beat the coronavirus in the long term. It will take a long time (12–18 months is mentioned) to develop a vaccine. Also, the initial vaccines may not work, in which case the virus threat will most likely reappear as soon as the suppression measures are lifted.

Mitigation. Controlled transmission of the coronavirus is the main principle of the mitigation strategy. The idea isn’t to completely suppress the epidemic but to focus efforts on protecting the elderly and others “at-risk” groups. The more young and healthy people who recover from the coronavirus infection, the more people will be (presumably) immune to re-infection. This will then help build-up “herd” or population immunity, which, in turn, will lead to a significant decline of transmissions.

But this strategy comes at a heavy price. Mathematical models predict many hospitalizations and fatalities.

So currently, the choice is between several months of “suppression” (lockdown) while we develop a vaccine or a large number of deaths (the cost of generating population or herd immunity).

Unsurprisingly given that choice, more and more countries are opting for a form of suppression.

This choice is easier said than done. The authors of the Imperial College paper, for example, explicitly state that they do not consider the social or economic implications of the possible strategies. So, how will societies respond to the suppression measures that we are witnessing around the world?

That is a question we can — and should — be asking. And it is a question where everyone’s opinion matters. Not least, because any lockdown strategy ultimately depends on the willingness of ordinary people to cooperate with the restrictions.

Certainties & Challenges

Living under lockdown is difficult. Very difficult. For many of us, the coronavirus and the subsequent suppression measures have turned our lives upside down. Loneliness. Stress. Fear.

And yet, given everything we know about the coronavirus, a suppression strategy is the preferred option. Let me try to explain why from the perspective of someone who is a teacher and co-owner of a restaurant (spouse of a restaurant owner/manager).

Social Certainty

No action or mitigation are not only extremely dangerous. They left many of us in limbo.

Until the government stepped in and obliged us to close, my wife and I had long discussions about the restaurant. What should we do? The number of guests is declining. Some were advised to stay home because they had flu-like symptoms. Others canceled their reservations out of fear of infection.

The health and safety of our guests and staff have always been our highest priority. But what signal would we send to the market if we decided to close the restaurant ourselves?

It sounds weird, but the message that the government mandated the closure of restaurants came as a relief.

Yes, there are still many questions and uncertainties we have to deal with. What should we do now that the primary revenue stream disappeared? The thought of not being able to generate any revenue was devastating, and my wife was struggling with the idea of not operating the restaurant. It is a significant part of our lives, and it has suddenly and unexpectedly stopped.

But the suppression measures were clear and allowed us to focus on the two most important things: securing the personal health of everyone involved, as well as developing new ideas for the near and long-term future of the business.

Before the school closure announcement, I also had to deal with increased student absenteeism. Some students stayed away for the same reasons as the guests of our restaurant. Continuing the scheduled classes as if nothing happened made no sense. Unclear and vague directions led to a lot of uncertainty and only worked as a massive distraction for both the students and me.

Again, I don’t want to say lockdown is a good thing. No, the whole situation is devastating. But the lockdown decision at least provided some degree of clarity at a crucial and challenging moment. This matters when uncertainties abound.

Of course, we realize that the “certainties” of lockdown are a short-term solution. If the health experts are right, suppression measures may need to last for an extended period. We can only close the restaurant for a short time. We cannot stop teaching for a year or so.

And that is the problem with a suppression approach. It provides short-term security without offering a long-term solution or plan.

To deal with the immediate social and economic uncertainties, governments all over the world have unveiled various fiscal stimulus and spending plans. These plans are very welcome, particularly for a restaurant or other small and medium-sized business owner. But they don’t offer a long-term or permanent solution.

Digital Reality

But, the lockdown strategy and complementing economic stimulus packages give us some time and incentive to become more creative and more innovative in everything we do.

As long as the coronavirus controls the world, we largely depend on digital solutions. Suppression and social distancing in a digital age is different. Digital technologies offer unique opportunities that were not possible even two decades ago. We are resourceful creatures, and we adapt surprisingly well to new situations using the digital tools that are available to us.

We use social media to connect. Online office tools allow us to continue to work and collaborate with our colleagues. Virtual lunches are organized. More and more long-distance/remote fitness competitions are started. Digital tools help coordinate amazing and heart-warming initiatives. Last Friday, I experienced how more than 180 radio stations in more than thirty countries played “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the same time to show solidarity and unity against the coronavirus. Who ever thought that we would have tears in our eyes listening to Gerry & The Pacemakers. How quickly things have changed.

And there is more. A lockdown situation provides a learning opportunity. Even the most “anti-digital” people I know are forced to embrace digital solutions. Digital and virtual ways of operating will not disappear anytime soon.

For my wife and I, the current lockdown enables us to be creative and focus on digital solutions for the restaurant. We are experimenting with digital delivery platforms and sharing recipes online. We are even considering the introduction of a family cooking channel. New digital business models are quickly becoming the new normal, even for the most traditional businesses, such as restaurants.

Podcasts, instruction videos, online assignments, and virtual office hours are more important than ever for any teacher in a lockdown situation. I mainly teach an international group of students. Many of them went back home already. To provide them with a similar experience as they would have had in class, I am learning a lot from the gaming industry. I already had the idea to implement elements from games in my teaching, but the lockdown situation forces me to become more serious about doing it. Online resources and the willingness of colleagues to share their experience is also extremely helpful.

In this way, even though far from being optimal, lockdown can stimulate the construction of a new reality, and this new reality will be driven, in a contemporary context, by the capabilities of digital technologies.

A New World

In 2015, Bill Gates warned us and showed us that we aren’t ready for the next epidemic. Unfortunately, his prediction has become a reality. We weren’t ready!

The world has changed in a very short time. Hopefully, experts and scientists will be able to find a solution soon. Until then, I am incredibly grateful to the many health workers who do everything and risk everything to contain the outbreak.

And it doesn’t stop there. We are all responsible for mitigating the social and economic impact of the pandemic. The suppression strategies give us some (but not a lot) of time to adjust and introduce innovative ways of working and learning in this strange new reality.