Many countries in Europe are planning in the coming days to ease government restrictions that were imposed earlier due to the novel coronavirus epidemic. Social distancing rules, curfew, and other strict measures were taken in order to slow the spread of the disease. Governments say these controls shall be withdrawn or at least remitted in the coming days, and life may gradually ‘return to normal.’ Officials say the situation is now under control, and if we keep certain rules of social distancing, we may avoid deteriorating trends, even though our life will be woven together with the virus until a vaccination is finally made available.
We may wonder if that is fact-based science or ‘wishful thinking’.
What we learned in the past months from epidemiologists was that the epidemic would end either by vaccination or by reaching herd immunity. Since professionals suppose that a great proportion of infected people do not have symptoms, it is theoretically possible that we are getting close to herd immunity without being aware of the actual number of people infected. In order to prove that theory, arbitrary samples are being taken from those citizens who are not registered COVID-19 patients and then tested for the antibody of the coronavirus. As far as we know, the results are disappointing: while some people actually became immune to SARS-CoV-2, we are still miles away from herd immunity.
So, what is different now compared to the situation 6-8 weeks ago? The number of infected and potentially contagious people is not less. There is no vaccine, no cure. Herd immunity has not been reached, in fact, the vast majority of society is still unaffected. Healthcare systems may be better prepared though, capacities ramped up, lifesaving devices in place and ready to use. Nevertheless, the situation, in general, is not fundamentally different now compared to what it was several weeks ago when the government restrictions were announced.
Yet one thing is different. We have realized that the lockdown is not sustainable. While we are sensibly doing everything we can to save lives, other secondary problems such as falling economies, skyrocketing unemployment, families running out of their savings, increasing stress due to the prolonged confinement, arise. We pay a high price for breaking the spread of the disease. We are trapped, and there is no evident answer to the pressing dilemma. We have a bad and a worse choice.
Governments’ considerations shall be made taking into account the primary and secondary effects of releasing or prolonging the lockdown measures. As secondary effects become overwhelmingly destructive, there is no other choice but to cautiously lift the restrictions and hope for the best regarding the possible reoccurrence of a second epidemic wave.
For us citizens, that will be a new situation. So far, we have been told what we could do and what we could not do. Compliance was not a question of individual consideration, trespassing was punished, ranging from warnings to large fines. From now on, we may go out, and more or less do what we were doing before our life was hit by the coronavirus – with one exception. We are now aware that our freedom means a potential risk of our and others’ health.
I am not saying we should continue to be quarantined voluntarily when government restrictions are withdrawn. We cannot be intimidated and be afraid every time we leave our homes. There are so many values in life we have to continue pursuing. We just have a responsibility in each decision we make. Shall we go to work? Yes, of course. Shall we go to school? Yes, of course. Should we organize large social events tomorrow? Not a good idea. Shall we go for vacation abroad this summer? Maybe yes, maybe no. These are all questions we have to answer for ourselves from now on.
But this isn’t new, is it? When we are driving our car, we know that we are burning fossil fuels, emitting CO2, and contributing our share to global warming. We are doing something that we feel is important to do, while we are making an unintended negative impact on the environment. Children learn in school about the importance of environmental protection, the theory of ecological footprints, the causes and effects of global warming. And we all know that we have an individual responsibility because these complex issues cannot be solved just by authorities creating and observing certain rules. Technology does not make magic in itself either. Self-discipline, self-constraint and austerity come in the forefront when we are seeking the right collective answer.
Here in Europe, our attitude towards limiting our own ecological footprint until now have been painfully distant from what would be sufficient and effective. We now have a new challenge. Are we ready? Let’s hope we are. And trust that this time our response shall be right.
Featured photo illustration by MTI/EPA/Shawn Thew