We have to learn to live with the threat of the virus

How long and how many times more can people psychologically and financially afford confinement conditions?
Sunday 05/04/2020
Seven-year-old Syrian girl carriers her 8-month-old sister in the bombed Douma neighbourhood in May 2015. (Reuters)
Triumphing over fear. Seven-year-old Syrian girl carriers her 8-month-old sister in the bombed Douma neighbourhood in May 2015. (Reuters)

I think many governments are acting responsibly towards their citizens. Strong central governments, soft democratic ones and governments of semi-failed states are doing their best to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The world hasn’t seen global pandemics for decades now and doctors and scientists have become preoccupied with the details of the diseases of the times, such as cancer and Alzheimer's. For the traditional good old-fashioned diseases, the list of effective cures and drugs is a dozen-page long, if not more. Nobody is paying attention to high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and other run-of-the-mill infections anymore. Their treatments are ready, tried and proven. But dealing with a pandemic is something else, new and confusing.

What makes epidemics and pandemics hard to deal with is that there is no known clear strategy to get out of the crisis. Unless a vaccine against the virus in its current form — before it begins to mutate again —  is found quickly, there is not much anyone can do with confidence. Right from the start, we know that treating viral infections has its limitations. You get the flu and go to the doctor, only to find out that nothing much can be done about a virus but wait for the infection to go. There are no antibiotics for viruses, like the ones we have against bacterial infections. So, we're just going to have to wait for a vaccine.

So, what’s wrong with that? I think confinement, social distancing, sanitary isolation, disinfecting streets and washing hands are all good measures, but they are temporary ones.

Take country X, for example, a country with a responsible leadership, a strong and effective government, with enough resources and a solid health sector. In that country, in and out flights have been cancelled, people urged to work remotely and restaurants and all other public places closed. The authorities have acted quickly, identified the infected people, followed up on them and mounted the biggest awareness campaign in the country’s history, while disinfecting every nook and cranny in the cities. Citizens felt safe and reassured and, after a month or two, the authorities declared the country free of the virus. In time and with similar draconian measures taken by other countries, there would be enough signs from all over the world indicating that the pandemic was receding. The problem with this scenario is that the statistics used to evaluate the situation are only indicative, for they don’t take into account the number of people infected by the virus who do not yet know, thinking that they have just a simple cold.

Still, country X takes the initiative to ease the quarantine measures and life slowly returns to normal, first socially, then economically. It opens up its borders to business as usual. A month or two down the road, a traveller carrying the virus slips by the cameras monitoring passengers’ body temperature at the airport and enters country X. Days later, the alarm is raised: the coronavirus is back.

So, now we raise some legitimate questions. Should country X mandate another lockdown? How long and how many times more can people psychologically and financially afford confinement conditions? And how often can the country, administratively and economically, withstand the consequences of these emergencies? These are questions that assume that the first shutdown did not shake the economy at its foundations and that country X had enough reserves to withstand the stresses of a complete stoppage of life as we know it. Let’s just say that the social fabric in that country is still intact. But what about countries where survival is a daily struggle and where the only project that people have is swimming to the opposite shore in search of a better life?

I don't have the answers to these questions, of course, but I think this “new reality” should be taken into account by everybody. Just as many cities in Syria today and Sarajevo a few years back got used to living with the threat of snipers and bombs at every corner we, too, in our modern big cities must prepare ourselves to accept “to live with the present threat.”

Soon, our slogan is going to be “Forget coronavirus; let’s go back to living.”