It is finally beginning to dawn on people that life will not return to normal on May 3rd, nor in June, July or August. If you are still secretly hoping it will, wake up and smell the coffee. The virus is here to stay and we’d better learn how to deal with it.
And dealing with it means: working together to ensure there are as few victims as possible. That wil inevitably entail major changes in our lives. That is the brutal hard message, the consequences of which are hard to imagine.
The alternative is to continue the current lock-down for months longer, until this corona virus is somehow permanently under control. This is only possible when a vaccine is developed or when a sufficient number of people have acquired long term immunity.
That bubble we all held so dear was filled with the hope that this would quickly pass. It was filled with expressions such as ‘once we’ve passed the peak’, ‘a quick restart of our economy’, ‘resuming normal life’. We all pictured it in our own way. For some, the picture was having a beer on a terrace with friends, for others it was cuddling their grandchildren. For far too many of us, it meant anxiously counting the days until they have some money in their bank accounts.
Many clung to the encouraging news from South Asia: hadn’t those countries proven that it was possible to have a reasonably normal public life and still keep the epidemic under control? Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea briefly and unexpectedly became beacons. No strict lock-downs, schools and restaurants opened, with only limited forms of ‘social distancing’ and yet low numbers of daily infections.
No normality in Singapore
Forget it. Singapore’s already surfing on its third wave – the third time they have to tighten the measures again. Lawrence Wong, who heads the coronavirus task force in Singapore, makes no bones about it: “We will have to devise measures that are feasible to sustain until the end of the year. This is a marathon we’re running.” Even Singapore can no longer keep up the appearance of normality.
Schools and bars have shut down again in Hong Kong. The government’s advisor is now considering a strategy of accelerating and braking. The measures will be loosened up a bit when the number of cases is down and tightened again when the numbers rise.
For the sake of clarity, this too is no more than guessing. There is no ready-made plan to deal with this particular virus in this capitalist world system. No one expressed it better this week than Jeremy Konyndyk, an adviser to the World Health Organization. “We’re at the front end of what will be a pretty arduous few years of something. What the something looks like, we don’t fully know,” he said.
Too many uncertainties
Part of the reason is that so little is known about this particular virus. It is more deadly than an ordinary flu, but how much more deadly is not known. There is a counter, but no denominator. The counter is the number of deaths. It took 83 days to reach the milestone of 50,000 dead. In the 8 days that followed that milestone, another 50,000 people died. Another eight days later there were 150,000 dead. Although that too is only an estimate. We don’t know yet if countries are lying about the numbers. We do know for sure that some countries don’t count all deaths: in countries like France and the UK, those who die lonely in old age homes are not even entitled to be a number in the statistics. But what we don’t know at all is how many people have already been infected (the denominator), as there is far too little testing.
Recently, a study in the German village of Gangelt investigated how many inhabitants had developed antibodies against the virus in their blood. The virus had raged there after thousands had celebrated carnival together, some of them carrying the virus. The result was disappointing: only 14 % had already contracted the virus. In Austria, random tests on 1,600 people showed that less than 1 % of Austrians had already contracted the virus. This means that the corona virus still has 86 % of the population of Gangelt and 99 % of the population of Austria at its disposal to strike much harder next time.
In fact it may even be worse than that, as scientists don’t know yet exactly how that immunity against the virus works. In South Korea, scientists were astonished when 91 people who had been declared cured, tested positive again some time later. Had the virus been reactivated or had they become infected again? “There are different interpretations and many variables”, was all the investigator, professor Jung Ki-suck, could answer when asked.
To achieve the much-touted herd immunity, over 60 % of the population should have gotten infected at some point (assuming they remain immune to the virus for a long time, which is currently uncertain). That means countless deaths and a time span of many months. Perhaps as long as it takes to devise a vaccine – if a vaccine can be developed at all. Belgian epidemiologist-in-chief Marc Van Ranst does not sound at all optimistic about this in an interview he gave to the newspaper De Morgen: “We all assume that there will be a vaccine within the foreseeable future. In fact that is not a given. There is no guarantee it’s going to be there. There are some viruses we would very much like to have a vaccine for – but we don’t, because we just can’t develop it.”
Virologist Erika Vlieghe, who was recently appointed to chair the Belgian task force that prepares the exit strategy to end the lock-down, enumerates these uncertainties in the same newspaper: “The epidemic may become more manageable in the meantime, but that is very difficult to predict. We don’t know how many people are protected by antibodies. Nor do we know how the infection will behave when the weather warms up in the summer, or when temperatures fall again towards autumn and winter. There are many unknown factors.”
Harvard epidemiologists have calculated that we will regularly need to resume lock-downs until at least 2022. They saw one bright spot: towards the end, the lock-downs would only need to last a few weeks to get the last virus outbreaks under control. In their study, published in Science, they do add that there are still many uncertainties, including the duration of immunity. So this is not a prediction made with full certainty, but one of the models that will be used to make future projections based on what scientists now know.
Robert Redfield, who heads the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC), said during the Easter weekend that ‘no doubt there will be a new wave in the winter’. According to him, this means that there should be sufficient social distancing during the summer months and that we can then expect a second peak in winter. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota also doesn’t see the virus disappearing any time soon. “This first wave is only the beginning of what could easily be 16 to 18 months of substantial activity of the virus in the world, wave after wave.” Osterholm fears that some cities that have already been hard hit, will see even higher numbers of victims next time.
“At the end of this month, freedom will return.”
Of course, many interests are holding on to that dream of a rapid return to normality. The mayor of Kortrijk, Vincent Van Quickenborne, tweeted on Easter Sunday: “At the end of this month, freedom will return. Our freedom.” That tweet is even more insane than Trump’s: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” At least Trump was clever enough not to put a concrete date on it.
Plenty of other signals from politicians and scientists point to the opposite. Anthony Fauci, the virologist leading the operation in the US with a raging Trump breathing down his neck, mentioned over the Easter weekend that he hopes the US will have the virus under control by November, so that by then a ‘true degree of normality’ can return. Marc Zuckerberg canceled all public and internal corporate Facebook events involving more than 50 people until June … 2021. He said he did so after consultating public health experts.
A Spanish government source said the scenario in which the country’s borders will remain closed for international tourism “until autumn” is on the table. The Danish government was the first to ban all cultural and other events until the end of August. The Belgian Security Council followed suit.
Bas Flesseman, a Dutch booking agent of rock musicians remarked that international artists are increasingly moving their autumn tours to 2021. Meanwhile, Dutch concert and festival organisers are begging the government to ban all events, so as to take away all uncertainty (and also put them on firmer ground for their insurance claims).
Those event organisers had also heard or read the statements of their prime minister Rutte about the other half-metre society of the near future. Everywhere and always at least one and a half metres. Just try to imagine what that means for the cultural world, for nightlife or for most workplaces.
Ursula von der Leyen, chairwoman of the European Commission, also contributed to bursting the bubble over Easter weekend. “Without a vaccine, we will have to avoid contact with the elderly until the end of this year, especially those living in retirement homes.”
Von der Leyen glibly summarised the group of people more vulnerable to the coronavirus with the label ‘ the elderly’. A more extensive list is offered on the website of the Irish National Health Service. Among the most vulnerable people are: those over 60; those with heart, lung and kidney problems, suffering from diabetes or high blood pressure; cancer patients, people with immuno-deficiency problems, … In various hospitals, it was found that obese people too run a much higher risk of dying when infected with the corona virus.
All those people, who taken together make up a significant part of our society, have a choice until at least the end of the year: getting very seriously ill with an excessive risk of dying, or cutting themselves off from society.
Post-corona? What about intra-corona?
So things won’t return to ‘normal’ any time soon. On social media, numerous calls are appearing to design the post-corona society, usually with the hope of forming a more just and ecologically sounder one. However, the most urgent project lies elsewhere: we are faced with the herculean task of inventing the corona society. The level of justice and safety we will achieve now will entirely determine how our society will survive.
Make no mistake. The tiny elite in our society that sees its profits melt away and its business model collapse are feverishly (pun intended) working on their exit strategies. Over the very weekend when all of Belgium was confronted with the horrendous situation in our nursing homes, employers’ association VOKA launched a major campaign to ‘get up and move on together’. It sounded like this in a tweet: “In every week when we continue to work as we are doing now, our country suffers billions of euros of damages. Other European countries are gradually starting up again, an export region like Flanders cannot afford to lag behind”.
Let’s all get back to work, then. Production and consumption first, safety last. For many employees there is no safety even during this lockdown. At the end of March, acting on complaints, the Inspectorate for Welfare at Work (TWW) controlled 750 companies. No less than 85 percent of the companies inspected failed to comply with the most essential safety rules.
Get to work as soon as possible
The politicians serving the interests of that elite are already pushing hard. In The Guardian, a government source offered an insight into how things are going there. “The hospitalisaion of Boris Johnson and his stay in intensive care undermined the cause of those who push hard to get back to business as usual in schools and workplaces,” said the source. Read that sentence again to realize the kind of political games that are being played right now.
In the meantime, a few concrete aspects of these exit strategies are already emerging between the lines. Boris Johnson’s UK and Angela Merkel’s Germany toyed with the idea of handing out immunity passes. The underlying idea was that people who had acquired immunity could produce and consume in abundance again. However, it wasn’t long before that plan had to be canceled. The British government had ordered 3.5 million immunity tests, but it turned out most types give faulty results half of the time. Even the most reliable tests still have a 30 percent error margin. In other words: to be dumped in the trash bin or rather – as some videos on social media have meanwhile shown: in African countries.
This is hardly the only problem with the idea of immunity passes. As explained above, far too little is known about how immunity works with this specific corona virus. Moreover, scientists have pointed out dangerous side effects of the project: they were already envisioning corona parties with people trying their best to get infected, so that they can also enjoy the privileges of an immunity pass. Perhaps infected persons’ used tissues would become coveted gadgets in certain circles…
All exit strategies have this in common: they are built on a shaky scientific basis and can lead to dystopian states. Most people are beginning to realise that a simultaneous relaxation of all measures and thus a return to ‘normal life’ (as we knew it before the corona virus) is not possible for everyone. Choices will therefore have to be made. Choices will have to be made as to where and for whom life will become more or less normal again and where and for whom it will not.
The renowned medical magazine The Lancet has already published a study of these aspects based on the lock-downs in China, which were much stricter than in any Western country. Professor Joseph Wu of Hong Kong University summed up the conclusion: “While the control measures seem to have reduced the number of infections, that number is likely to rise again soon as we gradually reopen shops, businesses and schools.
The World Health Organization also warned about this. “It’s like being sick yourself and getting up and about too quickly. You risk relapses and complications.” Some experts even fear that the lock-downs will not end anytime soon at all. “We are deluding ourselves if we think we can get out of the lock-down without a vaccine,” thinks Nick Chater, professor at the University of Warwick.
Health versus Wealth
This puts a different scenario on the table. The scenario of the major trade off between Health and Wealth. In the words of the almost desperate Nobel Prize for economy Paul Romer: “We’re trapped in the trauma: kill the economy or kill more people.”
Two British economists, Gerard Lyons and Paul Ormerod, have already made that choice. In a paper exploring ways out of the lock-down, they write: “we don’t ban all traffic just because there are almost 2,000 fatal accidents every year”. The usual suspects will be the loudest voices in the debate in the coming weeks. Danish climate sceptic Bjørn Lomborg, a welcome guest in the Belgian media, has already brought his usual narrative, which is identical for the corona crisis as for the climate crisis: the measures cost a lot more than doing nothing. So let’s just do nothing.
This is the first immense task that lies ahead of us. It will take a lot to drown out the choir of deniers. This battle will have to be fought in every sector of society. Already now there are hundreds of companies flouting the safety rules, that number will explode the longer the crisis lasts. In every sector we have a task: keep a close eye on the people who choose to ‘kill more people’, and curb their power.
So what is to be done?
Of course, the measures will be relaxed. One figure is important: the infection rate (R0). According to a study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, this is an average of 3.28 and a median of 2.79 for the corona virus. This means that every person infected in normal circumstances (without social distancing measures) on average infects more than 3 other people. If R0 falls below 1, the epidemic will stop after a certain period of time. The measures now being taken do seem to push R0 below 1, but not very far, as the number of new infections is only decreasing slowly. As soon as the measures are relaxed, the number of new infections will irrevocably rise again.
A lot can be done to keep R0 as low as possible. Everyone is already using soap and water several times a day. You can make masks compulsory and teach the population how to use them correctly. There is also an arsenal of existing measures developed by epidemiologists. If massive testing takes place (just get used to the fact that every two weeks a long swab will be pushed up your nose) and contacts of infected people are consistently traced, you can isolate those people. But that requires a huge machinery to be put in place. The Lancet calculated that with an R0 of 3.5 you need to be able to identify and isolate more than 90 percent of infected persons’ contacts in order to get the epidemic under control. To help with this, an app is considered, which would send people a message if they have been in the vicinity of an infected person.
The only problem is that you can’t simply transfer these methods from epidemiology to an ‘economic context’. “These measures are not intended to get people back to work as quickly as possible, but to contain an epidemic,” says an epidemiologist involved in the current operation to control the coronavirus pandemic.
Even if that app is developed and is accepted by the population (which is not at all certain: in Singapore only one sixth of the population has downloaded the specially developed app), you will still need a huge testing apparatus and a large group of testers and tracers to visit people, test them and check their compliance with self-quarantine. For example, one study estimates that the US needs 260,000 tracers. They now have 2,200 … So each country is facing a huge effort to get the whole testing and tracing machinery up and running.
Of all these methods to control a pandemic, there are therefore two versions: one version in which health (in all aspects: mental, social and material) is paramount and one version in which attention is paid mostly to stock market prices. It is this second version that inevitably leads to dystopian and dangerous situations. Are we going to install a red light on that app, so that gatekeepers can refuse people access to public spaces? Are we going to divide the limited public space among those who can afford it? Are we going to introduce passes everywhere, for the beach, for public transport or for shopping malls? Are we going to exclude the group of vulnerable people (who are also often part of the socially weakest groups) from social life for a very long period of time, so that they can watch behind their windows how the rest of us lead ‘normal’ lives again? To the extent that our lives ever were normal, with record numbers of burnouts, suicides, drug abuse and depression.
Ralf Caers, professor of HR management at KU Leuven, has no problem with the latter. He already pleads for a ‘social split’ (his words) between healthy employees and at-risk groups: “Let the healthy people restart the economy”. The economy. Not the system by which we divide prosperity among as many people as possible, but the system in which employees create profit margins. In the world of people like Caers, ‘healthy’ people do not live together with at-risk groups (remember, 60+ and/or a long list of underlying health problems). So you can easily split them up. It evokes memories of films like Children of Men, Elysium or more recently The Platform.
Scott Walker, the notorious Republican ex-Governor of Wisconsin, also immediately found a solution for the restart of businesses: seal off all resting and dining areas and make sure that employees stay with their machines at all times, was his genius idea. The utopia of such figures is our dystopia.
Every single measure imposed during the corona crisis raises many social issues. This is already the case. The lock-down is not the same in every neighbourhood or in every social group: having a spacious garden versus living in a cramped studio makes the difference between a long holiday and a prison sentence. The same goes for having an income that is more or less continuous or not, having enough laptops in the house for kids’ homeschooling or not, having a large social network or not.
Every measure that has been taken and every measure that will be taken has enormous consequences. This means that we all have two urgent tasks before us: to shift the balance towards Health and to come up with solutions for the social consequences of the measures. Ultimately, these two tasks coincide under a broad definition of ‘Health’.
The choice between Wealth and Health has never been so urgent and so clearly binary. Our responsibility has never been greater. The choices we now make and the victories we manage to achieve will fully determine what the post-corona world looks like.
Once we all realise that this will not be over in June and not even at the end of August, a first important issue arises: the gap between rich and poor that existed before the corona crisis has become even more poignant. In the UK, research has shown that one and a half million extra people have been going hungry since the lock-down began. Not figuratively, but literally: they have insufficient means to eat every day. Too many people don’t know how they will survive the next few months because they have lost their income. Belgium fortunately has activated its system of temporary unemployment, but that too amounts to a substantial loss of wages for workers.
Many billions are being set aside to save corporations (but only the healthy ones, they subtly add, increasing the danger that soon we will only be left with multinationals and chain stores), but many people are left out in the cold. The Democrats in the American House of Representatives proposed this week to give $2,000 a month to all adults earning less than $130,000 a year until ‘unemployment is back at the same level as before the crisis’. In California, the government put $120 million into a fund to financially support the many undocumented migrants who make up a large portion of the working class in the state. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided this week to give 856 euros to each resident. What are we waiting for in Belgium as well to work for a real bail-out of the people? All the people, because with every measure taken so far, invariably unacceptably large groups have been left out. We have to fight this fight all over the world. After all, this crisis is going to last longer than initially predicted by mainstream economists.
It is mentally difficult to accept that there is no known date on which we will all come together to celebrate the victory over the corona virus. It is beginning to dawn on us that this is going to take longer than we initially thought, but it remains difficult to force ourselves to look far ahead to the future. One of the reasons for this cognitive dissonance is that the consequences of a prolonged corona virus crisis in all corners and layers of society and in all sectors are simply unthinkable. When we even start take into account the impact on the cultural sector, education, the hospitality industry, the social life of vulnerable people, … anxiety engulfs us.
Still, we must overcome this anxiety and start thinking about all the consequences today. This cognitive dissonance is part and parcel of the shock doctrine. Ever since the corona virus turned our lives upside down, collective bewilderment has struck. We are all disoriented and unable to think clearly. In our capitalist societies, there is a group that does keep a cold head with a clear view and that takes advantage of such crises to remould society to its advantage.
Last weekend, financial newspaper De Tijd provided a sample of this worldview. A number of investors and asset managers, together with specialists, put to paper their vision for the future of the corona society. We can discern three broad lines: first, they opt for a surveillance society in which we are followed and scanned everywhere. Secondly, any and all forms of public life are to be banned. Theatres, cinemas, all places where people congregate in their spare time, are to be shut down ‘until a vaccine will be available’. Only strictly economic and individual activities will be allowed: producing and consuming (in the form of buying, preferably online or, if that is not possible, in shops where strict distancing rules apply). Thirdly, access to public space will be restricted. A carefree day at an amusement park, beach or swimming pool will no longer be possible. Everywhere, capacity will be limited and will therefore have to be reserved and paid (more) for, as befits a capitalist logic.
In the coming weeks and months, our talents to take care of each other and to be creative and to resist those dystopian plans will be tested to the extreme. Yes, getting together will be more difficult and maybe even impossible. But that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to the individualistic ‘reservation society’.
All of us will have to build the corona society, each on our own terrain and each in our own environment. We should start today rather than tomorrow and share all our knowledge, experiences and victories with each other. One day, there will be a post-corona society, but it will bear the traces of what we are doing now and what we are achieving now.
Health vs Wealth is the contradiction that will determine our lives and our actions in the years to come. The challenge is huge, but not unachievable. We, the 99 percent, are stronger than ever. If there is one thing we have learned in recent weeks, it is that it is not the stock market speculators and bankers who make society work. Everyone can see now who is holding our society together in times of crisis. That catapults workers in health care, food production and distribution, garbage collectors, postal workers and teachers into an unexpected position of power.
Two days of small-scale local actions at a Delhaize supermarket were enough to enforce additional protective measures and a 500 euro premium for all employees in the supermarket chain. Last week’s Yougov poll showed that only 9 percent of Brits want to return to what was ‘normal’ before the corona crisis. Especially in the areas of environment, healthy food and community life with neighbours, friends and family, they hope for major change.
It is already becoming clear that education is the next front line in the fight for healthy, just and achievable solutions. The same will happen to all sectors and layers of society. The reckoning has really become inevitable this time around.