April 5, 2020
It is a wonderful Sunday morning in Hannover with blazing blue skies, almost like Maine. It is even more beautiful because for the first time in weeks the number of infected people is rising more slowly, indicating that the epidemic is contained in Germany. Three weeks of home isolation and five weeks of social distancing have worked to stop the worst.
And so, the discussion intensifies: when will it end?
My first reaction is: what exactly is meant by that? When will home isolation end? When will social distancing end? What about hand washing and school closures? When will the more stringent hygiene procedures and visiting restrictions end in retirement communities and nursing homes? When can restaurants reopen? What about the virus? What does it mean when we ask, “when will it end?”
It is obvious that there will be no official statement from the governor or the president telling us that it is over. It will be more complicated. The virus will stay with us for the next years, like a lot of other viruses. Coronavirus is a highly contagious virus which causes a few symptoms in most, severe flu-like disease in some, and life-threatening disease in a few. Life-threatening disease mostly affects the elderly with concomitant diseases. We have no effective treatment (like for most viral diseases) and most likely will not develop one. Our biggest hope is a vaccine, however, this will take years. These are the facts. Now we have to deal with it.
We need criteria for different situations, and we will have to behave differently in different settings: at home, at work, in schools, in restaurants. These criteria for how we act must be based on our understanding of the virus, the disease caused by the virus, and the epidemiology:
- Protect yourself. Social distancing and hand washing will stay with us for weeks. The recent memory of the epidemic will help us to be aware that we are spreading viruses all the time. However, memories fade, and eventually this caution will wear off and the less we hear about new cases the more we will return to our previous social behavior. However, I expect people will be more cautious for quite a while and hugging and kissing may go out of fashion for the season.
- Protect others. This is very important, especially when you are in public. Obviously, the criterion above about hand washing and social distancing is important. In addition, you might choose to wear a mask. After the official recommendation by the CDC yesterday (and judging by the flurry of sewing activities by MDIBL volunteers) I expect more people will be wearing fashionable masks in the coming days. Locally and internationally, we will have personal fashion statements, corporate masks and even masks from Gucci and other designers.
- We need to know how to behave when contact is necessary and unavoidable such as at school, work, hospitals and nursing homes. Fortunately, schools are easy — young people and children have less symptoms and even when they become sick they will recover in a couple of days (yes, I know there have been sick children, but these were exceptional cases). The shut-down of schools was not for protection of the children, it was to stop the transmission of the virus. Because children show less symptoms they are ideal carriers. In nursing homes, it is different. The elderly are especially at risk, their bodies are frailer, and they may not be able to fight an infection easily. More precautions will be necessary, and I expect hygiene and visiting rules in retirement homes to persist for the near future. The most difficult will be the rules at work. This will depend to a great extent on individual working conditions. For example, Volkswagen is already increasing the space between workers but how can the need for more distancing be achieved in restaurants and bars? I am looking forward to seeing individual and intelligent solutions.
- It will be important to identify infected people more rapidly. Testing within 24-hours must be available. Only then can we identify individual cases quickly and act appropriately. These cases will then stay at home for some days, get better, and then return to work. In this way we can stomp out a small fire before it turns into a wildfire, like the one we have at the moment. In addition, we want to know about immunity status by measuring antibodies against the virus. I consider this to be important – when it is possible, we will provide for all MDIBL employees to test their immunity and find out whether they have formed antibodies to fight an infection. I imagine many other organizations may do the same.
Based on these criteria we can redefine the new rules of how to work and live after this ghastly epidemic is over. Spring is coming.
I wish you a wonderful day.