Illustration: Stephen Case
by Martin Williams
by Martin Williams

Living with coronavirus: We can forget about a quick return to normal

  • Let’s not listen to the ‘Covid-19 deniers’, and instead accept that we might need to live with mask wearing and social distancing for several years
  • For Hong Kong, the authorities could greatly expand outdoor dining, stagger office hours, have more work-from-home periods and fewer air-conditioned interiors

Although it has only been around six months since the Covid-19 pandemic came to light and began surging worldwide, an entire era – when schools were open as a matter of course, only a handful of coughing and sniffling individuals wore face masks and it was a cinch to cross borders for business and leisure – seems like a long time ago.

Many aspects of life have since changed. And with no sign of the pandemic ending any time soon, it seems these changes will remain, with more to come as we seek ways to tackle and somehow live with Covid-19.

One of the biggest changes required is in the mindset – realising there will not be a swift return to normality. We are in this for the long haul, and short of locking ourselves in isolation chambers, the virus is a relentless, invisible foe that is ready to exploit errors and slip through our best defences.

“Pah!” some people might say. “There’s no need for such fuss; this coronavirus is no worse than the flu.” For as with climate change, there is very active Covid-19 denialism, and instead of scientific journals and discourse, such views are usually expressed in superficially savvy blog posts and TV commentaries – and money, rather than science or human welfare, is the main underlying concern.
This anti-science propaganda has very real consequences. Witness the surging rates of coronavirus infection in parts of the United States, even as many people bizarrely equate mask wearing with an assault on their personal freedom. These consequences affect individuals, whose stories are mostly untold, though there was the pitiful death of a 30-year-old in Texas, who was so convinced the pandemic was a hoax that he attended a “Covid party” with an infected host. “I think I made a mistake,” he told a nurse who was among the medical staff unable to save him.

Day after day, I read a lot about the pandemic, ranging from science articles to tweets by virologists and medical officers treating coronavirus patients. These doctors and nurses do not play down the severity of Covid-19, but instead tell of patients dying, while imploring people to wear masks and avoid high-risk events and places.

For medical staff and those working in care homes and elsewhere on the front line, Covid-19 has made even going to work dangerous. Amnesty International has found that over 3,000 health care workers died from Covid-19 in 79 countries around the world – a terrible number, and further proof that this is not just a flu virus.

How did Hong Kong’s third wave of Covid-19 infections start?

More than 600,000 people have died from coronavirus, out of more than 14.5 million cases, suggesting a death rate of over 4 per cent. But it turns out that assessing the mortality rate is not so simple, as many cases go undetected and many deaths go unrecorded.

Even so, the rate is substantially higher than the case fatality rate of 0.1 per cent estimated for regular influenza, while less than the rate of 2.5 per cent cited for the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 – which was the deadliest pandemic in history, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

While Covid-19 deaths grab headlines, it turns out there can be long-term complications from even mild infections – such as psychosis, insomnia, kidney disease, spinal infections, strokes, chronic tiredness and mobility issues. So even if you survive, you might never really recover from coronavirus.


Mental health during Covid-19: ‘Be patient and kind to yourself’ as plans fall through

Mental health during Covid-19: ‘Be patient and kind to yourself’ as plans fall through
Though we can all hope it “ will go away”, as US President Donald Trump is fond of suggesting, there is no scientific backing for the notion; not without a vaccine that may not be available for a couple of years, or longer. The history of the Spanish flu may give some indication of how the pandemic will develop, as during its two-year rampage around the world, places experienced waves of infections.

On July 10, Professor Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health noted, “Worrying indications that the second wave of Covid-19 has now begun in Hong Kong”. This surge coincides with a global acceleration in coronavirus cases, which is so severe in the US that Dr Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, told CNET: “When you’re underwater, it’s really hard to tell how many waves are passing over you.”

Why the class of 2020 will brave pandemic-ravaged world with grit

Toner anticipates that we will live with mask wearing and some degree of social distancing for several years. Yes: several years. Toner is hardly alone in this prognosis, as some studies also have found that the pandemic may last into 2022 or beyond.

So, no throwing those masks away for now. Instead, it may be best to view them as another item of clothing, worn when most appropriate – especially when indoors with strangers, in department stores and shops, and on public transport.


Hong Kong bans dine-in service from 6pm to 5am to contain its third wave of Covid-19 infections

Hong Kong bans dine-in service from 6pm to 5am to contain its third wave of Covid-19 infections
I rarely wear masks outdoors when I am not in the congested city streets, such as when hiking. I base this on reading how people are infected – invariably indoors, with indications that it may take 15 minutes or more of exposure – and on information from Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Microbiology and a proponent of mask wearing.

Yuen also advocates opening windows where possible, including in taxis and minibuses. Masks are not magical safeguards, and reducing the risk of Covid-19 involves a mix of actions. Not all of these degrade the quality of life: besides favouring outdoor activities, you might establish a trusted social circle or “bubble”, with bubble-mates who also act sensibly.

Governments will have more of a role to play too. While Hong Kong’s government seems good at halting activities, it can do more to implement measures to enhance the quality of life for ordinary people.
One such measure might be to follow the lead of Paris and other cities in greatly expanding outdoor dining. Encouraging flexible and staggered office hours, along with extended periods of working from home, could reduce commuter density on public transport.

Plus, urban Hong Kong as a whole requires greater airflows, and fewer claustrophobic, air-conditioned interiors that suit the spread of Covid-19. For even in the hot, humid summer, it is better to be sweaty than dead.

Martin Williams is a Hong Kong-based writer specialising in conservation and the environment