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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.”
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.
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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.
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