Covid-19: There Is Only One Priority

By | September 15, 2020

An excellent article in The New York Times, “A Warning for the United States From the Author of ‘The Great Influenza’” by John M. Barry, professor of public health at Tulane University and author of several books on historic pandemics, sets out the priorities for the future, and above all highlights the false dichotomy between bringing the pandemic under control and protecting the economy. His argument is simple: we must do everything that needs to be done to stop the spread of Covid, using every measure at our disposal; the economy will recover later.

Biology is biology, and it’s not interested in what we think. What’s more, the economy is a human entelechy that can be redefined in countless ways. Now, more than half a year after the first cases were detected in Wuhan and several months after the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization, we know more about the transmission of COVID-19 than we did then, and what we do know is very worrying: social distancing within enclosed spaces is not preventing the spread of infection. Indoor transmission of the virus can take place between people who are several meters away, meaning that returning to work in offices or reopening schools is nothing short of reckless, and will only ensure that the numbers of infections and victims will continue to rise.

The interdependencies of the economy are obvious: if we don’t open schools, many parents can’t go to work, and the economy slows down. But this is all based on a falsehood: that with certain safety measures, it makes sense to reopen schools. This is not true. Reopening schools is irresponsible, because we know from several countries that have done so, that the transmission rate has soared and because we also know that children’s capacity to transmit the disease is higher than previously thought. Opening schools is a way of spreading the infection, and secondly, a guarantee that we will have to close them within weeks.

Returning to closed office spaces under previous conditions will have the same outcomes: the only responsible corporate decision right now is to protect the health and lives of employees, and to continue working remotely for as long as necessary, until progress in research means we can safely prevent the spread of the disease and treat it more effectively. That’s what companies with a sense of responsibility are doing. What we need to do in the meantime is reinforce digital transformation, develop distributed work methodologies, and reduce risk to the minimum by being as conservative and prudent as we can.

We are facing a pandemic about which, if we know anything, it is that its effects are much worse than we initially thought. The problem is no longer that the figures are shocking, but that we also know that the infection causes many people to suffer problems blood clotting, thrombosis or permanent damage to their lungs after they have ‘recovered’, assuming that they have been lucky enough to survive. We also know that transmission increases significantly with cold weather and contact within enclosed spaces. We face a problem that is going to change many aspects of our daily lives: the rush to return to normal is reflects our refusal to accept reality. There will be no return to normality. If and when we have managed to control the pandemic, everything will be very different, and will stay that way for a very long time.

There are too many people, many of them in positions of great responsibility, who are utterly mistaken about the scale of what we are experiencing. As a result of these mistakes, we lifted the lockdown too early, and we now know that this was a serious mistake. Let us not repeat the same mistakes. We need to apply lockdowns where necessary and impose every precautionary measure: masks must be obligatory everywhere; we’re going to have to forget for a long time about restaurants, nightlife, family gatherings, parties and any other occasion that presents an opportunity for the virus to be transmitted. We need to develop and implement apps that allow us to monitor any new infection; we need to fight against disinformation; we need to apply emergency measures, not sticking plasters. And we need to do this through global coordination, learning from each other, joining forces, and by remembering above all that the virus doesn’t respect frontiers.

But above all, let’s forget about false dichotomies: the economy is much less important than allowing a dangerous pandemic to become endemic and to escalate to exponentially. The virus must be eliminated by any means necessary, the only way we know how to do it, and we must accept the short-term consequences to the economy. Please: we need to get our priorities in order.

The Good Men Project