By William J. Furney
Britain’s beaches may be packed with people, in a country with the world’s second-highest coronavirus death toll, while Spain’s will only tomorrow start opening up and foreigners are not allowed into the southern European tourist hotspot amid an ongoing and strict lockdown.
The UK is introducing quarantine measures next month for arrivals, in a decision unveiled this week whose reasoning eludes many who believe that, like neighbouring nations, it should have done so from the start of the outbreak, not the tail-end.
But the big question, and one that’s on almost everyone’s mind right now, as infection and death rates continue their downward trend in most places, is will there be another tsunami of cases once we’re all allowed out to properly mingle, travel and socialise? And, if so, will we all be locked back down again and back to square one?
One of Europe’s health chiefs is in no doubt about a second coronavirus wave of infections. In an interview with the Guardian this week, she said it wasn’t a question of if it would happen, but “how big”.
Dr Andrea Ammon, a director at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which is based in Sweden, said another mass outbreak of cases was almost inevitable, because most people simply don’t have immunity to the pathogen. And she warned that the virus that causes the disease known as Covid-19 was more in circulation now than at the start of the year.
“Looking at the characteristics of the virus, looking at what now emerges from the different countries in terms of population immunity — which isn’t all that exciting, between 2% and 14%, that leaves still 85% to 90% of the population susceptible – the virus is around us, circulating much more than January and February,” she told the paper. “I don’t want to draw a doomsday picture but I think we have to be realistic. That it’s not the time now to completely relax.”
So will it be a summer of coronavirus discontent, after a shocking spring in which the world shut down?
As of now, there are over 5.3 million confirmed cases of novel coronavirus around the world — the figure is certain to be far higher, as many people have not been tested — and more than 342,000 have died, according to tallies by Johns Hopkins University. Deaths in the United States are close to 100,000 (currently just over 97,000), the country with the highest death toll and most cases (over 1.6 million), followed by the UK, with more than 36,000 Covid-19 fatalities, and Italy, which has seen over 32,000 die from the disease.
WHO Knows What Will Happen?
What does the embattled World Health Organisation think? I asked spokesman Christian Lindmeier this week, and he pointed me to Dr Hans Henri P Kluge, the health body’s Europe director. In a speech in Copenhagen, Denmark, last week, a transcript of which was provided to me, Dr Kluge said the world was at a “fork in the road” regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is the point at which our actions and individual behaviour determines which path we follow, one that sees us head towards a new normal, or one that sends us back to restrictions on our movement and social interactions,” Dr Kluge cautioned.
He said that “emergency fatigue” risked pushing back the gains made in keeping the virus at bay as people remained in lockdown for months at a time.
“Reports of distrust in authorities and conspiracy thinking are fueling movements against social and physical distancing. Others are behaving over-cautiously, which continues to limit their social interactions and access to health services, for example. Mistrust, resistance to measures, a disregard for the behavioural changes we have all made to limit Covid-19 will send us down the road none of us want to take.”
And he said that as restrictions begin to ease and governments lift them entirely, freeing up people to move about at will again, everyone had a part to play to ensure a second wave of infections did not come about.
“As governments lift restrictions, you, the people, become the main actors,” he said. “It is an individual as well as a collective responsibility. Follow the recommendations of your national authorities, limit social interactions, keep washing your hands, maintain physical distancing and reduce risk to the most vulnerable in our society, the elderly and those with chronic underlying health conditions. They rely on the choices you make.”
Lindmeier, the WHO spokesman, also drew my attention to a wider advisory the health organisation — under fire for failing to alert the world on time to the growing coronavirus threat, and its boss’ Tedros’ tacit support of a China busy suppressing information about the emerging crisis — issued last month. “Based on current evidence,” it says, “the most plausible scenario may involve recurring epidemic waves interspersed with periods of low-level transmission.”
Not so much a second wave, then, as a series of rolling ripples that may go on for some time.
No Plane Sailing
And as countries start planning to open up their economies to tourism — Spain has earmarked the beginning of July to allow foreign tourists in — what of all that plane travel and risk of infection while trapped in a metal tube for hours with hundreds of others?
I was somewhat surprised to receive a press release from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency this week that declared there’s nothing to worry about.
“Air passengers and the general population have to be assured that filtered air on airplanes is safer and cleaner than many of us breathe on the ground,” it said. It’s true that many airlines at least claim to have filters on their craft that are to hospital standard in snaring bugs and preventing them from spreading — they’re called High Efficiency Particulate Arrestors, or HEPA.
But they don’t stop the spread of germs from someone sitting beside or even across the aisle from you who’s having coughing or sneezing fits, as I know all to my misery.
“Passengers have to have confidence that taking to the skies again in a confined space with other people poses the minimum possible risk to their health,” Adina Valean, the European Commissioner for Transport, was quoted in the release as saying, as a series of social distancing, aircraft cleaning and other protocols were outlined. Passengers were “expected to take personal responsibility” and not travel if they have Covid-19 symptoms like a cough or fever.
For those brave enough to fly this summer, airport temperature checks and requirements to wear masks on planes — plus no queuing for the loo on some flights; instead, call the cabin crew and ask if you can use the toilet (Ryanair’s new, and slightly childish and generally daft, new policy) — means the risks of inhaling viruses while traveling are somewhat mitigated.
But rolling waves of coronavirus outbreak or not, it’s sure to be a long, hot and extremely bothersome summer.
- Title image shows a packed Bournemouth Beach in England on Wednesday.