The lockdown grinds on. An American IE student provides an interesting bicultural perspective in an article in Gizmodo, entitled “What It’s Like to Be Sick and in Quarantine at the Epicenter of Spain’s Coronavirus Outbreak.”
But with a slowdown in the number of infected people in Spain due to the tough but thoroughly followed confinement measures, despite the seriousness of the situation and the questionable reliability of the statistical models being used, thoughts turn to how we can return to normality: lockdown seems to have stopped the spread of a disease, but cannot be maintained indefinitely. Economic activity, hopefully with some variations, must be resumed.
In the absence of a vaccine — which when we find one should be subject to reasonable, comprehensive and equitable distribution criteria — along with effective treatment for the disease, and in view of the difficulties many countries face in finding reliable diagnostic tests, containment measures have been the only way to contain a fast-spreading and highly contagious virus. But just as in the first phase of the pandemic widespread diagnostic testing was needed, now, at the end of this phase, these diagnostic tests are once again essential. Compared to the first tests deployed: nasal smears to identify the virus’s genetic material that took some time to process, a second route has emerged identifying the antibodies in our blood, less reliable in terms of knowing if a person has been infected, but much faster.
These tests are radically different: for detecting a virus the result you expect is negative, but in a blood antibody detection test it should be positive, since the presence of antibodies implies having had the infection and therefore having obtained a certain immunity to it. We are talking about very different tests, hence the confusion. There has been considerable controversy about this type of test: dubious companies claiming a FDA approval they don’t have, others that are capable of obtaining them, doubts about the reliability of the results when people may have developed antibodies for other varieties of coronavirus (a simple cold, for example)… clearly, this issue is not as simple as some people thought.
However, more and more countries seem to think that these kinds of tests could play a very important role in getting the economy back on track: both Germany and the United Kingdom are talking about the possibility of issuing some kind of certificate or bracelet to people who have antibodies against the disease, which would hypothetically free them from lockdown and back out to work.
Again, things are not that simple. Firstly, because we are starting from a not entirely reliable identification that could result in new infections in people wrongly identified as immune because they have had, for example, a common cold. These people should also have basic training in disinfection routines to prevent them from becoming transmitters of the disease, and decisions should be made so as to optimize the functioning of the economy. Is it as simple as everyone returning to their jobs, or should we be thinking about more creative solutions such as the CoronaCorps army Wired has written about, which aims to use these people to carry out the most basic and fundamental services for society?
Others, such as The Guardian, reject the idea of certificates or passports, and are more inclined toward apps that provide guarantees of privacy (which privacy experts say is possible), while monitoring the movement of infected people, which has been put into practice by countries such as China — albeit with more than a few problems.
We need to start thinking about what we are going to find when lockdown is partially lifted. If, driven by economic necessity, we do so too early, we could simply be sowing the seeds for further outbreaks of the disease.
In addition to direct measures aimed at getting the economy back on track, we will encounter other problems, maybe not so serious, but no less important, which will affect us in many, many ways: how long will it take before we enter a crowded subway car or bus without thinking we’re taking a terrible risk? Will we go to supermarkets and shops with the same peace of mind? Will we try clothes on if we know that an infected person may have done so before? How long will it take to look at a person with a cold again without suspicion? And if everybody with a simple cold is confined so as not to alarm others, how will business, education and life in general ever get back to normal? Many of the mechanisms that we have been obliged to put in place, such as online teaching, will have to remain, even when we have returned to relative normality.
Whichever sector of the economy you’re in, start thinking about life after lockdown. It’s not going to be easy.
(En español, aquí)