We are all doing the best we can in the moment to fight COVID-19, but in the medium- and long-term we are going to need broader and deeper cultural and policy changes to fight this virus and to fight other potential future pandemics.
Preserving the current paradigm indefinitely will not be sufficiently effective against the virus and will also do unnecessary damage to our economy. New approaches, adopted from Asian democracies like South Korea and Taiwan that have more experience fighting pandemics, will go a long way to keeping us safer while helping us move back toward something a little more like normal life—or at least a “new normal.”
Our current approach to fighting this pandemic emphasizes general isolation. With a limited supply of masks and limited testing, this is the only way. It is not enough for only those who have the virus to isolate themselves and for people to take general precautions when out and about, because many do not have access to testing or the means to protect themselves. In the absence of alternatives, general isolation is appropriate. So we should definitely all stay home as much as possible for the time being.
In an ideal response, though, people could still leave their homes, but everyone would have access to and be encouraged to wear protective masks in most situations when out and about. Perhaps we could even wear disposable gloves. Certainly, everyone would continue to be encouraged to regularly wash their hands. Anyone who thought they might be exposed to the virus would get tested immediately and get the results immediately. This way, those who had the virus would know right away and could stay away from others. In the event of errors in awareness or testing (with a negative result not meaning a certainty that a person is negative) masks, gloves, and hand-washing would still greatly limit transmission. When a case is discovered, those who had been in contact with or in the same areas as that person could be immediately notified and immediately tested.
If we had these measures and practices in place, there would be much less of a need for people to stay in their homes. The virus could be tracked and contained even while life continued.
Unfortunately, we do not currently have a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment, a sufficient testing capacity, or the necessary tracking protocols in place to inform people who may have been in contact with an affected person. In some provinces, people with mild symptoms have not been able to get tested and uninfected health-care workers have been stuck at home for days because of delays in getting test results back.
We should have been more ready for this. It is the responsibility of governments to be prepared for potential disaster scenarios like pandemics before they occur. After this is over it will be important to do a broader inquiry into our lack of preparedness and ensure that we are properly prepared for other disaster scenarios. The fact that we shipped scarce protective equipment to China right when we should have been ramping up our own preparations further underlines the lack of foresight.
In any event, though, what we need to do now is rapidly build up the capacity for a “new normal” in which most of us can still leave our homes and go to shops and restaurants, but are getting tested and are coming and going with readily available protective equipment. This will not be easy and will take some time, but it is the direction in which we need to go.
Imagine you go to a restaurant with your spouse, sit down at a clean table, dispose of the latex gloves that you had been wearing, remove your mask, and then eat a meal brought to you by a glove- and mask-wearing waiter. After dinner, you pay with the tap function on your credit card, and you replace your mask and put on a fresh pair of gloves before leaving the table. And if you later find out that someone sitting near you had COVID-19, then you get tested as an additional precaution.
Imagine that you go to work, where you sit in a closed office with other co-workers. You wear gloves and a mask to the office. Your desks are spaced two metres apart, protecting you from potential droplet spread. If any of your co-workers get COVID-19, you get tested right away. Client meetings happen through Zoom or through a makeshift screen.
While making these adaptations, everyone continues to vigorously wash their hands on a regular basis.
This new normal involves equipment, readily available testing, and a few minor extra steps, but it is not that difficult in the scheme of things for everyday citizens, compared to the sacrifices that most of us are making already. It also allows restaurants and offices to slowly get moving again.
Adaptation to a new normal would be expensive, but a lot less expensive than the current approach. These adaptations would also provide opportunities for workers and businesses in terms of the production and distribution of new materials and the carrying out of tests. In the midst of pouring enormous resources into stabilizing the economy, the government should be focusing on the jobs and opportunities associated with pandemic adaption, which will help get us to this new normal.
Governments have to lead on general pandemic preparedness and adaption, but individuals will have to voluntarily adopt necessary precautions and private companies will have to seize the associated opportunities. Social norms, such as the general social acceptability of wearing a mask in certain situations, will change rapidly as well. Some of this is already happening.
General isolation is not sustainable in the long run. People need to go out for essentials, and general non-compliance will (unfortunately) likely increase the longer that general isolation directives are in place. If we manage to flatten the curve through a few months of isolation, the curve could spike again later when we all return to work if a small number of cases are imported or remain untreated.
We cannot all stay in our homes forever. Isolation is the necessary short-term response to our current lack of preparedness, but we need a long-term strategy that allows us to be safe when out and about. That “short term” might end up being a lot longer than we would like it to be and we will need to be patient through that process. Adaptation on all fronts will take time. But we should be able to see these processes of adaptation beginning right away. A sense of hope for the future will make it easier for people to follow isolation directives for the time being.
Proposals for testing and adaptation are not ideas pulled out of thin air. In parts of Asia that have more experience dealing with pandemics, it is relatively much more culturally normal for people to wear surgical masks when out and about. South Korea was able to dramatically turn the corner on COVID-19 through a policy of widespread testing, tracking, and information sharing. We should do what they have done. They ramped up their production of test kits early. Widely accessible testing stations (including drive-through testing stations) put South Korea way ahead in total testing and in per capita testing. Taiwan also flattened the curve, through strong border restrictions and aggressive tracking measures to ensure the self-isolation directives were followed. Asian democracies have achieved great success without the same level of widespread disruption that we are experiencing in North America and Europe.
Hopefully soon we will be able to find a new normal. Following the example of our Asian partners will protect Canadians and minimize disruption to our economy.
By Garnett Genuis and Dr. Rebecca Genuis. Garnett is a Member of Parliament. Rebecca is a Family Doctor. They are married. Isolation is facilitating professional cooperation, despite the occasional interruption by noisy children.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.