Boris Johnson today announced a delay in the next stage of restriction easing in response to a slow but steady rise of covid-19 cases in the UK. Cases in Japan have surged, surpassing their “first wave” and “second wave” highs over the past week as the country reported between 600 to 1000 cases per day. Australia, which had not seen a day with more than 50 reported cases since April 12, has seen a steady growth through July and is now showing more than 700 cases per day. France is on the rise, as is Germany. Canada is on an upswing. Israel is seeing more than 1000 new cases per day. All of these are countries which were believed to have effectively suppressed the spread of coronavirus.
The virus itself has not changed, nor have the measures which are known to contain it. If anything, we know more about the mechanics of transmission now than we did in May. The issues stem from the personal and political choices being made in defiance of the facts.
In the UK, for example, they have social distancing rules… of three feet. This is predicated in part on WHO guidelines which existed for other droplet-transmission diseases with a lower rate of infection. This is key because the viral load required for transmission is different for different diseases.
Imagine a child drops a bag containing a thousand marbles on the floor. The marbles will bounce and roll, with most remaining close to the child and some traveling a fair distance. Now imagine that a person walking toward that child was picking up marbles along their path. The viral load is how many marbles they take from the ground in front of them. For some diseases, they wouldn’t be likely to contract the virus until they’d gathered twenty or more marbles, but for covid-19 they need only grab three before they have a chance for the highly contagious disease to spread to them.
This is why the six foot rule (ideally, 8 to 12 feet) is important.
They’ve also had limits on where masks are required. For example, masks in the UK are required for only some indoor areas, like mass transit; they are being expanded to museums and churches (among other places) in response to the increased caseload. This is a purely political move, in the truest sense of the word; it is not necessarily partisan, but it is geared not toward what is needed but toward what the leadership believes their citizenry will accept. It is ludicrous to believe that the disease transmits differently in different types of building, as if the viruses check the zoning regulations before deciding how they’re going to proceed. A similar idiocy is on display when people state that children somehow do not get the disease or have limited immunity; the notion that a virus checks a birth certificate before progressing makes no sense. People want to believe, and politicians are reacting (in the worse instances, pandering) to that belief.
France is granting more leeway to local law enforcement to enforce mask requirements in the face of a heat wave. Despite a continued high number of cases – more than 1000 per day – and a population which was ravaged by the disease earlier in the year, people are hearing that their country has effectively stopped the spread (that high number is still a fraction of what it was a few months ago) and are facing the frustration and mental exhaustion resulting from continued compliance. Masks are coming off, and the French are going to the beaches as they do every Summer, and the caseload is rising once again.
Other countries, like Israel and Australia and Germany, are facing the results of opening their economies. In Israel and Australia the surge in cases has strong indications of being directly tied to the opening of schools.
In Germany, which imposed more restrictive rules and has generally abided by them, the rise is dramatically slower, but the upward trend is worrisome. Germany requires face masks when in public, it has cheap testing readily available, it conducts contact tracing, it mandates distancing… in theory, it should be a model, just like South Korea or New Zealand. In practice, too many citizens are ignoring parts of the official restrictions, and the openings have provided those citizens opportunities to spread the disease; also, Germany has not adequately responded to new discoveries about the spread, such as the data which points to aerosolization being a significant vector for transmission.
The spread of covid-19 can be stopped. Some countries have seen not merely success, but continued success in their efforts to do so. It requires more than a strong and sustained government response, it requires a populace both informed about current best safety practices and also willing to follow those practices when enforcement agencies aren’t present.
Their choices have consequences. The economic toll in New Zealand and South Korea has been destructive, and their economic rebound will be slower due to their slower reopening… but lives will be saved. Throughout the world, we hear words of encouragement when fires or floods destroy homes. “It’s only stuff. Stuff can be replaced. At least everyone’s alive.” In a hundred languages, the sentiment is echoed. Faced with a similar event on a national scale, too many people are deciding that saving their stuff is more important than saving their neighbors.
This disease isn’t merely a test of governments, it’s a test of whether people are willing to be responsible adults. In too many places around the world, we are failing that test.