Brace for new reality, virus here to stay
China is testing restaurant workers and delivery drivers block by block. South Korea tells people to carry two types of masks for differing risky social situations. Germany requires communities to crack down when the number of infections hits certain thresholds.
Britain will target local outbreaks in a strategy that Prime Minister Boris Johnson calls “Whac-A-Mole.”
Around the world, governments that had appeared to tame the coronavirus are adjusting to the reality that the disease is here to stay. But in a shift away from damaging nationwide lockdowns, they are looking for targeted ways to find and stop outbreaks before they become third or fourth waves.
While the details differ, the strategies call for giving governments flexibility to tighten or ease as needed. They require some mix of intensive testing and monitoring, lightning-fast response times by the authorities, tight border management and constant reminders to their citizens of the dangers of frequent human contact.
The strategies often force central governments and local officials to share data and work closely together, overcoming incompatible computer systems, turf battles and other longstanding bureaucratic rivalries.
The shifting strategies are an acknowledgment that even the most successful countries cannot declare victory until a vaccine is found. They also show the challenge presented by countries like the US, Brazil and India, where the authorities never fully contained initial outbreaks and from where the coronavirus will continue to threaten to spread.
“It’s always going to be with us,” said Simon James Thornley, an epidemiologist from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “I don’t think we can eliminate the virus long term. We are going to need to learn to live with the virus.”
Even in places where the coronavirus appeared to be under control, big outbreaks remain a major risk. In Tokyo, there have been 253 new infections in the past week, 83 from a nightlife district. In Gütersloh in western Germany, more than 1,500 workers from a meat processing plant tested positive, prompting the authorities to shut down two districts. South Korea, another poster child for fast responses, has announced dozens of new infections in recent days.
In Rome, which recently emerged from one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, 122 people have been linked to a cluster case at a hospital, the San Raffaele Pisana Institute. Several days later, 18 people who lived in a building with shared bathrooms came down with the virus.
“As soon as we lowered our guard,” said Paolo La Pietra, who owns a tobacco shop in the neighbourhood, “it hit us back.” Some countries, like South Korea and Japan, aimed to make their responses nimble.
South Korea calls its strategy “everyday life quarantine.” The country never implemented the strict lockdowns that were seen in other places, and social-distancing measures, while strongly encouraged, remain guidelines.
Still, it has set a strict target of a maximum of about 50 new infections a day — a target that it says its public health system, including its testing and tracing capacity, can withstand.
Officials shift the rules as needed. After a second wave of infections broke out in Seoul, city officials made people wear masks in public transportation and closed public facilities for two weeks.
The South Korean government has added new guidelines as it has learned more about outbreaks. It advises companies to have employees sit in a zigzag fashion. Air-conditioners should be turned off every two hours and windows should be opened to increase ventilation, it said. It has discouraged singing in markets and other public places.
It has also advised people to carry two types of masks in summer — a surgical mask and a heavy-duty mask, similar to the N95 respirator masks worn by health care workers, to be used in crowded settings.
Japan, which endured only limited lockdowns, also wants to keep its limits light to help restart its economy. It is considering allowing travellers from Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam. As an island nation, Japan cannot afford to keep its borders closed any longer, said Shinzo Abe, its Prime Minister.
Last Friday, Japan launched a contact tracing app that would alert users if they had been in touch with a person who tested positive in the last 14 days.
Railway operators have launched an app and websites telling commuters how crowded the trains are at any given time.Though bars are reopening, hostesses have been told to refrain from being next to a client when singing karaoke and dancing. Nightclubs must minimise music and crowd volumes to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets.
New York Times News Service