May 11th is approaching. On Day 34 of lockdown in France the Prime Minister and Health Secretary addressed the country to discuss the plan for releasing part of the pressure of confinement. The only aspect that is certain now is that whatever happens will be done in phases.
Start with public transport. The need for people to circulate precedes getting back to work. Paris’s metro and buses were notoriously packed before the coronavirus with masses of humanity. Some lines carried nearly 1 million riders a day. People all hold on to the same metal bars and breathe into each other’s faces. How do we render this system usable?
Masks and protective gear only gets us so far. The trains will have to be cleaned constantly. Staggering workforces could help, as would shifting hours of operation for different people within those groups. the fewer people in the trains at the same time, the better.
For the better off, we will see a boom in car traffic. Anyone who can avoid the public transport will. Bikes will be out in abundance. And this will affect social groups differently. In NYC where the poorer “essential” workers had to jam onto a crowded subway during their commutes, rates of cases and deaths are much higher. Paris is no different. Getting back to work means getting back to a normal salary. That will force many to take the risk to get there.
Once they are at work or school, what will that look like? The discussion yesterday was about creating alternating groups in order to limit contact. Spreading out workers differently in offices would help. Holding classes in larger parts of the school could be an option. But there are significant practical obstacles. Everyone has to pass through the same entryways. Bathrooms won’t be any bigger. Cantines will have to find new ways to make food and people will have to eat alone or far enough away from others to be “safe.”
The big focus of the government’s press conference yesterday was about the need for extensive testing and tracing. Anyone showing any symptoms must immediately get tested. Then if confirmed positive they must isolate – either in their home or a dedicated medical center – for 14 days. Anyone in contact with those people must also be tested. In theory this is the fairest way to treat the population. How well people will respect it depends on what measures the government puts in place to make sure it is enforced. Temperature checks at the entrance to each metro station and at checkpoints could help. Companies could require them upon entry to building. Schools could too. Anyone with a fever would have to go immediately to get tested.
All of this sounds good in theory. It has kept contagion down in places like Taiwan and South Korea. Yet testing is not fool proof. It is unclear if people who show absolutely no signs can be contagious if they are carrying the virus. If it is true in the majority of cases then the temperature checks won’t provide a defense. If you’re only contagious when showing signs then the situation will be a lot easier to manage.
The government is going to need a lot of help. People will always find reasons to not get tested. “I feel fine,” “I didn’t really come in contact with her,” “I was wearing a mask.” It’s inconvenient to have to go somewhere and disagreeable to get your tonsils tickled. Testing will have to become mobile – teams going from contact to contact to trace the virus as close to real-time as possible. Asian nations ceded privacy in order to track the virus with technology. The French will not be so trusting.
There will also have to be a return to some form of childcare for people who are able to work – this includes childcare professionals and people who will still be able to work from home. Even my wife and I who have no obligation to be physically present in an office need to get work done. We’ve managed the juggling of kids and work up until this point but it cannot go on forever. Whether it be a staggered return to school or our babysitter coming to our place for half days, we need something to help lighten the burden.
But small children cannot social distance. We still don’t know how coronavirus affects them. Only a few have died from covid. Does that mean that they are relatively unaffected? Or have they just not gotten the really bad version enough to register in the stats? If children are almost entirely unaffected, can they still carry the disease? Would we be putting our childcare professionals in harm’s way?
Chile just announced that they are creating a sort of immunity passport so that people who are confirmed to have had the disease can get back to work. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, spoke of something similar. Among the litany of problems this presents: we don’t even know if people who were infected are immune.
Let’s assume they are. People who have immunity will be free to do whatever they want. No masks, no social distancing. Everyone else will be restrained. The schism that this will create in society will be huge. It will be apartheid. The race will be on for many to get infected so they can get to the immune side of society. If we take this argument to the extreme, then shouldn’t we be having coronavirus parties for young people where we all lick each other in order to spread the coronavirus as fast as possible in order for us to get immunity?
Because no matter how we deconfine, life is not going back to normal. Restaurants that are based on a certain number of clients won’t be able to function economically. The laser game place next door to us won’t be able to reopen. Nightclubs and parties will be banned. Beaches in the summer will be restrained. Airlines won’t be able to fly at full capacity and thus won’t be able to make money. Despite government help, we are still a capitalist society that needs to make money in order to provide services.
Until there is a vaccine or effective treatment combined with herd immunity that significantly decreases the propagation of the virus, the best we can hope for is an equitable solution that doesn’t divide society.