Around the world coronavirus lockdowns are starting to ease. European nations that have grappled with controlling the disease are starting to reopen schools and relax restrictions on movement. Spanish people can finally exercise outside again. Children are back in Danish schools. Small shops are opening in Austria and Germany. I saw a girl changing a mannequin’s outfit in a clothing store window down my new street, in preparation for welcoming a few shoppers at a time once May 11th rolls around.
Atop the list of problems with pandemics is that there will be multiple waves. It’s unavoidable. To reopen a country (or state in America) is to accept this fact. The Spanish Flu saw second waves after confinement efforts were lifted, followed by a second pandemic the following autumn when the virus came roaring back with a more virulent and deadly strain. The biggest obstacle to slowing the spread post-confinement? Human nature.
The world cannot stay closed forever, it it not our basic state. Humans are exothermic, we are driven to go out and socialize, entrepreneur, and be active in our search for satisfaction. This is the force that created the world in which we find ourselves in 2020. When we are confined that same energy starts to build up against the walls of our containers, until there is a release: either a steady hiss or a violent explosion. Cautious governments are hoping to puncture a hole in the lid of the simmering lockdown casserole – just enough to let off steam while still keeping the human soup inside.
But societal and biological forces are working against control and that foreshadows a second wave of contagion. The first is the allure of the sun. Parks in NYC have been packed. The lost spring is shifting into the forbidden summer and the solar light has never felt more uplifting. We are already worried sick about cancelled summer vacations and trips to the beach. When the sun shines down we are struck by a severe FOMO. From the moment that we are allowed to lounge in the sun again, people will find every nook and cranny in the streets and parks to soak it in.
And humans love to celebrate. As soon as we can start seeing people again, we will. Even if the gatherings are limited to a certain number of people, the number or gatherings will be huge. I’m already filling in our calendar with BBQs in the week of May 11th. There will be many toasts to getting through round 1 of coronavirus.
Humans also know that a second lockdown is coming. The opportunists in us know then that we must take advantage of the window before it closes. It might sound logical to continue to contain the virus in order to slowly reopen the country so that it doesn’t slide back into a health crisis. People can tell themselves that they will be part of the solution. But a population is made up of individuals, and individuals behave individually according to their needs. The vagueness of a pandemic pales in comparison to the immediacy of brilliant sunshine outside. Each individual will find excuses for their behavior, “I’m definitely not sick,” “I already had something similar,” “I’m just going for a walk.”
Humans excel at finding excuses. As soon as restrictions start to be lifted and staying home becomes voluntary, we will see a huge amount of people returning to the habits of their old lives. Despite government warnings people will not be able to contain themselves. They will find ways to justify their excursions.
Unfortunately, humans are also vindictive. The most visible examples are people like the armed protesters storming Michigan’s capitol building. They may be extreme but they are not alone. Resentment has set in across the globe, even among the people willing to do the most to contain the pandemic. When they see others flouting the rules, they too feel the desire to stop following instructions because why should they suffer?
Human nature does have elements that will help to slow the arrival of the second wave. Fear is powerful. It’s already helped keep people inside, perhaps not for their own safety but that of their families. The confinement is not an exercise in unfettered government power (at least not in Western Europe) it is a response to a threat that is killing thousands of people around the world every day. You can be frustrated with the government and your situation but you will still fear the virus.
Humans also follow directions for the most part. Governments that slowly release and keep the spread under control have the lowest risk for another complete lockdown. They can avoid the jerky back and forth of opening and closing only by making sure that each step towards deconfinement sticks. If a second wave is inevitable, then at least we can make the curve as flat as possible.
People tend to follow instructions when they believe that their leaders are doing the right thing. Communication begets confidence. Taking clear moral stances – protecting frontline workers, the vulnerable, generous social safety programs – justifies decision making that would otherwise be subjective and thus divisive.
We will need unity if we are to face the second wave. By then opinions will have solidified. Emotions will already be frayed and tensions will be ever higher. We will be facing battle fatigue at just the moment when we need to soldier on.
We will have no choice.