Zainab Rehman advises caution as the UK starts to dramatically lift lockdown measures.
Since the start of 2020, the face of the world has changed in a way that could not have been predicted, with the emergence of COVID-19. From the outbreak of SARS to MERS to Ebola, the 21st century is no stranger to an epidemic. With the infection rate having soared above 9 million cases worldwide, resulting in almost 500,000 fatalities, the virus is the topic of most of our conversations and the cause of much of our grief. As it spread throughout the globe, dozens of nations responded with the lockdown, resulting in society suddenly appearing to have adopted the setting of a dystopian novel. With lockdown measures now being eased, we must ask ourselves what this means for each of us. Are we safe for life to gradually return to normal as we knew it or are we paving the way for the dreaded second wave?
In response to the pandemic, the nationwide lockdown was announced on 23rd March 2020 by Boris Johnson. The past few months have seen normality gradually fading away, for example in the form of working from home for all but ‘key workers’, the closure of all public places and exercise initially being limited to once per day, per the advice of the UK government. The mundane task of grocery shopping has also become unrecognisable in these unprecedented times. Empty shelves, social distancing, and queueing outside are all something we became familiar with. The spread of this aggressive virus has directly impacted all our lives, taking control, and forcing us into isolation. Though the UK is seemingly now past the peak, we must stay in some form of lockdown for fear of further infections, especially as no vaccine has yet been finalised for administration to the public.
With the 4th July 2020 readily approaching, bringing with it the easing of lockdown measures in the form of reopening restaurants and hotels, two households being allowed to mix and social distancing being relaxed to one metre plus to name a few, it is natural for us all to feel apprehensive and question what it means for our immediate futures as we find ourselves gradually returning to school and work. Many experts have expressed concerns that there may be a spike in COVID-19 cases resulting from this upcoming lockdown lift and are urging officials to assess if the UK is prepared for a potential second wave. The current control of the situation has restricted the spread of the virus; by relinquishing this we may see an increase in R number once again.
Whilst COVID-19 may be the first pandemic of our lifetimes, history gives us much to consider. Going back 100 years, the Spanish Flu shook the world from January 1918 – December 1920 leading to an estimated 500 million infections globally with a death toll of approximately 50 million. Here, we must reflect and learn from the past. It is important to take note of the fact that the second wave was significantly more lethal than the first. The surge in cases came with the movement of soldiers around the globe. The conditions in which they travelled and trained created an environment for the influenza to comfortably spread. Returning to normal prematurely could result in further heartache and distress, as seen globally in 1918, especially as the ease of restrictions has left many of us itching to book our eagerly anticipated holiday overseas. In doing so, such gatherings could result in a similar fate experienced by those in times of the war. Therefore, it is imperative that we proceed with caution and maintain distancing to reduce the risk of further transmission.
Furthermore, the improving weather has encouraged many Britons to make their way to the beach. These closely packed gatherings do not see the public practicing social distancing creating further fear that the virus will spread. We seem to be existing in a time of blindly trusting others, assuming that everyone showing symptoms is isolating as they should be. As this may not be the case, we must all continue to protect ourselves by sanitising and minimising unnecessary public exposure.
Recently, we have also witnessed the result of relaxing lockdown in other countries. The US and Germany are amongst those showing an increase in R rate to above one, making a pronounced second wave a very real possibility. The increase in cases seen in Germany resulted from a sudden outbreak at an abattoir causing many lockdown measures to be reinstated whilst the US saw an increase in cases on a local scale as individual states reduced their measures leading to a slight increase in weekly cases. Iran and Saudi Arabia are amongst those experiencing a noticeable second wave, perhaps triggered by exiting lockdown too soon during the month of May. Alternatively, we are also seeing positive results and recovery in countries which were badly affected yet improving throughout the easing of lockdown such as Belgium, Italy, and Spain with significant drops in new cases since last week. The mixture of results makes it difficult to predict how the UK will respond following the 4th July.
Another example to pay attention to is New Zealand. Early June, the country declared that it was free of COVID-19 with no active cases following strict lockdown measures. Since then, the return of infected nationals has led to a total of 13 new cases. Though it is a definite success story with 1520 confirmed cases and 22 deaths, the failure to test individuals and to ensure a two-week quarantine on return to New Zealand as planned has clearly shown how even the strictest and most vigilant countries are at risk of further spread until a vaccine is confirmed.
The UK is still reporting close to 1000 new cases daily and generally around 100 deaths daily. Though there is reason to believe that coming out of lockdown on the 4th July will not greatly impact the infection rate, we must also consider that freely mixing and reopening society will lead to further infections based on previous epidemics and monitoring the effects experienced by other countries. Whilst comparing the two epidemics may be difficult to avoid, it is important to remember it is not so black and white nor is there any guarantee the same course will be followed. No two epidemics or countries will experience an identical fate.
The advice still stands that we must continue to sanitise and maintain two metre social distancing where possible. We have a responsibility to one another to act sensibly and selflessly when making decisions that could impact us all. Though we may be past the peak, it is critical to remember that the battle against COVID-19 is not over. There is a definite risk with the easing of lockdown that infection rates will once again soar. Our government must ensure they are prepared for all outcomes, including a potential second wave. A high level of testing must be maintained and those infected must cooperate with guidelines and assist with tracing as this is made possible.
Zainab Rehman is a second-year Ph.D. student in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Warwick
She tweets at ZainabR147