Notes on “Learning to Live with the Virus”

Sign outside clinc. Stop Coronavirus Please Wear a Mask
A sign outside my local GP surgery

This week I had to go in my local GP surgery in London. I wondered if they would soon be removing the “Stop Coronavirus! Covid-19. Please wear your face mask” signage they have visible outside and inside. Working from home long hours, I haven’t really gone out much at all, and seeing the signs again made me reflect what a simple gesture that was, merely asking us to please wear a facemask.

Why was continuing requiring facemasks considered such a big ask? What are the ideological, cultural reasons behind the reluctance to continue enforcing face coverings indoors and in large crowds? These are rhetorical questions mostly; questions that each of us should be asking ourselves.

Was it really too much to ask, to wear a mask?

I also found it striking that we had gone from being asked to help to “stop covid” to “learning to live with it”. By “learning to live with it” the government means scrapping all previous restrictions, including social distancing, wearing facemasks and in some cases even isolation and quarantining. My understanding of the phrase is different (more on that below).

I continue to be amazed at what appears to me like an inability to agree on balanced views and strategies. In spite of what the data says, the plan is to “go back to normal” and leave any containment measures to “personal responsibility”. Many people more clever than me have already written on the limitations of such premise.

It’s intriguing as well why a measure like wearing a facemask would be considered a “diktat” (Johnson dixit), but dropping the restrictions by law wouldn’t (let alone that other health and safety measures, like having to wear a hard hat or a visibility vest in construction work, does not seem to be considered such a “diktat”). We are being thrown into dangerous waters, naked. But the conservative libertarian view does not consider that dictatorial.

Advocating a more careful approach does not mean we don’t ever want to “go back to normal”. It means we think the circumstances demand redefining “normality”.

Those of us calling for a more cautious, sensible, science-led approach to managing the pandemic are arguing to “learn to live with the virus” truly, by acknowledging the scientific facts, which means learning what the virus is, how it spreads and how it affects different people differently, and adapting accordingly.

Dropping all restrictions wholesale is a failure of imagination. It is also a failure of ethical design and policy. By definition (as the government admits) the cost of lifting restricitons in this way is that hundreds of thousands of people will continue to get ill, many will die, and many will live with poor health after contracting and surviving the virus. It indeed means literally prioritising ideology over public welfare. Will we allow that to be the cost of ‘normality’?

What would “learning to live with the virus” really mean?

  • Learning to live with the virus would mean that we would all have to re-educate ourselves & each other about epidemiology, i.e. what the virus is, how it’s transmitted, what the variants are, how they happen, what’s their symptomatology & their short, mid & long term effects.
  • Learning to live with the virus would mean learning about #LongCovid, about what we know about it already & about what we are yet to learn; learning that hospitalisations and deaths are not the only negative, lasting effects of contracting the virus.
  • Learning to live with the virus would mean re-learning to read and to interpret scientific findings; re-developing information literacy skills to counteract misinformation; fostering & widening a culture of public engagement with peer-reviewed science.
  • Learning to live with the virus would mean working together to codevelop a civil society where each of us is responsible for each other, caring for each other, motivated by collective, international wellbeing, beyond our own individual selves, households, circumstances & locations.
  • Learning to live with the virus would mean unlearning facile understandings of what’s “normal”, and guide our individual and collective actions by the objective of keeping everyone’s safe above everything, accepting this will mean relearning ways to do nearly everything.
  • Learning to live with the virus would mean to relearn how to work, study, socialise & have fun; to abandon nostalgia for how things once were; to tackle inertia & accept the challenge to reinvent ways of making money & ways of being with each other.
  • Learning to live with the virus would mean prioritising the wellbeing of those most vulnerable above our own personal wishes; to keep our own privilege in check; to re-learn how to be less selfish & more ethical, more caring.
  • Learning to live with the virus would mean taking the required measures, however unpopular, to keep everyone -everyone- safe, and this includes fellow human beings in other countries.
  • Learning to live with the virus would mean to be willing to relearn how to be human. One does not learn to live with anyone or anything by ignoring them or mortally endangering others.

The above seems abstract and idealistic. In practice, what does this really mean?

  • It does not mean no one should ever go out again in any way. It does not mean living in perpetual lockdown. The way we deal with covid does not have to be either/or.
  • It does mean learning that we can’t control it all.
  • It does mean wearing a facemask indoors, and outdoors when in close proximity to others and in large crowds.
  • It does mean asking explicitly for mitigation measures in schools and workplaces, especially adequate ventilation (CO2 monitors and air filtration devices) and spacing.
  • It does mean talking about the situation with our friends, neighbours, extended families, coworkers and employers. It means being open about how we feel about the situation, and about how we can agree in ways to live and work together safely.
  • It does mean that, regardless of how desperate we might be to “go back to normal”, we keep calm and gradually re-learn how to do things we enjoy (and also those we don’t!) safely.
  • It does mean remaining careful and mindful that everyone is different and this means that not everyone has the same level of immunity, underlying health conditions, or ability to follow or even access guidance.
  • It does mean continuing to reduce, even limit our number of close daily in-person social interactions, wherever possible (some jobs make this absolutely impossible). When interacting in physical proximity to others, wearing a facemask is the minimum one can do to try to keep others safe.
  • It does mean that regardless of our vaccine status, or whether we already had covid or not, we must be aware we can still get it, and can, in some cases, still get seriously ill, and perhaps more importantly, that we can still pass it on to others.
  • It does mean knowing that being vaccinated, until the pandemic is under control (and by this we mean a severe sustained reduction in daily cases and the the whole population has been offered a vaccine) should not exempt us from wearing a facemask indoors when surrounded by those not in our household or those vulnerable.
  • It means reconsidering, seriously and honestly, what is truly necessary, what are the risks for us and others, and how to reduce those risks as much as we can.

In pre-pandemic times we did things in a certain way. Does that mean that was absolutely necessary?

Can’t we think of different ways of doing things, of working, of having fun, of socialising, in a way that keeps us and others safer? A healthier balance, for the time being, for the sake of all of us, as long as it takes?