A guy walks into a bar.
Actually, he walks into several different ones in Seoul, and those packed around him are oblivious to the fact that the 29-year-old male has COVID-19. This week, medical authorities in the city are in the process of attempting to track down around 1,500 people who were in the same nightclubs as the man.
So far, more than 50 new cases of the virus in South Korea have reportedly been linked to this one person. And authorities have already shut down hundreds of bars that were only allowed to open last week.
Welcome to the world of quantitative easing: COVID-19 edition. This is the stage in the pandemic where countries try and unshackle their economies by loosening many of the restrictions put in place to fight the initial outbreak. We are already beginning to witness what happens when these same places become too cavalier about precautions in a bid to satiate the public’s intense hunger for some form of normalcy.
You have what occurred in Seoul, which had earned universal plaudits for its early and aggressive controls to help keep its virus numbers low – it’s why the decision to allow nightclubs to open surprised many.
But South Korea isn’t the only place experiencing concerning surges of new cases after relaxing the measures installed to stultify an initial spread of the virus. Germany has seen a spike. France and China have also reported new outbreaks. And many are bracing for a dramatic new wave of cases in the United States as a number of governors pursue aggressive reopening plans.
These setbacks aren’t unexpected; managing a pandemic is not an exact science. Finding that sweet spot – between a level of restriction that keeps the rate of the virus’s growth relatively flat, and opening up the economy to help people get back to work – is exceedingly difficult. It’s not as simple as turning the dial on a thermostat to find the right temperature, although that’s close to what public health officials and politicians are trying to do.
Consequently, I think there is some legitimate confusion on the part of the public in terms of understanding what our new normal looks like.
In B.C., the government recently announced Phase II of a four-part plan beginning in mid-May to give the public a semblance of their old lives back. In recent days, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has talked about allowing people to expand their social circle by just a little bit.
“Few faces in big spaces,” is Dr. Henry’s latest axiom.
All of the advice the revered doctor has dispensed is doubtlessly spot on. However, she can likely appreciate that some people aren’t sure what the precise boundaries are. Can someone expand their “bubble” by four, six, or eight people? There have been no precise numbers given. One person’s definition of a small gathering can look radically different from someone else’s. She has said it’s okay to hug “your people,” but also urged continued caution when around others. She seems to have given the green light to children’s play dates, but advised discretion; if there is an elderly person living in the same residence, then maybe it’s not the best idea.
Dr. Henry said the risk of contracting the virus as a result of someone walking past you outside is “infinitesimally small.” Did the thousands of people who flocked to Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver on the weekend instead hear the doctor say the odds of contracting the virus while congregating in groups outside is “infinitesimally small"? Dr. Henry has discussed modeling that recommends people only partake in up to “60 per cent” of their normal amount of personal contact for as long as the virus is with us. That is an obscure concept for many.
This is not to disparage Dr. Henry’s messaging in any way. Rather, I mention this to illustrate how difficult it is to be precise about these things. The complexity involved in bringing communities out of lockdown with a virus still on the loose is almost unfathomable. You lower your guard too much and you instantly have a giant problem on your hands.
I think the concern many have is this: Are we relaxing our virus-fighting protocols too soon? A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research that looked at the Spanish flu of 1918 suggests that may be the case.
One of the report’s authors, Harvard economist Robert Barro, says physical distancing didn’t do much to mitigate deaths from the Spanish flu because the measures to do so weren’t kept in place for long enough.
The report concludes that widespread lockdowns that last 12 weeks or longer are far more effective than ones that last just four or six weeks. In other words, we may need to brace ourselves.
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