The new normal of social distancing
With over 2.6 million cases of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) across the world, states are battling the most severe public health emergency in a century. The most preferred route to deal with it is lockdowns. These are often necessary, but not sustainable. At best, they give an opportunity to break the chain of transmission and improve the health infrastructure. But restrictions will eventually ease — either because the pandemic subsides (as has happened in Wuhan, China, already), or because poor communication and partisan politics erodes the support of citizens for extreme measures (as visible in parts of the United States), or because the associated economic costs are too high (as increasingly felt by both businesses and labour in India).
But that cannot mean a return to business-as-usual. With an uncertain future and with no cure in sight, a group of Harvard researchers ran computer simulations modelling how the pandemic can play out. They suggest that some form of social distancing may be needed till 2022. This will ensure that when a second wave of infection emerges, after restrictive measures are lifted, health systems aren’t overburdened with new cases. This demands there must be a radical shift in everyday lives — in the way people meet, socialise, travel, educate, study and work.
As the end of the lockdown in India draws near, this lesson is valuable. Restrictions will be eased, facilitating greater mobility and economic activity. But the importance of social distancing will not diminish. This is easier said than done, given India’s poverty and high-density of population. Governments will have to frame policies accordingly. Citizens will need to see themselves not just as potential victims, but as potential threats, and adopt best practices, for themselves and for others. Institutions will have to create new work systems. The end of the lockdown will not lead to normalcy, but will create a “new normal”.