The new coronavirus has brought our society to the minimum possible. He closed companies, canceled large meetings and kept us all at home. Everyone wonders the same thing: when will there be a return to normal?
The answer is very simple: when a sufficient part of the population (between 60 and 80% of people) will be immunized to COVID-19 and / or able to curb the spread of the disease from person to person. This is the ultimate goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there. The scenarios of the exit from this coronavirus nightmare, on the other hand, are different.
The long road and the short road
There are two realistic and brutal paths to the famous "herd immunity". One is the development of a vaccine. The other is that the disease takes hold, certainly killing many, but also leaving many others immune. This is the "English" thesis (much changed later). Not knowing yet if recovery from the disease confers immunity, not to mention lifelong immunity, I wouldn't consider it a first choice.
Unfortunately, both of these coronavirus scenarios may be a year or two long, but in the meantime, degrees of normalcy will likely be regained. Absolutely not at Easter, as Renzi would like or Trump. But this summer, for example, we could find restaurants open but no concerts, open offices but no crowded beaches, bars with spaces spaced between the seats.
Imagining patterns of returning to everyday life would be easier if the authorities had a complete view of who is infected, cured, immune or susceptible. Information that would emerge from widespread tests, which the world is very slow to deploy.
For this reason, the strategy adopted is that of self-isolation. It can slow the spread of the virus, saving the country's hospitals as much as possible from catastrophic patient overload. This unfortunately comes with the cost of freezing everyday life.
Epidemiologists have pointed out that they have no idea when life will be "thawed", but here and there there are a number of possible scenarios on how we could resume some activities after (or even during) the coronavirus. Here are some turning points to keep an eye on in the coming weeks, months and years.
Scenarios from 1 to 2 months
I must note that experts think this timing is highly unlikely. But many social distancing measures could end in a month or two if the coronavirus turns out to be "suddenly a less serious pathogen." This is what he said, for example William Hanage, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. "Second and third degree infected people could develop very mild disease and rapidly develop immunity." This hypothetical circumstance would certainly be fantastic. But it would also cause "a lot of headaches" among public health experts, due to the extreme difficulty of precisely identifying this alleged immunity by area, age, type of subject.
Another path to a short-term resolution is much simpler: less social distancing would produce what Andrew Noymer, professor of public health at the University of California, calls it a "big, short, sharp shock." In other words: many infections in the coming months, overwhelmed health system and death of many people. After such a catastrophe, many people are assumed to be immunized.
Both these events would do well to stay in the drawer for at least two more months, for better or for worse. By then, public health experts will have learned more about the virus by then. In a month or two, public health authorities and researchers will probably also have a clearer idea of whether the recovered immunity is acquired, and if so, for how long. Such information will be useful for containment efforts.
Scenarios from 3 to 4 months
This scenario can occur in the hypothesis in which the widespread development (and the use) of rapid or very rapid tests makes us discover that we already have substantial mass immunity to this virus.
In this sense, the development of two types of tests is important: one that detects the presence of the virus itself and one that detects the antibodies that people develop when they are immune to it.
With this new information, Hanage said, it would be possible to isolate contagious or more vulnerable people, while much of the population returns to something reminiscent of normal life.
"There would be fewer tables in a restaurant, or fewer people in a bar", he said. Meanwhile, if some places have a much higher incidence of the disease than others, people in those regions or cities may leave their homes earlier or during different times than people in other parts of the country.
Michael Stoto, professor of administration of health systems and population health at Georgetown University, defines three variables that determine the spread of a disease:
- How many infected people or contacts on contaminated surfaces on average meet in one day;
- How many possibilities of virus transmission are there in these situations;
If more targeted testing began to provide a more complete picture of the spread of the virus, health authorities might choose to focus on one variable more than another.
For example, if the test data indicated there was a need to reduce the number of people meeting, perhaps restaurants and small businesses would reopen, but large, crowded events would be canceled. In short, a "normality" with a variable structure.
In three or four months, researchers may have identified a treatment for COVID-19. Maybe not a cure, but something that could relieve symptoms quickly and reliably, avoiding death. This would not eliminate the continuing need for social distancing, as large-scale outbreaks would still be possible, but it could reduce the risk of overburdening the country's hospitals if an outbreak occurs.
For Hanage, this timeline is more likely than shorter coronavirus scenarios.
Scenarios from 4 to 12 months
A big unresolved question about COVID-19 is whether, like the flu, its spread will slow substantially over the summer.
Researchers have some theories as to why summer is a flu-hostile season: higher temperatures and an increase in UV radiation are lethal to some viruses. Schools are closed and robbing the virus of crucial breeding ground. But it is not yet known whether any of these theories apply to the coronavirus.
Here the possible scenarios become two: in one, the coronavirus recedes in the summer. In the other, no. In both, at least some of the social distancing measures currently in place will continue into the second half of the year.
In the first case, the virus recedes in the summer. Summer would be a little more fun than spring, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Small group outdoor activities would probably be allowed. Maybe bars and restaurants would reopen. But there would probably be a brake on big meetings. No stadiums, no concerts, no beaches, still no cinema (if not perhaps outdoors and with the right distances).
The leagues could resume in the summer but with no audience, TV shows would continue to give up on studio audiences. In the meantime, stores may continue to limit the number of authorized shoppers. Let's forget the big crowds for a while, but on a small scale there would be fewer limits and life would certainly return to more acceptable levels.
It may also be (relatively) safe to travel around to see loved ones. If the likelihood of getting infected is reduced and spreads everywhere, around the house as well as elsewhere, travel restrictions make little sense. But surely stations and airports would have limited access.
The downside of this summer closer to the "normal" one is that there would be a strong possibility (although not a certainty anyway) of a recovery of the entheo disease six months. This "relapse" of infections could return starting in October, reintroducing the need for social distancing.
This social distancing could be the same as the current one, or slightly lightened: at that point, many people could have developed an eventual immunity and theoretically could exit without risking infection. And we would know even more about the virus too. If by autumn we were fully certain that children have strong resistance to being infected, but above all to spreading it, schools could even reopen.
Within three to four months, countries will still be in a better position to absorb another wave of infections. Summer would be a good time to produce more respirators, increase the ICU seat allocation. It would increase the stock of protective equipment that healthcare workers wear to prevent infection.
If we used the summer break to strengthen our response in the fall, in short, with the right reinforcement, social distancing could be further reduced.
And let's get to the second of the "sub-scenarios": the one in which the coronavirus does not withdraw even in summer. The current peak would decline due to the isolation measures taken now, but the risk of a recovery would remain high in the warmer months. If the number of cases didn't drop significantly by early mid-June, Noymer said, we'd know the virus isn't seasonal.
At that point, social distancing measures could be changed according to the situation. With the ever-present possibility of more waves of infections, quarantine could continue just as it does now. If the hospitals were better equipped, however, the social distancing could be reduced. There may be more work outside the home and a slight increase in sociability, but it would still be a world with rigorous hand washes, choked sneezing, and generous amounts of hand sanitizer. In all likelihood, people who can work remotely or order food via delivery would still do so instead of leaving the house.
Scenarios from 12 to 18 months (and beyond)
Spring 2021 is the time everyone is waiting to see a vaccine. "Any faster timing would be a world record, it would be the speed of light", says Noymer. If it is a rough project to perfect it will take even longer, probably another six months or a year after next spring.
The vaccines, as I wrote here, they take so long because they are difficult to perfect. A series of methodical tests are conducted to ensure that they do not harm healthy people, that they generate the desired antibodies and that those antibodies actually defend against the disease. They are not excessive bureaucratic safeguards: if you have to inject something (or put in the mouth) hundreds of millions, probably billions, of people, you need to study it well.
And if it works, normal life will resume, but not immediately. The logistics of vaccinating millions of people is no small feat. And even assuming it doesn't all come in one big batch, some sort of system will be needed to determine who gets the first doses. The people most vulnerable to the disease? Healthcare professionals?
In examining all the coronavirus scenarios, then, don't want to, it is also possible that no one is able to develop a safe and effective vaccine. It would be a disappointment, but even then at 12-18 months we would be well on our way to population-wide immunity, surely reaching it by the fall of 2021. And until then we probably wouldn't be locked up for more than a year. Even in a vaccine-free world, achieving population-wide immunity means future COVID-19 outbreaks would be far less harmful than the current one. The virus could remain threatening and continue to circulate, infecting people as much and more than a cold or flu do.