The pandemic is not under control, and as COVID-19 spreads, an increasingly frustrated and polarized society draws worrying war lines about the next steps to take. One side is becoming increasingly paranoid, demanding widespread new confinements throughout the world, as well as forced vaccination and the permanent use of face masks even after receiving the vaccine. The other side seems to have decided that COVID-19 is under control or has been a mere government plot, so they returned to “normal” turned into an expression of political defiance.
Both sides are wrong.
Why? Because they both operate from a framing of control, either the “we can control the pandemic if we just paralyze the world for as long as it takes, nothing else matters” or the “the pandemic is under control/doesn’t exist, so we can return to normal and anyone who disagrees is a fool manipulated by government propaganda.” They seem to be on opposite sides of the equation, but in fact they share the fundamental idea that the pandemic is something we can control.
There is a third option: the pandemic is not controlled. We can’t actually do such thing, but we still have to go on living.
Life is full of risk
Despite obvious international vaccination successes, the third wave of the pandemic is underway, driven by the advance of variants such as delta and beta, which challenge the effectiveness of vaccination options and open up new scenarios of difficulty. Globally, hospital COVID areas, which had almost completely emptied a few months ago, are starting to fill up again, while news of dead and seriously ill people are once again taking WhatsApp chats and Facebook timelines by storm.
Faced with this undoubted increase in contagions and the equally undoubted risks of getting sick from COVID-19, it would seem logical to opt (as the paranoids intend) for new generalized shutdowns of the economy and coexistence. However, that is not only harmful, but impossible. Even the strongest economies were deeply affected by the 2020 confinements, the damage of which was economically severe and socially unquantifiable.
This is key. When calculating the effects of shutting down entire countries, it is not just the number of companies bankrupted, jobs lost and debts multiplied, but also the impact of loneliness and isolation on the lives of millions of people.
Now, repeating a generalized confinement would imply even greater costs for companies and public finances, which already face serious difficulties to stay afloat, in addition to multiplying the negative effects on the well-being of millions of people, including both those who lost their source of income and those for whom staying at home has been a source of serious psychological burdens, whose full damage will take years to manifest itself.
Yes, for you, who work from your computer with safe paychecks and multiple meal delivery options via Uber Eats that allow you to accompany your multiple series choices on Netflix and Disney+, staying home is viable and even appealing. However, for many millions of people, confinement is a veritable prison sentence and depression.
One area where this diversity of realities becomes especially clear is in schools. In many countries, schools have been closed for almost a year and a half, while offering “distance learning” to hundreds of millions of children who sit on their couches to watch endless Zoom sessions that serve no purpose.
Make no mistake, if your child spends all day watching their teacher on Zoom, they are not homeschooling, they are simply bored and not learning.
Schools need to resume face-to-face classes and, yes, this implies a risk, but it is unfeasible to wait until this risk disappears or until all schools have the ideal biosecurity measures in place, which in many cases are impossible to fully implement.
What to do, then?
With schools, as with the rest of the economy, it is necessary to make decisions that are flexible and adapted (as far as possible) to the particular circumstances of each person, based on three principles:
First. The best option is not the “ideal”, the ideal does not exist, what exist are the viable options, and among them it will be necessary to choose, understanding that in many cases the alternative in case of confinement is not to remain protected in home bubbles, but to risk contagion in the neighborhood or in the street.
Second. COVID-19 is not the only potentially lethal danger that we must take into account. The mental health effects, the increase in other health problems derived from the confinement itself, the consequences of an economic crisis and the psychological damage produced by isolation also hurt and also kill. Therefore, they must be considered by governments when creating public policies.
Third. The pandemic is not under control and will not be for the foreseeable future, but even so, we must continue to live. It may be 5, 10 or 20 years before the virus stabilizes enough to fully normalize within our immune systems and our health systems, but waiting under the covers is not an option. We will have to continue to go out to work, to study, to play, to live with others and also with the risk of getting sick and dying.
The pandemic is not under control, but the world is not standing still
This is precisely the most difficult lesson to understand about COVID-19. In recent decades we had become accustomed to having diseases more or less under control and had forgotten that constant dance with death that was the norm for countless human generations. Lately we thought we had the visible and invisible world under our control, but it was never so. Life has always been a risk and we will have to face and overcome that risk in the coming years.
Along the way, our allies will be reasonable precautions, including vaccination, masks, ventilation, social distance and (in certain cases, yes) even new confinements, but only to the extent reasonable, based on the circumstances of each country, region and person.
From then on, our survival will depend, as it always does in nature, on a mixture of prevention, ingenuity, fortitude and luck. May God help us all.