| 13.4°C Belfast


Alex Kane

For anyone who thinks the end of coronavirus impact is in sight, think again... it'll be a long, long time before this is over

Alex Kane


What now seems novel to Alex Kane's generation may be the beginnings of the new normal for his children

Close

Deserted beaches, as seen at Seapark in Co Down yesterday, could become the new norm, says Alex
Kane

Deserted beaches, as seen at Seapark in Co Down yesterday, could become the new norm, says Alex Kane

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Deserted beaches, as seen at Seapark in Co Down yesterday, could become the new norm, says Alex Kane

A phrase we're hearing more and more at the moment is, "When the crisis is over I'm going to..." To what? The only reason I'm asking is because it is very unclear when the crisis will be over, or even be considered close to being over.

There has been obvious success in keeping the number of fatalities down (the speculated figures a few months ago were apocalyptic; indeed, Health Minister Robin Swann spoke of "biblical proportions"), but that is because huge numbers of the population have remained at home while the economy has been placed in a form of suspended animation.

But what happens when the lockdown loosens in a few weeks', or maybe a couple of months', time? Will too many people assume the worst is over and think it's okay to return to normal?

It's very unlikely that we'll have a fully tested, proven effective and ready-to-roll-out vaccine when lockdown restrictions loosen (which they will have to if the economy is to recover), which means that millions of people who haven't had Covid-19 so far are likely to get it.

Which, in turn, means that both the death rates and absence-from-work levels are likely to soar, with the NHS put under even greater pressure than it has been over the past six weeks.

What do we do then? Re-run the lockdown when the nights are longer, colder and darker? Or do we put the elderly, vulnerable and others known to have underlying health issues into something akin to a curfew and allow everyone else to run the risks and take their chances, on the assumption that most of them will only get a mild form of the virus?

But how do you rebuild and refinance an economy in the short term if, within a matter of months, millions of workers could be struck down by the virus they avoided during the first lockdown and will need to convalesce for a few weeks? In the absence of a vaccine and in the absence of hard evidence that you can't get the virus more than once, what do we do?

That's what makes this crisis particularly difficult. It's hard to know when it will be over and impossible to know what will happen when millions are released from lockdown, businesses reopen, people begin to congregate again and Covid-19 remains a threat.

Most states have already placed huge demands upon their populations, but I'm not sure how long they can continue to do so. Lockdown is never natural and we could be coping with the psychological consequences for years.

People living with a form of 24/7 fear is never natural, either, and it's likely that increasing numbers will be tempted to rebel, in the sense that they will refuse to remain prisoners in their own homes any longer.

At some point, therefore, governments will have to make the call. Do the risks of economic collapse, a huge rise in unemployment, servicing massive new debts for maybe a decade or so and the electoral consequences of trying to enforce a lockdown through the summer months, outweigh the consequences (particularly death toll and potential numbers of sick, unable to work staff) of ending lockdown fairly quickly and hoping that a vaccine is produced reasonably soon?

Or, putting that question a slightly different way, would enough people be prepared to accept the risks involved with a looser form of lockdown in exchange for a return to something they recognise as a 'normal' life?

That might still require social distancing for months on end - at least until there was a vaccine available - but it might be possible to reopen shops, pubs and hotels, return schools to normal, allow some sports to begin again and allow millions of people to return to work and full salaries. But here's the thing: social distancing is easy to enforce when people are outside for limited periods only. The more of us are out for longer periods, the harder it is to enforce it and the easier it is for Covid-19 carriers to pass it on.

In other words, the risks of loosening lockdown could be catastrophic, particularly when millions haven't been tested, not forgetting that a negative test only applies to the time you were tested.

Which brings us back to square one: lockdown contains the spread, although it doesn't actually kill off the virus,but the consequences of lockdown are also potentially catastrophic for the economy and employment.

There is no such thing as a good crisis. That's not to say that some political leaders don't benefit from a crisis and see their reputation and electoral appeal enhanced.

In this crisis, the judgment on leaders will be based on four particular factors: if the death rates are contained, not just in the first wave, but in the later, maybe much broader waves; if the economy has been protected as much as possible, meaning people can return to full-time employment fairly quickly; if the leader has been successful at pulling the nation together; and how the success of one leader's decisions compare with the decisions and successes of leaders in other countries.

At this point, it is still too early to make a final judgement on any leader. I'm no fan of Boris Johnson and it is clear that serious mistakes have been made by the Government, yet in six months' time, or a year, it is still possible that the UK will emerge better placed economically than some nearby rivals.

That's the nature of crises - there are no certainties - but the recent criticism of him by previously staunch supporters in the media will have unsettled a man who likes to be loved and praised by powerful friends. As did his hero and guiding star, Churchill, who, as Johnson knows, won a war then lost the subsequent election.

A vaccine does seem likely, yet a vaccine alone will not end the crisis, particularly if it doesn't arrive for a year and huge economic damage has been inflicted on the country.

Surviving a crisis is one thing, yet surviving it and facing lengthy unemployment afterwards is merely the beginning of another crisis.

We may face a higher level of tax against a background of spending cuts. It may take a decade for the economy to return to where it was in late 2019.

The death rates could soar in the next wave/waves. A form of lockdown and social distancing could continue for many, many months.

No one, and I really do mean no one, has any idea when this crisis will end. The only certainty, I think, is that life is not going to be quite the same for a long, long time.

What now seems novel to my generation may be the beginnings of the new normal for my children.

Yet, like all previous generations, they will adapt to the new circumstances and survive by their own efforts.

Belfast Telegraph