I have had many discussions with friends and family on how long will we be living like this? Under lockdown, quarantine, restricted travel, long ques for groceries and essential, always wearing masks, limited entertainment, no movie dates or dinner dates, always sanitizing surfaces, thermal scans everywhere, etc. But most importantly with fear of falling sick or fear of having your loved ones falling sick and maybe losing them. The government has not been telling when things can get back to normal, but what does this normal look like? Will we be able to socialize the way we used to be, will the business be able to operate the same way, will office space be the same? There are many such questions. As an entrepreneur I face this issue all the time, how do I get my company going ahead, I don’t want lockdown as it affects operations for us, but as a scientist, I understand the importance of not entering community transmission stage. Jiggling between a practical view of freedom to work to another practical view of saving our health, I have accepted this new normal during the COVID pandemic. Though lockdown is a stringent and unusual mechanism, it cannot be followed for long periods as the socio-economic consequences are massive, that’s why the government is now easing it. This would mean all (or most) of us will be able to get back to what we were doing before, but it will be different this time, NEW NORMAL.
Let us understand one thing, this novel Coronavirus will not disappear one day when the lockdown is lifted, viruses can stay for a very long time outside the human body as well. This virus needs a host to replicate and multiply, once it is outside, it is as good as a non-living thing. But the virus does not die out. Virus is amazing, a packet of genetic information which is alive only when it is inside a host. I would like to mention a breakthrough which happened on 9 December 1979 when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the world has eradicated smallpox because of a global vaccine initiative that was started in 1959. Smallpox is one of the deadliest infectious disease caused by a virus known to humankind with about 30% mortality and history dating back to 3000 years old Egyptian mummy. In the 20th century, it caused death in about 300-500 million people. The first vaccine ever to be made was for smallpox in 1796 by Dr. Edwerd Jenner. Coming to the point that I wanted to make with this example, is the timeline in this case. Smallpox virus is known for thousands of years, the first vaccine developed in 1796, and eradication happened about 183 years later in 1979 with an effort of 30 years of a global initiative. Those were old times, with less technology and pace.
Now the world is fast-moving and technology is getting better, but till now we don’t even have a vaccine or drug to treat this novel coronavirus pandemic. Even if vaccines are developed faster, scaling it up even faster and implementing it quickly on the world population is a huge challenge. People like you and me, who are not at high risk of viruses, will have to wait a while before we will receive a vaccine. WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan in an interview said with an optimistic view it can take four to five years to control this virus. Sharing her words, “Let’s say we have a vaccine and we’re able to cover the world’s entire population, which may take, I don’t know, three years, four years. So, I would say in a four- to the five-year timeframe we could be looking at controlling this.”
So, does that mean we wait optimistically for four to five years? We have seen what two months of lockdown has done to the business, economy, physical and mental well being of individuals. In a month, cities were not able to support migrant workers, who out of hunger, poverty, and no safe shelter decided to start walking to their villages. Things got expensive as manufacturing stopped (or reduced) and inventory prices went higher. On the other end people lost their jobs or got reduced salaries. Many businesses filed for bankruptcy, all form of business are affected- the tourism sector is hit hard, agriculture is hit, the construction sector is hit hard (as we know from migrant worker plea), yet a lot of us had the option of working from home. If two months of lockdown can affect our economy so badly and working scenarios are restricted with norms of physical distancing, how do we work?
Phone and video calls work for remote working but are we working so efficiently. A lot of us have faced issues of poor internet while working remotely, getting distracted by household chores, unable to get the teamwork done fast as we are not able to contact another person smoothly as we would be if both were sitting next to each other in the office. Leave all these operational challenges, not being able to see your teammates while working with them also have an adverse effect on our mind. Apart from working challenges, getting daily essentials like groceries, going out for recreation, meeting your friends have been limited; always wearing masks, and sanitizing surfaces out fear of virus infection has taken a toll on our mental health as well. Humans are social being and we need to interact with other people for our well-being.
Having said all these, we know the virus will not be gone so soon. We all want to be able to go and get groceries without wearing masks or standing in long ques, we don’t want uncertainties of lockdown and curfew. We want to work from our offices like old times. We don’t want to be always worrying about our or loved ones’ lives. Time has come that we start thinking about how do we co-exist with this virus, without fearing it, without it taking a toll on our mental health and being able to work smoothly. We all will adapt to this change in our own ways, the one that helps us the best. It will be a lifestyle change and work culture shift. People who live with elderly or immunocompromised person have to find a way of keeping themselves safe and less exposed to the virus. Sanitization will become a routine of daily chores. The business which can go digital will try that. Offices will see people in a new avatar, with everyone carrying sanitizers and wearing masks while working, flexible working hours might be introduced so that not many people are present at once in office. Eating together as a group might not be possible soon, so everyone will be having solo lunch and coffee breaks. Dates, movies and leisure activities will have to be limited. This is a general change that will affect all of us, more specific will be defined by industry, stage, and what you do. I hope we all start looking at ways to get going instead of halting, so that we adapt faster.