In the spring, when the pandemic was just beginning, a modeling study from the Imperial College London pointed out that different outcomes would depend on the restrictiveness of control measures, either strict limits and virus “suppression,” or less restrictive measures and “mitigation.” The study, which recommended suppression efforts at the outset, was an important factor in the campaign to flatten the curve. But it also foresaw that societies would struggle to sustain restrictions for long periods of time and that, if restrictions were relaxed, the virus would “quickly rebound.”
Six months later, here we are. Several European nations are facing a surge of infections following a loosening of restrictions; the United States suffered it in the summer and is still struggling. The pandemic is turning out to be a roller-coaster ride, oscillating between painful upward climbs and terrifying cliff-dives. After some notable successes early on, Britain, Spain and France are rushing to put in place new measures to combat rising rates of infection, which are the result not only of more testing but also of more contagion.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Sept. 22 sweeping new control measures for six months, tightening the rules for pubs and restaurants, and abandoning attempts to persuade workers to return to their offices. Britain reported nearly 5,000 new cases on Sept. 22, the highest since early May. In Madrid and surrounding towns, police began stopping people going in and out of neighborhoods that have been partially locked down. Cases per 100,000 population in Spain (293.76) and France (213.8) have both surpassed the United States (176.62). Israel is also struggling to cope with a second wave (797.19 per 100,000); though it imposed a strict lockdown on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the virus is still raging out of control.
As European leaders grapple with the spikes, they have eschewed draconian lockdowns like those in the early weeks of the crisis, and resorted instead to more localized and calibrated responses. A major lesson of the pandemic is that governments can impose lockdowns only so long, testing people’s patience and pinching their economic welfare. Reflecting this, French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter, “To protect our seniors, vigilance must not mean isolation. Social and family ties are just as vital. We must learn to live with the virus by adopting all the right reflexes.” Also different this time is age distribution: the new wave appears to be concentrated in younger people, which may mean mortality will be lower, and more is known today about how to treat coronavirus patients.
Until a vaccine or effective drug therapy arrives — and that could be next year or beyond — how the virus spreads and the toll it takes will be influenced in part by physical barriers, such as face masks, hand sanitizers and social distancing. But the real determinant is the behavior of people. When they act together and do the right thing, the virus spread can be slowed. When they don’t, the virus is relentlessly on the move.