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‘Normalising’ the COVID-19 pandemic

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Sanket Mohapatra, Associate Professor, IIM Ahmedabad opines on how the global pandemic over a period of time could typically be normalised by people in order to save their mental bandwidth for their usual daily tasks

Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the US increased exponentially during the course of March 2020, from less than a hundred at the beginning of the month to more than 180,000 cases. Infections in Italy and Spain followed a similar exponential trend as the US during March, with the ever-rising numbers putting a tremendous burden on the healthcare systems of these three countries. The doubling of COVID-19 cases every few days is reminiscent of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe during 2007-08, where the inflation rate rose rapidly within progressively shorter time intervals, culminating in monthly inflation reaching an estimated 79.6 billion percent in November 2008.[1]

Meanwhile, in the same month of March, reported COVID-19 cases in China increased only about two percent to around 81,500, with the Chinese government declaring that the disease had been curbed after a two-month long lockdown in Wuhan city and Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.[2] In India, COVID-19 cases rose from the single digits to around 1,400 during the month. An unprecedented nation-wide lockdown in India since March 25 has generated debate on whether the government’s actions to forcibly introduce ‘social distancing’ would halt the spread of the highly contagious Coronavirus among India’s 1.3 billion people—following the perceived success of China—or whether India is destined to follow the trajectory of the United States, Italy and Spain, where the spread of the virus is continuing despite various travel restrictions and closures of offices and other establishments.

Some projections based on models developed by experts are indeed quite dire. The US White House has projected 100,000 to 240,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the US in the coming months.[3] The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated publicly that up to 70 per cent of the country’s population could get infected.[4] Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government of the UK, has hoped for a scenario with around 20,000 deaths, which, while being ‘horrible’ and ‘enormous’, would still be a ‘good outcome’ compared to much more pessimistic projections.[5] An influential study by researchers at Imperial College London has forecast that 73.8 million people in India could get infected with the Coronavirus even with early adoption of public health measures such as testing, isolation of cases, and social distancing measures to suppress transmission.[6] Others such as the COVID-IND-19 Study Group project much less ominous outcomes for India with around 13,800 cases by May 15 if the most severe government interventions were to be implemented.[7]

The great uncertainty and vast differences between various possible scenarios appear as remarkable as the exponential increases in COVID-19 cases that are being observed in several advanced countries and the earlier massive rise in inflation during Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation episode. Despite following the authorities’ instructions and taking precautions, given the rapid pace of increase in COVID-19 cases, many seem resigned to the possibility (even if currently remote) that some in their families, relatives, or colleagues may get infected with the Coronavirus and a few may perish as a result.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘normalise’ as ‘​to make conform to or reduce to a norm or standard.’[8] Can people normalise events that are unusual or extreme but persist over time? Could the steady drum-beat of news about the spread of the Coronavirus on television, social media, and online news portals, and the enormous uncertainty about the future, strain human comprehension and eventually generate a weary acceptance? Are we reaching such a state of mind as the global pandemic rages on?

During the second World War, the frequent air raid sirens in London announcing the arrival of German bombers during the Blitz in 1940-41 (which would result in 43,000 British civilians being killed) soon became a part of daily life.[9] In more recent times, the ongoing civil conflict in Syria that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions displaced barely makes it to the front pages of international newspapers or our consciousness. Such instances suggest that while people tend to get alarmed during the initial stages of an extreme event (for example, the first few cases of COVID-19 in one’s country, region, city, or town), however, if such events persist, people typically normalise these in order to save their mental bandwidth for their usual daily tasks, even when the impact over time is several orders of magnitude larger.

Normalising the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and letting our guard down, particularly after the current lockdowns and restrictions are lifted, could have detrimental outcomes. A reversal of social distancing (such as organising large gatherings and participating in crowded events) and relaxation of regular hand hygiene may cause Coronavirus infections to spike again. Faced with such an outcome, governments across the world may be forced to re-impose lockdowns, leading to even more hardship especially among the poor and most vulnerable. Both the Indian government and the public need to prepare in advance for the eventual lifting of the current lockdown and appropriate measures must be in place to ensure that an escalation in cases does not recur in the subsequent weeks and months.

Disclaimer: The views of the author in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.

References: 

  1. https://www.cato.org/zimbabwe
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51813876
  3. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/31/trump-says-the-coronavirus-surge-is-coming-its-going-to-be-a-very-very-
    painful-two-weeks.html
  4. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51835856
  5. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/17/governments-hopeful-scenario-20000-people-will-die-
    coronavirus/
  6. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/medicine/sph/ide/gida-fellowships/Imperial-College-
    COVID19-Global-Impact-26-03-2020v2.pdf
  7. https://medium.com/@covind_19/predictions-and-role-of-interventions-for-covid-19-outbreak-in-india-
    52903e2544e6
  8. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/normalize
  9. https://www.britannica.com/event/the-Blitz
1 Comment
  1. Srideepa R says

    Such an important article Sir. To a larger extent, people need to form new ‘habits’ before the curve flattens. If that doesn’t happen, any Government announcement or advisory will not be taken seriously. Like traffic and anti-bribery laws, this cannot be enforced as a larger part of such hygiene happens in private rather than in public display. Also, since the penalty is not restricted to an individual or the concerned parties but is applicable to entire nation, such enforcement is crucial for overcoming this situation.

    Research suggests that all it takes is 21 days to form a new habit. If that is true, then we all have become humans with better consciousness on surroundings and all millennial habits have been reset. As an aftermath, for companies, this new normalization will cost dearly. Not only people have adopted to living with minimal supplies but the habits built by companies slowly at the cost of profit have been erased from memories. Now, literally every e-commerce company is in incubation stage and will soon need to have a strong strategy to again build from beginning just like a startup. In addition to this challenge, companies also need to be aware that people are more conscious of the hygiene than ever before. Bite tasting, Partly opened boxes or Dirty Seat Covers will not be taken lightly anymore.

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