Life With Coronavirus Is Our 'New Normal' for at Least a Year, Expert Warns

"Life is different now," says infectious diseases expert Dale Fisher. "There are changes that need to be sustained."
20 March 2020, 10:00am
People around the world have been asked to stay home and 

This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.

The situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing by the day, meaning some of the information in this article might be out of date. For our most recent coronavirus coverage, click here.

As life as we knew it changes drastically with the spread of coronavirus around the world, one health expert wants people to know this could be the case for a while.

The outbreak was first detected in December last year in Wuhan, China, and was called a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in March. Since then, there have been 191,127 confirmed cases globally, and 7,807 deaths as of publication time.

Travel restrictions have been enacted, countries have been placed on lockdown, and health centers have struggled to keep up.

Social gatherings have been completely upturned as governments ban mass get-togethers and mandate social distancing. Many theatres, malls, and places of worship are closed. People are now working from home.

As weeks pass, more and more people wonder how long this lifestyle will go for.

Dr. Dale Fisher, a professor of infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore and the chairman of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the WHO, told VICE that even when countries bounce back, “there are changes that need to be sustained.”

“We know in other countries life can be majorly different. But when those countries come back, they have to realise that there is a new normal… how they socialise has to be different,” he said in an interview on Tuesday, March 17.

Fisher also talked about why lockdowns are important, what countries with less resources can do, and what his biggest concern is currently about the pandemic.

VICE: Why is it important to do a lockdown?

**Fisher:**The reason to lock down, I think really is to get yourself set up again. It's a time for a reboot. Now, when China did its lockdown, that was the time the world had. That was a lead time to say, look what's coming. Get ready. Obviously, most countries did not spend that time getting ready.

In Singapore, we were scampering to get ready. We were getting all our protocols, our beds. "If this happens, what if that happens? Who were the contact traces of the quarantine facilities in place?" and so on. So countries that took advantage of that lead time are now under control.

So if you're having a lockdown now, I would argue that this is your new lead time, because when you unlock, it's gonna come back. And the question is, are you ready this time?

How long will this go for?

[For] the vaccine, people are talking a year or two. There are vaccines that have been developed. The vaccines that have gone to human trials, they have to be safe. They have to be effective. And then there has to be post-marketing surveillance to make sure there's no side effects from them. And then they have to be ramped up with large volumes and then give them to so many people. It's not just, “The vaccine is here. We're okay now.” There's still a lot of water to pass under the bridge.

So life is different now. We know in other countries life can be majorly different. But when those countries come back, they have to realise that there is a new normal, if you like, where the practices are different, their restaurants have to be different. The entertainment areas have to be different. How they socialise has to be different. So there are changes that need to be sustained.

What’s your biggest concern about this virus?

What concerns me quite a bit is fatigue setting in because this does need to go for a long time.

People are suffering financially, but they need to realise that this is not a sprint. Plan on this being the case for maybe a year.

We could be lucky and we could find a treatment. And if we know we can treat severe cases, then that is a considerable game changer. If we're waiting for a vaccine, which we hope will be next year, [it needs to] be effective and safe, [so] that can be rolled out. So people need to realise that this is the way it is for a while.

Are there other ways to fight the virus aside from a lockdown?

South Korea was just incredible to be able to control those sort of numbers without a lockdown. So they didn't close their businesses. They did close schools, but they're opening up again I think next week. But you know, to be able to do that without the extreme of the others. And how did they do it? They isolated the positive cases. They tested so much with a capacity of 20,000 tests a day. They weren't always doing that. But they tested a lot of people to find their cases. And anyone that was positive was put in complete isolation until they were clear and it worked.

How about for countries without those resources for testing?

It's community engagement. If people don't mix in big crowds, they don't go out when they're sick. There's going to be less spread. So there are things you can do without being one of the world's wealthiest countries.

I don't think there's any one single thing that's really important. It's the package. The extreme of social distancing is when you lock down a city and tell everyone to stay inside. So no one can have contact with anyone else. But if a city or a country can say, "Look, let's just all keep a little bit of a distance" – because the droplets, they only go a meter or two – at this distance even if one of us is infected, the other one is unlikely to get it. But if you're in a bar or a restaurant with 50 people in a room, then obviously that's very risky.

So my advice to people that run bars and restaurants, might be thin it out. I saw a hawker stall the other day where I'd put a cross on every second chair. So this meant you're not allowed to sit there. So the hawker stall is now still open. Still running. And that's better than being closed down, even if they're only doing half their normal business.

How crucial is it for the government to be clear in its messaging?

Underlying all that is is a very, very clear approach to the community. There's a deliberate messaging campaign so that we're very transparent with our numbers. People know what we're doing. People know where we are in the outbreak. People are also aware of what could happen in the future. And I think the Singapore community is very aware that if they don't do their role, then the alternative is the shutdowns. And no one wants their business shut down. No one wants to be kept inside their house for weeks or months. So I think there is a strong sense of community that let's do the distancing. Let's not go out when we're sick. Let's cover up if we cough. So that's social engagement, the transparency, the community understanding their role is also extremely important.

This conversation has been edited/condensed for brevity and clarity.