In my neck of the woods new rules were introduced from midnight that ban family gatherings, social events, allow only one visitor to our home and require us to stay within our county (radius 20km) with few exceptions. This is the middle of five levels of restrictions designed to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes CoViD-19, which spilled into the domain of humans sometime around the end of last year. About 30 million worldwide have contracted the virus, two-thirds of those have recovered (to varying degrees) and about 1 million have died.
A viable vaccine might be developed in the next 9 months (based on the many mid-2021 estimates), so this could be the half-way point. We still have the challenge of mass manufacturing and distribution of that vaccine across the planet, which could delay the return to some kind of “normal” until the end of 2021.
In the meantime we have rules. Many rules. Frequently changing rules.
Our first taste of the rules happened at the beginning of March when a school was closed around the time of the first confirmed case of the virus. The following day, Google sent 8,000 employees home. That was just a case of someone having a “normal” infection, but the company wasn’t taking any chances. The next few days saw a rapid rise in cases, and within a week the projections were that without containment measures half the country could get infected.
Shortly after these projections were revealed, a decision was made to cancel all the parades celebrating the national holiday.
Then someone died.
The next day, rules were introduced nationally that closed schools and childcare facilities, and there were various advisories regarding travel into and out of the country.
This time they closed the public houses, which was seen as such a monumental ruling that it made the news around the globe. Many of these social hubs had already decided to close, believing (correctly) that keeping their patrons alive outweighed keeping their thirst at bay. Most of these establishments have stayed closed, permanently in some cases due to going bust. Many other businesses would follow suit as the rules kept on coming.
They speculated the crisis might persist into the summer. Now we think it might last another year.
The government continued to introduce rules as the consequences of new infections unfolded. This had two unfortunate effects: first, it risked creating the impression that the rules were purely political decisions, and second, it created confusion because the rules did not remain stable long enough for people to become familiar with them.
To deal with the problematic perception of political motivation, the situation regarding the virus and the country’s response was presented and explained first by the medical leaders. Only when the bad news was presented (and it’s almost always bad) would the politicians step in to put into effect the recommendations from the specialists. Meanwhile, in a country not far away, their prime minister was the one delivering the medical news and the rules that followed, which definitely made the whole thing look like pure politics.
Statements from the medics, interspersed with proclamations from politicians, became increasingly frequent, to the point that by now it’s all a blur. In an attempt to put some distance between the medical advice and the consequential political decisions, our government has introduced a pipeline of steps that goes something like this:
- The national public health emergency team (NPHET) provides medical guidance.
- A Covid-19 “oversight group” with a mix of senior medical, civil service and political representatives meets weekly to consider NPHET advice.
- Recommendations from the oversight group are passed to a Cabinet Committee (comprising government-appointed ministers) where, chaired by the head of government, plans are finalised on what new responses (i.e. rules) will be needed.
- There are five levels of alert, from the basic level 1 to the most restrictive level 5. The Cabinet Committee decides what level is assigned to the country or individual counties.
The downside of this plan is the time between NPHET’s guidance and the government’s Level decisions. Once the public hear what NPHET is suggesting, the people know they have just a day or two before new rules come into force, and in the intervening time they go a bit nuts. Instead of thinking: “the experts say that having a party is dangerous”, they think: “we have just two days to have a party, so let’s get everyone together!” Crazy.
At least our government’s decisions come into force within hours, whereas across the water their government decisions often don’t come into force for several days. And they wonder why things go barmy…
In addition to the local and national rules, we also have to deal with international rules, such as those from the European Union. Soon the EU will be releasing its own set of rules regarding cross-border travel. We have been using our own “green” list of countries considered “equally safe” (AKA “equally dangerous”) to determine if passengers need to isolate after travel. This list will be replaced by the EU’s “traffic light” system. This proposed system will hopefully deal with the problem of political reciprocity where one country puts a second on its red list in retaliation for being so listed themselves. The EU-wide alternative would see such lists determined by scientific/medical assessments, independent of political sensitivities.
We’re half way through this pandemic and in addition to facing the virus itself, we are faced with seemingly endless rules. The aforementioned systems introduced by national governments and international structures are worthy, but also wordy. The rules apply to everyone, but they are excessively complex, and necessarily changing, so what hope is there for the ordinary citizen to follow them, to understand them, or even be aware of them?
Simplicity is key. The medical, civil and political institutions will have to do better with their communication. Dozens of pages of legalise, diagrams, charts and numbers will not communicate to the people that matter.
My rule is simple: when in doubt, don’t go out.