Pandemic lessons from other places

Published by The i paper (10th August, 2020)

I have resumed my job as a foreign reporter following a four-month break. It was a strange experience as I set off on my familiar trek to the airport. During the past decade I have covered wars, riots and revolutions. Six years ago I headed off to Liberia to report on the Ebola crisis, taking few precautions beyond standing apart from potential victims and washing my hands regularly. Yet I felt strangely nervous.

The mood passed after I arrived in Turkey. But this proved how much this pandemic can fill our minds with fear. This is not surprising when a new disease sweeps the planet with deadly consequences, trailing tragedy in its wake and tearing apart our fabric of life. Families devastated, firms destroyed, friends separated – and we may only be in infancy of these events. But three weeks and three countries later, it is hard not to wonder if a degree of mental panic might be inflaming some problems.

Life in Istanbul felt pretty normal on the surface. Turkey seems to have handled the pandemic well so far with 17 million more citizens than Britain but fewer than 6,000 reported deaths compared with our 46,566 official fatalities. The nation has a young population, but appears to have driven this advantage home with curfews, targeted quarantines, effective testing and efficient tracing aided by an army of “virus detectives”.

It was curious to see their attitude to face masks, which had not been enforced in Britain when I left. I dislike them on grounds of comfort and the way they impede communication. At the airport, waiting to get my suitcase checked, I smiled at the passenger behind me but then realised this was pointless. Masks are mandatory in Turkey, as in 120 other nations. My hotel handed out paper ones for guests, which soon grew soggy. I saw how few people wore them correctly as they fingered them constantly in the heat, flipped them under chins to chat and stuffed them in pockets. If we must wear them to save lives, so be it – I am not a rabid libertarian.

But then I landed in the Netherlands, where experts guiding their response have concluded that evidence for them is contradictory and inconclusive. They decided instead to press home simple messaging: keep social distancing, stay at home if showing symptoms and carry out effective hygiene such as regular hand washing.

These scientists fear masks a create false sense of security, prompting people to ignore other advice, so insist on them only in public transport. They have also been introduced in a few urban areas packed with tourists and young crowds.This shows “the science” is far from fixed. One expert told me of a study that found it took 200,000 people wearing a medical mask in the correct manner for a week to stop a single Covid-19 case. He had also seen how few people wore them properly on a trip to Belgium.

Regardless, Holland reminded me how Britain’s bungling government has confused citizens, first by backing its key aide when he displayed contempt for its own rules, then muddling the core messaging and finally by flip-flopping constantly between warnings of danger and exhortations to return to work. The Dutch death rate is less than half our own after a lighter lockdown, although seeing infection spikes.

The most fascinating stop was Sweden, the nation that infamously opted to avoid lockdown. This strategy has become seen as a grotesque failure, with some of the world’s highest death rates – although lower than in Britain. Yet delve deeper and the picture is more complex. Fatalities were concentrated in Stockholm and clusters of care homes, reflecting systemic flaws in a decrepit system as seen in some other countries including the UK.

Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist leading their response, admits they made mistakes in this area – yet he also argues they sought a sustainable and rounded response to the crisis confronting their country. Sweden’s stance is based on the belief that you cannot contain a global pandemic and lockdowns are a blunt instrument that needlessly harm many people, especially younger generations.

As in the Netherlands, it is an idea based on trust in a society that still largely respects leaders. They have imposed some constraints but kept businesses and schools for children under 16 open, which helps both pupils and working parents. In the Øresund region – where a bridge links Copenhagen in Denmark with Malmo in Sweden – death rates are broadly similar despite differing approaches to lockdown. A joint study with Finland also showed that shutting down schools made no difference to contagion rates.

They have seen big changes in society as, like elsewhere, people work from home and slash social interactions. Other European nations now have looser restrictions, easier at the height of summer. But as the number of Swedish deaths and new cases have crashed, there are suggestions they are close to herd immunity in Stockholm, and the economy, despite reliance on exports and terrible figures, is performing significantly better than the eurozone average. Many experts believe their wider, long-term damage to education, mental health and poorer communities will be less than elsewhere.

The debate about this strategy remains intense. The picture can alter drastically in days. We are seeing second waves across Europe. Hong Kong has been struggling with a third wave. Australia was hailed for containing the virus but is suddenly confronting hundreds of cases with shutdown, border closures and its highest single-day deaths. When even experts admit they are shooting in the dark to some extent, it is crucial to build trust and retain open minds – especially in Britain, where there is such hollow boasting of “world-beating” efforts despite dismal failure. Much remains mysterious about this virus. And there remains no clear path through this terrible global pandemic.

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