One of the biggest claims the public has been told throughout the Coronavirus crisis is that a second wave of the disease is inevitable – and coming soon. This has been at the forefront of the Government’s warnings; repeatedly people have instructed to do their duty and stay indoors, as this is the only way to prevent another peak from happening.
Now that it’s summer and lockdown has been eased, there’s growing nervousness that it will arrive. One paper writes: “Easing social distancing without a proper programme of testing, contact tracing and isolating will lead to a second wave of coronavirus”.
Clearly without imposing a lockdown, death and infection rates would have risen and we would be looking at an even more alarming government graph than the ones we’ve currently seen. But the question remains of whether – with Covid-19 levels reducing – there will be another big peak.
The Government is working on this assumption, planning for the worst-case scenario. But herein lies the problem: it is an assumption, and no one ever poses the alternative scenario: what if there’s no second peak?
Seeing as this expectation has directed so much of our strategy, as well as being used to ensure compliance in the population, it must be worth asking “are you sure?” to ministers at the very least. Sars and Mers never had second waves, yet this one is taken as indisputable fact.
Where there has been scepticism, it has not received much airing. Some were vocal early on in the crisis, but their ideas were not taken much further. In April, Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, the Head of the Security Studies programme at Tel Aviv University said that Covid-19 peaks at 40 days before rapidly declining and ultimately vanishing after 70 days. That same month, French academic Professor Didier Raoult suggested the virus had a “bell curve” formation, and went so far as to call the second wave a “fantasy that was invented from the Spanish flu”.
While these scientists may be very wrong – and if so, their advice might be catastrophic to follow – it’s worth looking at what’s happening in Europe, where Covid-19 cases have been decreasing, in relation to their words. France, Denmark and others have eased lockdown well in advance of the UK, and there are no indications of a second wave yet.
Yes there have been outbreaks, but nothing like the soaring rates we are so used to seeing on government charts. Switzerland, for instance, which reopened schools and restaurants on May 11 has not seen a peak since lockdown measures eased, nor has Denmark. Christian Drosten, one of Germany’s chief virologists, has even declared it a possibility that the country will “get through without a second wave.”
Some will say that what has stopped a second wave is these countries’ sophisticated solutions to the crisis. South Korea, for example, has had spikes in Covid-19 infections, which it controlled through its track and trace programme; Singapore, too, had an outbreak, which it stopped through forced isolation, and China used localised lockdowns. There’s no doubt that these interventions were effective, but it also may be the case that the virus has a natural decline that we don’t truly understand yet, attributing everything to interventions.
One hypothesis that’s particularly interesting is that warm weather appears to have an impact on the Coronavirus. Drosten has said that it’s “relatively clear that there is a certain temperature effect. It probably arises from being together in closed rooms in winter”, and others have suggested it’s seasonal, as other endemic coronaviruses that cause common colds are high in winter. Based on this, there are a huge number of questions for the Government and its advisers, as to whether the UK is following the right approach.
Many of these may be unanswerable, incidentally, but they would simply help us to think about Covid-19 more critically. Currently, we are focussed on the short-term, in favour of the most cautious approaches. But the timeline on which we look upon Covid-19 will grow, and so with it our attitudes around what’s best.
For instance, what if there is a second wave – but it’s coming in winter? It might make people see the current restrictions in a different light, wanting to make the most out of summer for work and socialising. We might regret doing our lockdown in March and April if we need another at a later date; what if it turns out that our economy can only handle one? It feels almost blasphemous to ask this, but the nature of a “second wave” changes the context through which we see the Covid-19 crisis.
On a bleaker note, what if the virus mutates by the time we get a second wave of Covid-19? It is all the more pertinent if we are to get a winter wave, in which most illnesses come back a lot harsher. Perhaps this would increase support for the controversial concept of “herd immunity” – if people were fearful that the virus will mutate, as per Spanish flu – with people hedging their bets on getting antibodies now.
There are many other questions to be asked; if a second wave, why not a third and fourth and so on? Do countries face different likelihoods of a second wave – based on individual differences (climate, anything else)? Is the second wave even coming at all, as some have argued? All of these discussion points change the landscape of the Coronavirus.
In writing this, one does not proclaim to be an oracle, nor doubt the second wave; who knows, maybe it’ll be here in the next few days. But the point is that we shouldn’t assume things in this crisis. One suspects part of the reason people get vexed with the media at daily briefings is not so much their political prejudices, but scientific ones. They tend to support what looks like the most cautious approach now – early lockdown, worrying about the second wave – namely because it seems the moral angle.
But caution could bring its own dangers in years to come (economic damage, a virulent second wave with no antibodies). Coronavirus is going to be here with us for a long time, and faced without a vaccine, the certainty of a second wave cannot be taken as gospel.