Life with Covid-19 -- a new norm

Life with Covid-19 -- a new norm

The number of Covid-19 cases reported in Thailand seems to be levelling off. Even though most provinces in the kingdom have reported Covid-19 infections, we have not yet seen a sustained, steep rise in confirmed cases in this country. This contrasts sharply with many affected places in the world which continue to see exponential growth in case numbers.

Does this mean we are near to defeating Covid-19 in Thailand? It does not.

We must never forget the lessons that this virus has taught -- in China, Italy, Iran, Spain and the United States -- wherein a few short weeks, cases increased from only a few to more than health systems could manage.

Japan and Singapore, which were thought to have controlled the outbreak, are currently experiencing catastrophic surges. Here in Thailand, we have seen alarming clusters of cases originating from sporting events and nightclubs.

We must never underestimate the explosive potential of the virus -- anytime, anywhere -- to overwhelm the best-prepared health systems, and to cause disease and death in our communities.

How can we fight this pandemic? There are currently no drugs or vaccines that have proven effective against the virus. What we do have are three major strategies that we know will slow its spread.

Looking for the virus, by expanding surveillance and testing for Covid-19 beyond high-risk groups and into the community. This will help us find where transmission is occurring and refine projections for the disease, which is critical for planning the response. Every case found allows public health authorities to isolate and treat individuals quickly, preventing the onward spread of the virus to others. One case found today means dozens more prevented tomorrow.

The second critical strategy is to support the work of public health authorities: to identify cases, isolate and treat them and trace and quarantine their contacts. Lockdowns, slowdowns and shutdowns may slow the spread of the virus, but the work of public health authorities to stop virus transmission from one person to another is what will bring it to its knees.

Finally, physical distancing. Consist-ently keeping a distance of at least a metre from others around us, as well as fastidiously washing our hands, avoiding touching our faces, and sneezing safely -- these will maximise our chances of avoiding infections and protecting those around us.

Curfews, shutdowns of schools, businesses and public places, restrictions on gatherings -- all of these are meant to ensure that we keep a safe distance from each other to protect ourselves and others from infection. One out of every three persons on the planet is experiencing some form of these physical distancing restrictions. All of us are feeling the social, economic and personal impacts of these measures in Thailand. We understand the difficult decisions that governments at all levels must make and how this affects individuals and communities in Thailand and the world over.

But the virus does not understand. It does not care. The measures Thai authorities have taken to stop the spread of Covid-19 and protect the population, have undoubtedly contributed to the low case numbers in this country.

But as case numbers stabilise, and planning for some of the restrictions to be lifted begins, we must remember that the virus is still with us.

Lifting restrictions -- which must be done carefully, in a step-wise approach, and based on a thorough risk assessment -- does not signal a return to the "normalcy" of our pre-Covid-19 lives.

It is rather the beginning of a new normal for all of us -- a way of being that minimises the risks of Covid-19 but allows us to earn our living, educate our children and keep our health system functioning.

A new normal, which cycles between easing of restrictions along with aggressive public health measures when the disease wanes, and the application of restrictions when new outbreaks occur.

A new normal where governments and populations must be prepared to respond to outbreaks by quickly implementing or re-implementing measures that ensure physical distancing while ensuring that everyone, especially the most vulnerable, has access to the necessities that make such measures bearable.

Communicating this new normal to all communities, and enlisting their support and collaboration are essential.

The new normal will not be permanent. Work being done globally and in Thailand to develop drugs and vaccines to combat Covid-19 will eventually allow us to live with minimal risk from this disease.

In the meantime, we will need to continue to expand surveillance and testing for Covid-19, apply a vigorous public health approach to slowing the person-person spread of the virus through isolation, treatment and contact tracing, and adopt appropriate measures -- as individuals and as a society -- to distance ourselves physically from others.

These are the tools we have now. They work. Continuing to apply them in Thailand and around the world is our best hope now against this pandemic.

Daniel A Kertesz, MD, is WHO Representative to Thailand.

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