Should we curtail all our normal activities due to virus fears?

February 26, 2020 17:07
The coronavirus crisis has prompted a debate in society as to how far people should go in foregoing their normal activities amid the infection fears. Photo: CNSA

As the coronavirus continues its global march, there is this question: how long will the epidemic last?

Recently, Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, made quite an interesting remark as he raised this topic during a televised national address.

Lee suggested to his fellow Singaporeans that no matter how the epidemic is going to unfold in the coming days, life must go on in society. 

Now, my question is: when can we actually consider the epidemic as over?

Well, judging from all the professional assessments that are available at this stage, there seems to be a consensus on one point: the novel coronavirus is ferocious not only because it is rapidly contagious, but also because there are multiple possibilities of channels of transmission of the virus, which makes it very difficult to contain it.

Nevertheless, it also appears that the new coronavirus is a lot less deadly than SARS, with some experts even taking the view that it is no more lethal than the flu.

If this evaluation stands, then I believe it would be logical to infer that the novel coronavirus will last for quite some time.

And given that it takes time to discover, develop and manufacture vaccines, I believe there is unlikely to be any miracle as to how the epidemic is going to play out in the short run.

Another question that comes up is: how can we call the epidemic over? Can we describe it as over when the number of confirmed infections is continuing to fall, but not to zero?

Here I am not trying to seek a scientific answer to this question.

Instead, my point is, it is unrealistic to require everyone to stay home and grind all social activities to a halt for “who-knows-how-long” period of time.

That said, and given that the coronavirus is likely to stick around for quite a while, is it time to start thinking about how to adopt another way of life in order to enable ourselves to live with the novel coronavirus?

I am raising this question not because I don’t have confidence in modern medical science, but because it is a kind of necessity for society.

The current Covid-19 epidemic has brought back many memories from the SARS epidemic that occurred 17 years ago.

In 2003, I was serving as a hall warden, among other capacities, at the University of Hong Kong.

Since the SARS outbreak was underway in full swing at that time, members of the then newly elected student dorm committee were unable to hold their inauguration ceremony out of concern that a large-scale indoor gathering could boost the risk of infection.

And that’s where me and my colleagues began to have a difference of opinion with our students: while we argued that it was inappropriate to hold the inauguration banquet (also known as the “High Table”) amid the SARS epidemic, students insisted that it must go on as scheduled.

To justify their decision, the newly elected female chairperson provided two reasons for us: 1. we couldn’t stop doing everything indefinitely because nobody could tell when SARS would end; and 2. all we needed to do was to guarantee that everyone had sufficient protective gear during the event.

In the end, at their insistence, I finally told my students: even though I didn’t agree with their decision, I would do everything I could to help them if they insist on going ahead with the event.

As a result, what I witnessed afterwards was a totally unforgettable “High Table”: all students and teaching staffers who attended the dinner were wearing face masks and gloves throughout the entire event.

Looking back, I think my students had made the right decision: we can’t let the epidemic dictate our lives, because the outbreak is something beyond our control.

Rather, the correct approach to dealing with an infectious disease epidemic is to fully guard ourselves against risk of infection, which is something that is in our control.

Even as we confront an outbreak, the important thing is to try to live our normal life as far as possible.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Professor Cheng Kai-ming is an emeritus professor at the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong