"Cancel Everything" which does not compromise the supply of fundamental goods and services. This title is not a tasteless trick to hook the reader. It's also not very original (it's a direct translation of an article published in The Atlantic). Nor is it a title I would ever have thought of using in an opinion piece to this day ... but as I was writing this text, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. "In the past two weeks the number of COVID19 cases outside China has increased 13-fold and the number of affected countries has tripled. There are currently more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people have lost their lives" said Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

I use this title, aware of the risks, because I believe that the window of opportunity we have to avoid a repetition in Portugal (and in the rest of Europe) of the real tragedy that is happening, for example in Italy, is frighteningly small.

Unfortunately today we can look at data from various countries and observe that the spread of the virus follows a similar pattern in all of them, with only a lag of days or a few weeks, for example the Financial Times shows this data. In European terms, clearly Italy is in the lead.

In Italy, COVID-19 quickly exhausted the intensive care capacity of the health system in sophisticated Lombardy, which, with almost 900 dead and 12,000 infected, is experiencing a "war scenario". The problem is that Italy "only" leads the way, giving us important clues as to what is to follow in other countries. In practically all European countries the spread has been exponential with growth curves frighteningly similar to the Italian one. Also in Portugal we will leave the containment phase to enter the mitigation phase.

This is an extremely contagious and rather silent virus, i.e. asymptomatic in a high proportion of people, which in practice means that before it manifests itself in one person, he or she runs the risk of having infected several people. This has happened among healthy and sick people, including some who were hospitalised but not known to be infected... and who silently infected others (according to several epidemiological experts). Take the case of Denmark, where I live, which on 3 March had 2 confirmed cases; 30 cases on 9/3; which in the following days grew to 273 on 10/3; and 442 at the time of writing on 11/3. The problem with these numbers is that they certainly do not represent the true dimension of the problem, since many carriers of the virus have no symptoms and therefore never get tested.

On the other hand, the virus has an estimated mortality rate of 3.4 per cent, and according to the WHO, this figure may be overestimated (due to the stated fact that many carriers of the virus have no symptoms) or underestimated, because many diagnosed patients may still die.

Unfortunately, and regardless of the numbers, the best known way to combat its uncontrolled growth is the "social distancing" and isolation of people, including not only those already diagnosed as infected, but all people, including all those we think are not infected. Unfortunately we have to stop everything that can be stopped. Cancel now all events that are not absolutely essential.

Isolation is very difficult to implement because it is socially completely counter-natural and hostile to economic activity. It is difficult to explain to a young person or adult who feels healthy (even if they are President of the Republic) that they have to be extra careful with social contacts and have to be quarantined, to protect the people around them, especially the most vulnerable.

Let's look at what happened in China, with the caution of using "official statistics". Before China cancelled all public meetings, asked the population to go into quarantine, sealed off the most affected region, the virus was spreading exponentially. Only with the imposition of social distancing, the number of new cases decreased each day. Now every day we have news of increasing numbers of patients infected with COVID-19 who are cured, while the number of new infections is decreasing.

However, these measures (stop, cancel, isolate...) have many risks and various contraindications.  

We cannot cancel what compromises the supply of essential goods and provision of fundamental services such as food and health. Of course, in many cases it is difficult to draw the line between what appears to be essential and what really is. For example, it may seem reasonable to shut down a university campus, but it is well known that for many students and regulars, that campus is the only safe haven they have, the only place where they have access to food or internet. 

Obviously we are already seeing an inevitable slowdown of all economic activity, which does not help "health" itself either. Poverty is also one of the main enemies of health.

Hoping that our leaders are up to the moment, we all individually have the obligation to contribute with a high individual civic sense. We must comply with all the indications of the health authorities, wash our hands regularly and comply with hygiene measures. But it is with social distancing and self-isolation when indicated, that we can all best contribute, to prevent the acceleration of the spread, and also what we can best do to protect ourselves and others, especially the most fragile and vulnerable.

Article originally published in Eco

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