Two Weeks

As of this morning, 6:00 o’clock, Mauritius is in a two weeks lockdown.

Mauritius will go in lockdown for two weeks, as from 06:00 hrs tomorrow morning, as the number of Covid-19 cases rose to seven. Consequently, to tackle to spread of Covid-19, employees will not go to work as from tomorrow, except those who are part of the essential services like the Police Force, medical services, and fire and rescue services, amongst others.

Not a curfew, so we can go out, also for shopping:

With the aim to limit the spread of the virus, the Prime Minister urged the citizens to stay at home. He cautioned that economic activities and transport services will be reduced to the strict minimum. However, businesses like banks, supermarkets, shops, bakeries and pharmacies will operate normally.

Note the number of cases: seven. That are reported cases. On Wednesday evening, the first three reported cases had been announced. On Thursday morning, the supermarkets and pharmacies had their best business day of the year, as of now. It was madness.

I watched in disbelief, and some level of muted amusement, how people went on a mad shopping spree only after the first cases were announced. With the borders still open for the past weeks, it should have been clear to everyone and their aunt, with minimal intellectual efforts, that we will have cases here on the island sooner or later, even with the increased scrutiny at the immigration points at the airport and the sea ports. I had been slowly stocking up on a few essential items already for a week or so, but also with an eye on the cyclone that just passed north of our island over the weekend. I even had a haircut on Wednesday, so I am good now for a few weeks, hairdo-wise at least. But I digress.

With the announcement of the first cases also came the total closure of the borders, for anyone, ie. even for Mauritian citizens:

The Prime Minister also announced that as from tomorrow, Thursday 19 March 2020, at 06:00 GMT, that is at 10:00 hours local time, access to Mauritius for all passengers including Mauritian nationals at the airport will be denied for the next 15 days. All passengers coming into the country before 10 00 hours will be automatically quarantined. Similarly, all cruise ships will not be authorised to enter the Port.

And the lockdown of all schools and other teaching and training institutions:

Moreover, following the reported cases of COVID-19, the Ministry of Education, Tertiary Education, Science and Technology has proclaimed as from tomorrow, Thursday 19 March 2020, a lockdown of all academic institutions that is pre-primary, primary, secondary schools; technical and professional training centres; and tertiary institutions as a preventive measure until further notice.

Emergency Measures

Pretty drastic. We went from normal life to extreme measures within a few days. But then again, probably save moves for a small island nation. At least as emergency measures. Because such a comprehensive lockdown cannot be sustained over longer periods. In fact, I had been asking myself for days now: what are the longer-term plans of all the countries worldwide with more or less stringent lockdowns and border closures?

Sure, such an emergency lockdown may help to avoid a massive onslaught of severe cases needing treatment in hospitals. So, with that important goal mind, check. Two or three or even eight weeks are relatively easy, but then?!

When I was young, working in IT, I had a boss who was a physician by training. He taught me an important concept of handling a crisis. We were talking about ailing projects, or companies, not human patients, but his medical training applied anyway. Measures for a crisis always have two major phases: first, emergency measures just keep the patient alive, maybe barely, but they give you a limited time to calm and think. But you must use this limited time to develop the really life-saving measures, else the patient is doomed. The emergency measures might even kill the patient, but to take that risk might be better than having no chance for phase two in the first place. If this sounds simple, easy, and obvious, it’s not in practice. It’s not how most people think. Look around. But it’s a framework that can give you a beautiful, prioritising clarity of mind, especially under duress, but also in general. A useful lesson that has influenced my professional life ever since.

So, dear leaders all over the world, what are the really life-saving “phase two” measures, once the currently implemented or planned emergency ones lose their effect, or cannot be upheld anymore, given that emergency measures are often damaging the health if applied for an extended time span, be it of a patient, a society, or an economy?

Dangerous Delusions

The emergency measures all over the globe might give us false intuitions about their effects in a longer-term view. Just yesterday I listened to an interview on The Guardian with an epidemiologist, who fears that as soon as the comprehensive lockdowns in China are lifted, the number of Covid-19 cases will start to raise again. Keeping everyone locked into their homes is good to avoid the spreading of the disease, but it also does not result in the herd immunity required to strangle any kind of infectious illness.

There’s more. With warmer weather in the northern hemisphere – a period we might just about reach with emergency measures, say, April or May –, SARS-CoV-2 may seem to lose its impact, with the number of new infections going down. Politicians of all colours will pat themselves, and each other, on their backs. Good job! Here’s the bad news, though: the Spanish flu in 1918 developed exactly along these lines. But it came back in October, and this was the real onslaught. The number of infections soared way higher than earlier in the year.

Same for all the economic help packages and programs by governments. Good for the emergency, but will companies and politicians also think about what to change and improve in the long run? It should be utterly obvious by now that our networked economies are not fit in any way to handle this kind of crisis.

And this will not be a single freak case, even though the temptation to shrug it off as such will be – and already is in some political quarters – high. Now that it is upon us, this pandemic should be, or become, a dress rehearsal for one with a disease where the death rate will not be in the single percentage digits. Think of an Ebola-severeness virus, spreading like the current corona virus all over the globe. If you think we have crisis now, think again, and use your imagination to envision a fatality rate of 50%. Heck, even 20%, or 10%. Pandemic pandemonium.

We are still worlds away from the yearly infection rates and the death toll of the common flu. I do not say Covid-19 is like the common flu, I just compare numbers, and only totals. The past weeks have shown that Covid-19 has a different dynamic, with a higher infection rate over time. Which obviously has the intrinsic potential to get to numbers way higher than the flu at the bottom line. It would be delusive to draw that line when the numbers stagnate, without having developed, and put in place, longer-term measures.

Real Live-saving Measures

With a vaccine twelve or 18 months away, we should be aware that the current emergency measures will not cut it. Different countries and regions will require different long-term, real live-saving measures, from health-care systems, to expectations and ways of travelling, to the economy, and more. With economy not only meaning businesses, but also – or even mainly – including private households. The concept of basic income might even become highly viable. Already now governments are discussing giving cash payments to households. This way, they can pay their bills when out of work, and also keep parts of the enterprising economy going through shopping. But a one-time payment will not suffice if we have to live with SARS-CoV-2 for months ahead, as I expect.

Maybe this is an opportunity for some companies to see a benefit in manufacturing and producing closer to their homes, untangle their web-like supply chains, with their just-in-time, no-stock-held ways of working, squeezing the last penny of cost out for the benefit of the bottom-line – and the consumer price. That is, we also might need to adjust our expectations as consumers, eg. regarding low prices for electronics, or foodstuff. We all know that it really does not make any sense to cart animals to be slaughtered from one EU country to the other, with the meat then transported back for sale. But consumers like low prices. And strawberries in winter. Aside from the suffering animals, also the environment would profit if such fucked-up practices would be revisited and revised. Governments could support efforts along this line by suitable changes to tax policies and laws.

SARS-CoV-2 has slain the myth that the economy and the market-forces are the overarching, self-regulating miracle for everything in one swift blow.

I do see opportunities in this crisis. But maybe I am just dreaming.