The “New Normal” in the time of COVID-19

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Even if we have flattened the curve – which means the number of people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – unless there is already a vaccine or even a treatment, it will never be the same.

In an interview with South China Morning Post, political scientist Prof. Dali Yang of the University at Chicago compared the COVID-19 pandemic to that of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine.  “It will be a crisis of Chernobyl proportions, especially because we will have to contend with the virus for the years to come,” he was quoted as saying.

A vaccine is the only way people can be prevented from infected with SARS-Cov-2.  “About 35 companies and academic institutions are racing to create such a vaccine, at least four of which already have candidates they have been testing in animals,” reports The Guardian in its March 20, 2020 issue.

It may take several months or a year or so before a vaccine comes into fruition.   “Even if we get a vaccine that’s effective, we have to have that vaccine available to everybody,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.  “There has to be fair and equitable access to such a vaccine, not just for ethics reasons; because the world will not be protected until everyone is protected.”

With that, the “business-as-usual” scenario may take months or years to happen – or never at all.  This is the reason why the “new normal” will happen and it is even taking place now as the pandemic is still raging in most parts of the world.

Here are some of the things that will become “new normal” in the coming months or years:

Regular hand washing: Before, most people wash their hands before eating.  Today, even if they are not eating, they have to wash their hands all the time. “Hand washing with soap is one of the cheapest, most effective things you can do to protect yourself and others against coronavirus, as well as many other infectious diseases,” reminds the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

However, hand washing must be done properly.  UNICEF shares the following tips: Wet hands with running water.  Then, apply enough soap to cover wet hands.  Scrub all surfaces of the hands – including back of hands, between fingers and under nails – for at least 20 seconds.  After that, rinse thoroughly with running water.  Dry hands with a clean cloth or single-use towel.

If soap and water are not readily available, you can use a hand sanitizer.  “Alcohol-based gel formulations (alcogels) are better than plan liquid alcohol 70% ethyl alcohol preparations,” says Dr. Jaime Galvez-Tan, former health secretary and professor of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine.  “Alcogels stay longer in hands to kill viruses while liquid alcohol evaporates immediately lessening its potential to kill virus.  Should you use liquid alcohols and spray hand sanitizers, allow hand surface rubbing for 20 seconds.”

Wearing a face mask: In the beginning, wearing of face mask only for those who are sick to avoid infecting others.  Later on, it was highly recommended for everyone.  “Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water,” reminds the Geneva-based United Nations health agency.

Those who wear face masks, they are urged to use them properly.  Here’s how, according to the WHO: Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.  Cover mouth and nose with mask and make sure there no gaps between your face and the mask.  Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks.  To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

Be sure to dispose the face mask being worn properly.  Do not throw it anywhere.

Physical distancing:  Here is what Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic said about physical distancing: “It’s important to understand how this virus is transmitted.  It is transmitted through respiratory droplets generated when someone infected coughs or sneezes.  We know that these droplets extend about 3 to 6 feet from the person that generates them.  If you breathe in the droplets, or they land on your eyes, nose or mouth, then you are at risk of getting infected.”

This is where the concept of physical distancing comes in.  “If we stay away from someone who is sick, or in general, beyond that 6-foot margin, then the risk of being exposed drops dramatically,” says Dr. Rajapakse.  “That’s why some of these recommendations about cancelling large meeting and gatherings were people are in very close contact with each other.”

Shaking hands is a no-no: In the past, people used to practice shaking hands when being introduced or when greeting a friend or acquaintance.  In business, hand shaking is also a norm.

But in these days of COVID-19, it won’t be practiced anymore.  “We know our hands carry a lot of germs on them,” Dr. Rajapakse says.  “Changing to another method of greeting is encouraged and recommended.  I recommend people wave or bow, or put their hands over their heart as certain alternatives that people can use that don’t carry the risk of a handshake.”

Regular disinfection: This is particularly true in offices and malls, where people come and go.  Since it’s not possible to know if a person has COVID-19 or not, particularly those asymptomatic, it is required that those areas being touched often by people be disinfected regularly.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests cleaning and disinfecting frequently the following: tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.  If surfaces are dirty, they must be cleaned using detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.

The United States government and other scientists have found that SARS-CoV-2 “can live in the air for several hours and on some surfaces for as long as two to three days,” reports Marilyn Marchione for Associated Press.

In a study, researchers “found that viable virus could be detected up to three hours later in the air, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel,” Marchione wrote.

Closing some establishments: During the 1918-20 global flu pandemic, several public health interventions were established.  Among those that proved to be efficient were business-hour restrictions and closing those establishments were several people may gather together like bars, pubs, and theaters.

Schools and churches were also closed.  In today’s scenario, schools may be partially opened but distant learning and tele-schooling may be the norm.  The number of students in a class are narrowed to only 20 or so with physical distancing and wearing of face mask being observed at all times.  Churches may also be opened but only few people can attend the worship services and masses.

Halving public vehicles: Public utility vehicles, tricycles, taxis and buses are most likely to practice physical distancing and require the riding public to wear face masks.  In taxis and tricycles, only two or three passengers may be allowed.  Buses may fill only half of their total capacity.  Some PUVs are putting plastics in between the passengers to avoid contact with each other.

In the meantime, there are just some of the “new normal” that may be observed.  But as time goes by, new strategies and methods may be added in order for people not to be infected with the dreaded novel coronavirus.

When will the “old normal” return, no one can tell. – ###

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