There is a broad consensus in the world that we must do all we can to save lives during this pandemic. It is also agreed that while COVID-19 is here to stay, lockdowns are simply unsustainable in the long-term. The only way for us to continue our lives, while protecting our lives, is to embrace a new way of life. We need to build a “Hygiene Society,” where hygiene is an essential public service as well as a personal duty.
Having worked alongside the NHS in numerous sectors for more than two decades, I feel a very human obligation to protect NHS staff and the wider public from the toll that both the virus and the shutdown are taking. The latter is almost as damaging as the former.
Leading charity SANE has warned of a “mental health epidemic” as millions struggle with loneliness and the stress of living under a deadly pandemic. The police have also reported that lockdown has led to an increase in suicides amid surges in domestic violence. There are also physical effects of the lockdown like obesity.
Too many commentators have spoken about a binary choice between lifting the lockdown immediately or locking down indefinitely - with scant regard for the consequences in either case.
Lifting the lockdown immediately and adopting a laissez-faire approach to the virus would maximise economic benefits but also lead to the most deaths (one study predicted 510,000 deaths in the UK alone in this scenario).
The opposite approach would be to keep the lockdown going long-term, or perhaps indefinitely. Although this will lead to fewer lives lost to the virus, it would ensure we are on course for the deepest recession since the 1930s - and the human cost of economic collapse would mean that the cure is worse than the disease.
A third option is to lift the lockdown and to adopt the ‘test and trace’ model, which has been effective in South Korea and elsewhere. For most countries, however, this model requires infrastructure that does not exist, and an approach to civil liberties that would lead to huge opposition. Liberty, the human rights charity, is already warning of the potential abuse of the new powers given to the police which allow them to force people to be tested.
It is easy to forget that the virus is only as dangerous as we are unhygienic. The most immediate and humane way out of the lockdown is to create a new “Hygiene Society,” a world in which every citizen has the tools to take responsibility for their own hygiene, in order to halt the spread not only of this disease but future viruses too.
We are already moving in this direction with encouragement to wear facemasks in public across Europe after lockdown. However, the science tells us that masks can cause users to have a false sense of security, and that regular handwashing (combined with some kind of social distancing), not mask wearing, is more effective at halting the spread.
Handwashing, however, has its own problems. Across the world, 663 million people do not have easy access to clean water and 2.4 billion people lack access to proper sanitation facilities. We cannot simply exclude a third of the world’s population.
The alternative would be widespread use of hand sanitisers, but even then alcohol-based sanitisers are generally only effective if they have more than a 60% concentration. For those who prefer natural products, there are also alcohol-free sanitisers available on the market which have been proven to be effective at killing coronaviruses.
We could have hand sanitising stations and vending machines distributing essential hygienic items on every street corner. Just as phone boxes and street lamps are omnipresent, so should hand sanitiser machines. High risk environments like public transport could have hand sanitiser stations at ticket barriers - having clean hands should be just as essential as buying a ticket. Hygiene should be a condition for entering a train station or office, just as it is required on entering a hospital.
Combined with increased use of disposable items over reusable (and less hygienic) alternatives, the “Hygiene Society” could be the fastest and safest way for us to return to everyday life.
If we rearrange society to prioritise cleanliness over convenience, we can stave off future existential threats like coronavirus. Throughout history, nothing has killed more humans than the viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease. Our generation has had its first test from a truly global deadly disease. Only by creating a new “Hygiene Society” can we protect against the next one.
- Imraan Ladak is the CEO of OOH Medical.
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