Returning to a Sense of Normalcy — or Not?

Returning to a Sense of Normalcy — or Not?

Returning to a Sense of Normalcy — or Not?

Returning to a Sense of Normalcy — or Not?

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Livia Albeck-Ripka, a reporter with the Australia bureau.


Earlier this month, I found myself standing among thousands of people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne where I was reporting, wondering if I was too close to them.

One person near me was without a face covering, another kept shuffling closer, and a third — her surgical mask pulled down below her chin — was yelling in my direction. That was thirteen days ago, one day short of the standard coronavirus incubation period.

But I’m fine. I think. And maybe that odd and unsettling feeling is just what this phase of the pandemic feels like for all of us — not quite panic-stricken, not quite normal.

Government officials are certainly struggling to give us clear guidance as the crisis evolves.

In recent weeks, authorities around the world warned that the rushed opening of economies, and attendance at mass gatherings in the name of racial injustice — where people would be in close proximity to one another — was a “real” and irresponsible health risk.

We’ve seen upticks in cases of the virus in some places but others escaped relatively unscathed, and no one seems to be able to tell us exactly why. At the same time, countries where the pandemic’s curve had appeared flattened are now seeing rises in case numbers.

China, which after draconian measures, touted its success over the virus, has seen a flare up in Beijing. New Zealand, which declared the virus eliminated has now recorded three new cases. And Victoria, where three protesters have become ill, on Wednesday recorded its largest single-day increase in infections in over a month.

While there is a lot we do not know about the coronavirus, what recent weeks have made clear is that there is a cost in returning to normal, and that in some cases, we might only be a misstep or two away from the virus beginning to take hold again.

So as we tiptoe out into the world — how much risk should we take?

Each of us are making personal and often unconscious calculations: Some people are operating on the assumption that if they follow regulations, they will be fine. Others feel frustrated by the inconsistencies in authorities’ advice. And some say that rushing back to normal life, with no vaccine at the ready, is dangerous.

“Everything we’re doing is unknown territory,” said Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist and senior lecturer in public health at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

“What we do know,” he added, “is that as a society we can’t survive in complete lockdown until we get a vaccine: We have to get back to normal.”

Health authorities are trying to manage the new normal by treating new cases like embers, Professor Vally added. The idea is that as long as you snuff them out quickly enough, there is no major fire, and everyone who is not infected can go with their lives.

But what does that mean for each of us as individuals? If the markers of the pandemic are plastic shields between tables, using hand sanitizer as you enter and exit a store, or providing your number at the pub, is that enough, or will be lulled into a sense of complacency that could contribute to the spread of the virus?

When I got home after the protest, I removed my mask carefully. I scrubbed my hands for 20 seconds. I changed my sweater. I washed my face. That night, I went out to eat with friends for the first time in weeks. There were no masks to remind me of the pandemic.

After a beer, and laughing face-to-face with a group for the first time in weeks, it was even easier to forget. Since then, I’ve begun to feel my hypervigilance fade even further. I don’t wipe down my door handles as often, or my phone, and I’m still fine. For now.

  • Updated June 16, 2020

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


We want to know: How are you managing the easing of restrictions? What personal calculations are you making when you decide to step out into the world?

Let us know at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

Here are the stories for the week.



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