Covid-19: What does the 'new normal' mean?


  • Wellness
  • Thursday, 21 May 2020

Temperature checks everywhere we go, like at a supermarket in this filepic, will be part of the ‘new normal’ way of life.

Now that many countries are easing their economic and social restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, including Malaysia, there’s a lot of talk about “the new normal”. What does this mean?

As long as the world has not found a cure or a vaccine for Covid-19, we may have to adjust to a “new normal”, meaning a new way of living and going about our lives, work and interactions with other people.

Please bear in mind that we may have to live in the “new normal” for a very long time.

Many diseases caused by viruses have no cure to this day, not even the common cold. There are no vaccines for many viruses either.

But we have learned to adapt our lifestyles to live with them.

Look at HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). It has been around since the 1980s, and possibly even before then, although not as widespread.

We still have not found a vaccine for it.

We have anti-retroviral drugs that can control the disease, but not cure it.

But we have learned to adapt to having HIV in the world.

People use condoms when they have sex to prevent potentially spreading or being infected with the virus, as well as other sexually-transmitted diseases.

Homosexuals, who are at higher risk of being infected by the virus, go for yearly HIV testing.

We might have to adapt to Covid-19 too, until a cure or vaccine is found, or if herd immunity develops towards it.

Unlike HIV, Covid-19 is a lot more contagious and infectious, and is not really associated with a certain lifestyle.

Therefore, our level of adaptation and the changes we have to make in our lives is much higher.

These adaptations and changes are considered our “new normal”.

What is herd immunity?

Herd immunity is a concept from epidemiology.

It describes a state where a population is sufficiently immune to a certain infectious disease, so much so that the infection will not spread within the population.

Herd immunity can be achieved by vaccination or by natural immunity.

When enough people in the population cannot develop the infectious disease due to immunity, it also cannot spread to the more vulnerable people in the population, simply because there is not enough bacteria or virus going around.

The United Kingdom considered doing this with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19, but subsequently changed their minds.

Would herd immunity be part of our new normal?

We hope so! But many scientists argue that it is not easy to achieve without a vaccine.

They cite the example of mumps, caused by the mumps virus, which is one of the most infectious viruses in the world.

It has a reproductive rate of 10 to 12. This means that if one person gets it, he or she can pass it to 10 or 12 people!

Mumps has a vaccine. It is part of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine that babies get at birth in Malaysia.

For mumps, we need 92% of people living in Malaysia to be immune (either by getting a vaccine or being infected with mumps itself, like me!) to protect the rest of the population from getting the disease.

Luckily, Covid-19 is less infectious than mumps. It is estimated to have a reproductive rate of three.

This means that every one person infected can go on to infect three other people.

So for a virus like the one that causes Covid-19, how many people in our population need to be immune for herd immunity to work?

A virus with a reproductive rate of three needs 70% of the population to be immune to it in order to achieve herd immunity.

As there is currently no vaccine available, it means that seven out of 10 people need to be infected before herd immunity can be achieved!

This is achievable, I am sure, but many people will likely have to die from Covid-19 before this can happen!

Taking into consideration Covid-19’s fatality rate of 0.5%-1%, a 70% infection rate will mean that up to 0.7% of our population has to die before herd immunity can be achieved.

And what is more, the virus is mutating.

So we may have achieved herd immunity to one of its mutations, but along might come another and we will have no immunity to it.

So, without a vaccine, what will our new normal be?

There’s only one thing certain – our new normal will keep changing, and it will change very quickly.

You may have to wear a face mask outside all the time.

Even if the Government does not mandate it, you will still feel better psychologically when you wear a face mask.

Your employer may ask you to work from home and do virtual meetings a lot more than before.

Schools may reduce the size of their classes and do a lot of virtual teaching.

You may cook a lot more at home, or have food delivered a lot more often than before.

E-businesses like online food ordering, online shopping and video on demand, will thrive.

Restaurants may no longer be able to seat the same number of people, due to social distancing requirements.

There will be increased sanitation and cleaning everywhere.

You will try to keep a 2m distance from everyone. Polite personal space will have a wider circumference.

Temperature checks will be conducted everywhere.

Cinemas and airlines will mandate spaced out seating, as will public transport like buses and trains.

They may also charge you double the price to cover their operations.

Same for live concerts and sports, or alternatively, those may be cancelled indefinitely or only performed or played for broadcast.

There will be a lot more requests for video on demand.

You may also be required to instal contact tracing apps on your phone.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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