Covid-19 after the lockdowns end: How to make our world safe again?

Covid-19 after the lockdowns end: How to make our world safe again?

This is a post that we’d rather not write. We want this blog to focus on cycling, but we feel that urgent action is needed. This is not a feel-good measure, and it may negatively impact our business, but that is not the question we must ask ourselves. When people are dying, when health care workers are risking their lives to save them, we have a responsibility to speak out. We want to thank Donalrey Nieva (@donalrey) for his haunting photos from New York City that illustrate what we’ve lost, but also what we still have.
—Natsuko & Jan

Social Distancing is working!

Today, the ‘Stay-at-Home’ orders in Washington State are going into their third week. Infections seem to be plateauing, and our governor has even been able to return some ventilators to the National Stockpile. Those are the good news, and we are grateful for them.

We are also grateful that we can still ride our bikes, but the social distancing also has shown us how much we rely on the world to be a safe place. Riding alone isn’t the same – the flat stretches that pass quickly when we chat with friends suddenly seem interminably boring. And not being able to join others we meet on the road for a few miles of pedaling together, not being able to stop in small towns and chat with locals – it feels different, and a little sad. So we really want this to end soon – and not have it come back!

The End is in Sight?

The nationwide ‘Social Distancing,’ as well as the lockdowns in Washington, California and other states, are scheduled to end in early May. While we are patient because it is necessary, we also look forward to the day when life will return to normal (or almost). We look forward to riding with friends again. We look forward to the events and races that have been postponed: Tour Divide, Malteni Bootleggers, Paris-Roubaix…

But we also know that, if we just return to business as usual, the virus will rear its ugly head again. Another lockdown will be necessary within a short period of time. Just a reminder: California issued its Stay-At-Home order just six weeks after the first case was detected in the state. Six weeks is a short window – and the second time around, with the virus still widespread, it may be shorter still. It’s scary, but fortunately that isn’t the only possible scenario.

Lockdowns are not the only answer

What we need is a strategy to prevent future lockdowns. Because the lockdown doesn’t solve the problem. It only resets the clock. It gives us an opportunity to start over. It allows us to avoid the mistakes we made the first time around.

One thing should be clear: The current lockdowns were not unavoidable. They are the result of a failure to take Covid-19 seriously at first. Sandra Zampa, the Italian health ministry under secretary, summed it up well: Most of the world looked at the example of China, not as a practical warning, but as a “science fiction movie that had nothing to do with us.”

Covid-19 deaths per 1 million population (Status: April 8, 2020)

The few countries that took the virus seriously from the beginning and put in place the right measures – South Korea and Taiwan, among others – have not just avoided the horrific death toll, but also the disruptions of life and economy that have engulfed the West. People there continue their work and lives with relatively few restrictions, yet infections aren’t skyrocketing as they are here and in Europe. We don’t mention this to point fingers and assess blame. Instead we must work together and use every opportunity to learn and implement real solutions.

So we know that the lockdowns are not unavoidable. And we really want to avoid them in the future. We cringe when we hear predictions that the lockdowns will be eased, only to return when the virus spreads again, through cycle after cycle until a vaccine will be developed, tested and deployed – hopefully – in a year or two. We feel like we’re on a rudderless ship being swept about on stormy seas, when we all should be pulling the oars to face the waves head-on and continue our journey. Everybody wants to get back to something resembling normal life, but it won’t happen unless we work for it.

How to prevent future flare-ups

Experts are clear on what is needed: Infections need to slow to the point where hospitals are no longer overwhelmed. Manufacture and distribution of test kits and protective gear must catch up. That is the ‘easy’ part: The lockdowns will achieve those goals. (Let’s not talk about the states that haven’t even enacted a lockdown yet.)

Experts also agree that we need to contain the virus after we emerge from the lockdown. The virus will still be with us – we need to keep it from spreading out of control again. A lockdown is a blunt tool: We assume everybody is infected, so we quarantine everybody. This works, but the costs are huge in every respect.

Now that we have a chance at a redo, we need a more finely-tailored lockdown: Quarantine only those who are infected, not everybody. More tests will help us figure out who is infected. But testing randomly is not the answer – it’s impossible to test the entire population. And you’d have to do it time and again, since somebody who tests negative today may get infected tomorrow.

Contact Tracing

This is where contact tracing comes in: You deploy the tests strategically. Whenever somebody tests positive, you test everybody who has been in close contact with them: their family members and co-workers, those at their schools, even the cashier who checked them out at the grocery store, and the people who sat near them on the bus or on the flight to a gravel race. And if any of these ‘contacts’ test positive, you trace their contacts, too. It’s the complement to social distancing – keeping an eye on those who’ve entered the 6-foot radius of an infected person.

Contact tracing is nothing new: It’s standard practice when dealing with outbreaks of diseases. With Covid-19, contact tracing was abandoned in the very early stages of the outbreak in the United States. There simply weren’t enough resources to trace the contacts as caseloads were increasing exponentially. In the future, the systems for contact tracing must be beefed up, so that we don’t have to resort to quarantining everybody again. But so far, there has been little or no action.

How do you do it? There are different ways, from high-tech surveillance using people’s cell phone data to low-tech questionnaires. All require organization – and that has to happen right now, so that the tools are in place (and tested) when we emerge from the lockdown in a few weeks.

For a variety of reasons, the United States is poorly equipped for this public health emergency. Expert after expert has written Op-Eds, there have been articles in the New York Times, on CNN and NPR, outlining the path forward and stressing the need for contact tracing. But their urgent pleas risk being ignored.

The federal government has made it clear: It considers the response to the pandemic a matter the states should handle. And most states only have part-time governments – the Washington State Legislature is not scheduled to meet again until January next year. That will be too late!

Petition to the Governors

Contract tracing is not the only thing we need to do, but it’s a essential tool to identify who is at the risk of being infected. And yet the only state working on a program to trace infections and their contacts appears to be Massachusetts. That is encouraging, but all other states need to join that effort. In fact, it may be best if states work together, since infected people may travel across state lines before they develop symptoms and realize that they are infected. However it is implemented, all experts agree that contact tracing is essential if we want to return to normal – and stay normal.

Faced with inaction from those who should lead us, we’re launching an extraordinary campaign to petition the National Governors’ Association to immediately develop a system to trace the contacts of those found to be infected with Covid-19 and test them, too. (We’ll submit the petition to each state’s governor as well.)

Please head over to our petition and sign it. Then let your friends know about it. Thank you!

Share this post

Comments (25)

  • Brian

    Can you address how to prevent government surveillance/tracing from being used for other purposes that are not related to infectious diseases?

    April 9, 2020 at 2:53 am
    • Jan Heine

      The issue of government (and private-sector) surveillance is very real – and it’s already happening. If you carry and use a cell phone, you are submitting to that surveillance. In fact, if you use the Internet, you are. (At Rene Herse, we don’t collect and share your data, but many other web sites do.)

      We also submit to surveillance by our governments for things we consider beneficial, like the collection of taxes and even the payment of freeway tolls. So the data is out there, the question is whether and how to use it to identify who needs to be quarantined, rather than just quarantine everybody. How to implement this is also something we can (and should) debate – we could just use old-fashioned questionnaires…

      We also need to consider that lockdowns are an even greater restriction of our constitutional rights – currently, freedom of movement and freedom of assembly are suspended.

      April 9, 2020 at 8:13 am
  • Benz Ouyang

    This issue isn’t so clear cut. Contact tracing is only part of the solution, and may not be the magic bullet envisioned. I say this with a high level of certainty, because I’m currently “stranded” in Singapore, where the government takes this matter very seriously. Even with robust border controls, intense contact tracing (they even released an app to facilitate this), and plenty of advisories+recommendations (Singaporeans are great at following rules; the Swiss/Germans will recognize and appreciate this!), they’re still seeing the number of confirmed cases increase. Worse, the number of unlinked infections is increasing. And this is why Singapore is now locked down, with similar rules to California (my home state), starting this week.

    Ideally, for contact tracing to work effectively and efficiently, we should be able to track people through their smartphones (which it seems everyone has), and use an algorithm to work out the links and connections. This was actually implemented for Korean (so I heard), but appears to be a necessary but insufficient condition, because it obviously didn’t bring success for Singapore. Regardless, this will definitely be challenging for the US, where citizens enjoy a strong emphasis on freedom, and privacy.

    In the end, we should leverage whatever tools we have at our disposal to solve the problems we face; contact tracing is one of these tools. I further agree with the petition at its most basic level, which is that state and federal governments must work together, prepare intelligently, execute diligently, and exercise competent risk management, to serve its citizens and residents. This matter isn’t us-versus-them, unless “them” is COVID-19.

    April 9, 2020 at 3:22 am
    • Jan Heine

      You are absolutely right: Contact tracing can fail (or be overwhelmed), and future lockdowns may become necessary. However, without contact tracing, the next lockdown is as certain as the first one was.

      We all saw it coming, yet here in the U.S., our governments assured us that everything was fine, as long as they closed schools and businesses that had seen an infected person for a day for a deep cleaning “out of an abundance of caution.” And the next day, all the people who had been exposed were back… and the virus spread further. That is why we are urging a different approach the next time around.

      April 9, 2020 at 8:18 am
  • Mark

    I’m an Australian. I can’t sign your petition. But if I could, I would. We suffer a similar lack of leadership here from our national government. I wish you well with your campaign. And with your health & everyday lives.

    April 9, 2020 at 5:30 am
    • singlespeedscott

      I dont know where your getting this info Mark.

      As much as most Australians have complained about how the federal government has reacted to this issue, Australia is one of a few countries to see a dramatic drop in the rate of identified new cases. And this is with Australia having one of the highest test rates per capita in the world.

      You only have to look at the data to see that it has had a positive influence on preventing the overwhelming of our health system.

      It has also helped that Australia’s public health system is heads and shoulders above the rest of the world.

      Again as much as we like to whinge about it our public health system, it’s actually not to bad. Imagine getting admitted to the ICU of a private hospital, surviving and then getting slugged for the bill afterwards like whats going to happen in the US.

      April 9, 2020 at 3:55 pm
      • Mark

        You are right. Compared to the USA, Australia has an excellent public health system & is doing more and better in containing Covid-19. However, this does not disguise the lack of leadership from the Federal government which, as well as over many years systematically attacking & defunding the public health system and scientific institutions & research which could have prevented or ameliorated the effects of the pandemic, was also slow in responding to warning signs and provided confusing and contradictory messages, advice, and recommendations once the virus ‘landed’. In addition, in much or most of its rhetoric, the Federal leadership has prioritised (what it sees as) economic ‘health’ ahead of citizen health. It has been state leaders who’ve provided the most consistent, restrictive, and effective measures. The US polity is very different from the Australian; Australians do not face the unique conditions which this petition addresses. But, as I posted, they do face a similar lack of leadership at the national level, and there is no room for complacency or half measures in the USA, Australia, or elsewhere. That’s why I expressed my support.

        April 11, 2020 at 12:52 am
  • Noah

    Since this depends on (a) not having sociopaths running both the federal government and several state governments, (b) more than 95% of the America. populace accepting significant changes to daily life that include significant changes in how they live their lives (e.g., submitting to regular testing, self-quarantining, etc.), and (c) a healthcare system that doesn’t regularly drive patients into bankruptcy…well, the outlook isn’t great.

    April 9, 2020 at 6:02 am
    • Jan Heine

      You are right, the odds are not in our favor – that is why we started this petition. Most other countries are already doing this.

      Even so, I am more optimistic. Less than a month ago, many people told me that “in the U.S., you can’t do lockdowns. Americans wouldn’t follow those rules!” And yet we all are, because we understand that it’s necessary.

      April 9, 2020 at 8:21 am
  • Mark Guglielmana

    Petition signed, done!

    April 9, 2020 at 7:50 am
  • GW

    I can’t sign a petition encouraging contact tracing without mention of privacy. The two are not mutually exclusive. It is a challenge, but it is vital. We can not give our governments free access to our location data forever. for example

    April 9, 2020 at 8:07 am
    • Jan Heine

      Thank you for signing! And yes, agreed about the privacy issues – see the comment above.

      April 9, 2020 at 8:24 am
    • scottg

      Per Benz’s comment, finally a ‘them’ all the the world can unite against,
      good way of thinking of the problem.

      Mean while GW, Apple/Google have read the MIT paper, sounds hopeful.

      April 10, 2020 at 10:11 am
  • Gordon Budahl

    I live in a state that has only “recommended” minimal restrictions with no stay at home order other than in two counties and then only for “vulnerable” individuals. Our governor seems to be following the federal governments lax guidelines on any national basis. I mention these concerns not to diminish the concept of contact tracing but because I am concerned in our ability as citizens to influence the measures taken (or not) of our elected officials. In spite of my concern, I agree with Jan’s thoughts (with time and privacy limits included) to utilize this tool. Thank you for your efforts to return our lives to some degree of normalcy.

    April 9, 2020 at 10:48 am
  • Noah

    But Americans aren’t following the rules. Spring breakers were still traveling. Rich people left cities for their vacation spots, bringing the virus with them. Trails are overcrowded in Colorado. Hobby Lobby has tried to keep its stores open even under orders not to. Kansas Republicans just rescinded the governor’s order limiting gatherings to 10 people or less. The Trump administration just announced it will stop paying for testing sites.

    The American government and many Americans can’t even get staying at home right. That’s much easier than widespread quick testing, temperature checking, and contact tracing.

    I wish I could be more optimistic, but I don’t think the data supports it.

    April 9, 2020 at 10:51 am
  • Chris Smitherman

    I think it’s totally fine, maybe not all that helpful, I dunno, but fine to point fingers right now. Let’s lay blame on those that deserve the blame. When one of the two major parties that run the country seem to have the main goal of enriching themselves and their CEO bros and defunding every government agency possible, while repeatedly saying “look at how ineffective these agencies are! the private sector is far better equipped to manage _____”, then lobbying for further funding cuts based on the poor performance they helped bring about. This is a problem and it’s dangerous. Clearly, right? I mean, right now, who is in charge of a major government agency that hasn’t previously actively worked against the objectives of that agency?? It’s insane.

    I’m not a smart guy and maybe a more articulate person can expand better on what I’m saying. Or a smarter person with an opposing view can tell me, try to tell me anyway, why I’m wrong. But for my entire adult life, and surely when I was a kid, not paying attention to politics and even before that, this seems to be the way the U.S. is governed. Gut a program, watch it fail, gut it more. It’s wrong. I’m pissed. This can’t keep going this way.

    BQ is great, thanks for the good reads, Jan.

    April 9, 2020 at 11:13 am
  • Keith Benefiel

    Bubonic plague-fleas from rats. Malaria- mosquitos. Coronavirus-passenger airlines and “free” miles. Faster, better vector! Emotional disorder leads to physical malady. The compulsion to travel, Dromomania, certainly added to the speed with which this horror spread worldwide. Bicycle. Close to home. Privacy is a luxury that cannot always be enjoyed. Life is the priority. Cheers KB

    April 9, 2020 at 11:57 am
  • Conrad

    I agree with your stance and signed the petition. But as some others have stated here, in order for this to work you have to have a viable health care system. I think even now there are not enough tests to go around. If nothing else I hope this situation causes people to step back and think about what the role of government is in their lives. Is it to provide services such as health care, education, environmental protection and such? I think it is, and here in King county we have generally shown a willingness to pay for these nice things over and over again. But this administration is absolutely worthless. They totally botched the response to covid 19 and undermined scientists and physicians every step of the way. They are basically trying their best to dismantle education and environmental protection systems rather than provide them. The people doing the actual work, the scientists, doctors, nurses, teachers will continue to do their best but the public health response you are looking for is not going to happen under the Trump administration.

    April 9, 2020 at 2:35 pm
  • Michael Mann

    Jan and Natsuko,

    First, thank you for taking the time to write this, and the time and effort to start your petition. I have not signed it, and am not sure yet if I will – I need to give it some more thought. Here are my randomly-ordered ponderings regarding your proposal and Covid-19.
    First, our country botched, and continues to botch, testing. It’s too late now. But next time, we need tests available for everyone, they need to be free, and we need to be willing to test people who show negative multiple times so we catch as many cases as possible and can more easily contain the spread.
    Second, the last nationwide crisis anywhere close to this in scale was 9/11. I still remember the fear in those initial hours that our country was under attack, the eerie silence when air traffic was stilled, and the dread I felt when I could hear the F-16s taking off a few miles away, wondering if they were launching to engage. I say this because the atmosphere of fear, and anger, and a desire for revenge eventually launched an enormously costly and misguided war, and an exponential expansion of the Police State that we now take for granted as normal. Remember when you could just walk into an airport? Are we safer now? Maybe, maybe not. Is it worth the cost to personal freedom and privacy. I say no. War Profiteering is the term for it and it ran rampant after 9/11 and we’re all still paying the bill and our fear was preyed on to run up the tab.
    Covid-19 could make 9/11 look like a cheap date in comparison. You can bet ideas are being hatched to profit off the public’s fear, and central to that is increased surveillance because we “need to know” who’s infected, and every individual they were close to, in a room with, possibly somewhere near… You can see where this leads without too much imagination.
    The culture of the US, for better or worse, is not the culture of South Korea or Taiwan. Our Bill of Rights insures individual rights that should protect us against some of the more grievous violations, but that also make initiatives like some Asian countries used more problematic here. Plus there’s our federal system. Our Constitution guarantees that states have the right to implement – or not – laws and regulations not explicit in the Constitution. That should not be rolled back.
    Finally, I’ve been reading a lot about the positive and negative directions we as a society can take as this Virus wanes. Ideas once considered radical – healthcare as a human right, universal basic income, the importance of labor unions to protect worker rights – even conservative political leaders are coming around. Society will look different on the other side of this. But history also shows that crises like this are fertile ground for totalitarian regimes as fearful populations embrace leaders who promise to solve their problems in exchange for Individual rights and liberties. We must always be on guard against this.
    Of course we want to save everyone. We want “normal” back, desperately. We want a future where this massive disruption doesn’t happen again. But we must be very very careful of the price we’re willing to pay for the illusion of safety.

    April 9, 2020 at 4:06 pm
  • Mitch Hull

    Fully agree with your post, Jan. We have a lot of work to do to get this virus under control. Not nearly enough leadership at the US Federal level.

    I have a 96 year old mother still living alone and am doing her grocery shopping, and worrying.

    I had a cold at Christmas, then another “cold” 6 weeks later, my first cold(s) in 7+ years. Last one had a 100.2F fever. Might have been coronavirus……

    After giving up a much-anticipated informal cycling week in the Texas Hill Country (right as the NBA et al canceled their seasons), I decided to not ride outside on the roads here in SW Michigan to reduce my (low but not zero) risk ot needing emergency healthcare.

    When the local hospitals go back to normal (they’re not overwhelmed yet, unlike in Detroit 100 miles east, but are taking a few Covid patients from SE MI), I’ll go back on the road. Really don’t like riding the trainer, miss my weekly Saturday rides to breakfast with my friends a lot. I can take walks on my rural roads and in sparsely-occupied parks, so have things much better than many.


    April 9, 2020 at 5:37 pm

    Breaking news: Apple and Google launch COVID tracking system for IoS and Android platforms:

    Thank you for doing this. I’ve signed the petition and also donated $ to support this work.

    April 10, 2020 at 11:00 am
    • Jan Heine

      That is very good news. Hopefully, our petition will help make sure that the data is a) not just made available, but also used correctly and b) used responsibly.

      April 10, 2020 at 1:17 pm
  • Bill

    I appreciate the urgency of this situation and that this post attempts to address that. And I’m happy to see the editors of the blog being willing to criticize the political leadership that helped create, or at least exacerbate, the current crisis. But I also feel like I’ve seen similar attempts to criticize political leadership in the comments section of this blog shut down in the past, with the claim that such comments were “political” (I’m thinking of discussions about “america first” or even climate change, just off the top of my head). I hope this means that the editors of the blog will reconsider this approach in the future. For migrant kids put in cages, for example, the situation is no less urgent than the current COVID situation is for the rest of us. I hope we can finally recognize that refusing to talk about politics until those politics could harm us, directly and personally, usually means not talking about it until it is far too late. Let’s show the same compassion to others that we would like to receive ourselves.

    April 11, 2020 at 8:06 am
    • Jan Heine

      We generally approve all comments, unless they are disrespectful, too long (we have a 200 word maximum) or only marginally related to the topic of the post. Note that we do allow comments that disagree with our point of view, or that criticize us or our components – the goal is not to engage in censorship. So if a blog post is about racks, we will not approve a comment about tires, in an attempt to keep the discussion focused and useful to our readers. Our readers accept and appreciate that the discussions here are moderated. If you are looking for a soapbox to talk about whatever comes to mind, you can find plenty of venues on the internet for that.

      We rarely take venture off the topic of bicycles to ask our readers to take action. This is not because we don’t have opinions, but because this blog is intended to provide information about cycling. We do make exceptions when we feel a responsibility to speak out on important topics that aren’t covered elsewhere, or on topics that are of such importance that nobody should remain silent. We are regularly criticized for that and asked to remain focused on cycling, but our civic duty is more important than offending – and possibly losing – a few customers.

      April 11, 2020 at 9:40 am
      • Marco

        I think openly political comments should be best avoided (or not approved). Like comments about religion, for example: “Such religion is made of sociopaths”. For me that would be unacceptable. Same if similar things are said about politics.

        April 11, 2020 at 12:01 pm

Comments are closed.