FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - May 16, 2020 - 12:00am

The dreadful thought did cross our minds. We did not contemplate it, much less articulate it because of the terror it evokes.

Now the WHO came right out to declare it in our faces: the virus may never go away.

No one will argue with that possibility. Still, the declaration by the world’s expert virologists and epidemiologists takes our breath away. It just pulls the horizon farther, much farther than we want to imagine.

Initially, we consoled ourselves with the thought that this pandemic could pass in a few weeks. Then we began thinking of a few months. After that, we thought in terms of maybe two years, when a vaccine hopefully becomes available. Now, the WHO asks us to imagine in terms of forever.

Over the past few weeks, it became fashionable to think in terms of transitioning to a “new normal.” What exactly that might be, no one really knows. There is still so much to learn about COVID-19.

The most insidious thing about this new coronavirus is that asymptomatic persons could transmit it efficiently. That changes the equations of control drastically.

At the onset, we found comfort in the fact that our temperatures were taken wherever we went. That might stop symptomatic persons – but even then only those exhibiting a fever. Those frail instruments are useless in detecting asymptomatic persons.

Conducting a high volume of (hopefully reliable) tests is a good thing. But all it gives us is the status of a person at the time the test is administered or the extent of infection in a community at a specific time. Testing does not kill the virus.

At the onset, we thought that children are relatively safe from infection. Now we know they are not, except that the viral infection expresses itself in other strange ways.

We also thought that the virus attacks only the respiratory system. Now we know it attacks all organs. The virus has been found in semen, raising the possibility it could be sexually transmitted by “recovered” patients.

The more we find out about this virus, the bigger the challenge of suppressing it, the more difficult it becomes to imagine the parameters of life under the shadow of a virus that would not go away.

The only good news we have about this virus is that, unlike the HIV, it does not mutate as quickly. That makes it easier for a vaccine to target it.

Viruses do tend to live forever. After decades of laboratory research, we have not found a vaccine against HIV. The viruses that cause the ordinary cold and the various strains of influenza continue to circulate even after vaccines have been developed to fight them.

Scientists have yet to determine if the antibodies we develop after being attacked by this new coronavirus could persist beyond a few weeks. There is certainly no indication that these antibodies could outlive the coronavirus. No one talks about “herd immunity” anymore.

Thus far, we face the prospect of endless waves of lockdowns as the virus resurges. With this, there is no way our economies could fully recover.

The modern economy is hinged on massive urbanization that brings large numbers to work together. Yet it is precisely in the environment of high congestion that is most conducive to epidemics.

We cannot rapidly dissemble our cities. Reducing proximity also reduces efficiency. Cities are the hubs of civilization as we know it. The very premises of modern civilization might need rethinking.

The US has perfected the process of industrializing food processing. Now, with several meat plants hit by infections, the country faces a serious meat shortage. While cows and pigs are being culled in the farms, meat is being rationed in the supermarkets. The virus undermined what was a powerful business model.

Humans have a strong instinct for congregation. This is why restaurants and bars have become emblems of city life. Today, they have become hubs for infection.

Environmentalists blame the plague on the distress humans inflicted on the natural world. That may be true. But the human population cannot be dispersed into ecologically sustainable communities at this time. We have simply multiplied so much there is no space left for us to socially distance. There is no way we could feed seven billion human beings using the methods of subsistence agriculture.

It might seem humanity has painted itself into a corner. The forms of social organization that brought prosperity and high reproduction rates have also been cruel on the natural world. A Malthusian will argue the pandemic is simply the natural course of things for trimming down the number of one species that brought so much grief to the natural world.

The global lockdown did produce clearer skies and provide respite for the rest of the animal world. But they cannot keep all of us fed for very long.

Our first impulse is to try and conserve the manner of living as we knew it to be. We will try and reopen the schools and return to the old mode of mass learning. We will try to open our factories that thrived by bringing many workers in close proximity to each other.

But with the virus lurking menacingly in our midst, waiting to strike anyone who lets his guard down, trying to live in the old way will be like scrambling up a hill. Slowly, sometimes unnoticeably, we will begin abandoning old patterns of interaction and cooperation, replacing them with new ways that technology has made feasible.

Never before have we so fervently hoped that science will save us.

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