How The Coronavirus May Radically Transform Society

Glimpses of the “new normalcy” start to emerge as European countries begin to lift lockdown restrictions.

“Zero fear and zero nerves,” Luis, a construction worker, told HuffPost Spain about his feelings on returning to work this week. “The desire to leave home and return to normalcy trumps all.”

Slowly, tentatively, some European nations have begun to take their first steps toward ending lockdown measures and restarting their economies, as the number of coronavirus cases starts to decline.

In Spain, nonessential workers in some industries, including construction and manufacturing, were allowed to return to work on Monday. In Italy, bookshops, stationery stores, children’s clothing boutiques, and logging companies have been allowed to reopen.

Politicians and public health officials warn that wider restrictions will likely remain in place for weeks or months to come, however. And even when social and economic activities do resume on a larger scale, society may need to adapt to a very different idea of what normalcy looks like.

In Madrid, for example, police officers handed out face masks to riders at train and subway stations on Monday — part of a plan to distribute 10 million masks across the country. During the height of the rush hour, ridership on Madrid’s public transportation network increased slightly from the previous week, but it remained approximately 80% lower than an average Monday.

Luis said that in addition to wearing masks and gloves, workers at his company were taking other precautions as well. “We each drive a different van and keep our distance, both between ourselves and with customers,” he said. “We also wash our hands constantly.”

Juan Manuel, a technical architect, told HuffPost Spain that his company provided masks for all employees, and that shifts had been rescheduled in order to avoid bringing large numbers of workers together at any one time.

“Sometimes the most difficult thing is maintaining a safe distance from one another,” he said. “At breakfast, everyone eats by themselves in a corner.”

On Monday, Spain recorded its smallest proportional daily rise in the number of deaths and new infections since early March, with the cumulative toll rising by 517 to 17,489, according to the Ministry of Health.

“This isn’t victory yet,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said this week, emphasizing that the country’s general lockdown would continue. “We are still far away from this victory, from the moment we will recover this new normality in our lives. However, these are the first decisive steps on the path to victory.”

In Italy, politicians have been eager to discuss plans for “phase two,” when lockdown restrictions may be lifted. Lorenza Bonaccorsi, Italy’s undersecretary for tourism and cultural heritage, even suggested that Italians might still be able to return to the beach for their summer vacations later this year.

“We’re working to make it so,” Bonaccorsi said in a recent interview, according to HuffPost Italy. Soccer officials have been hoping that matches might be able to resume by the end of May.

Italian health officials, however, say it’s premature to talk about such things.

“We are still in phase one, there is no doubt,” Gianni Rezza, director of the department of infectious diseases at the National Institute of Health, said this week. He suggested that the coming months would require the country to adapt to the coronavirus as an ever-present threat.

“We will have to patch constantly, assuming that the virus will continue to circulate,” Rezza said. “Whenever clusters are created, we will have to be very ready to identify and contain them.”

A government task force has been studying ways to decrease the density of people once the lockdown measures are lifted — rethinking working patterns, for example, to ease the pressure on public transportation systems.

Paola De Micheli, Italy’s transportation minister, recently floated the idea of a mix of smart-working and flexible hours in order to spread out commutes, along with technologies that would make it possible to count passengers and limit access to buses or trains, perhaps alongside a requirement that passengers be seated with a certain number of empty seats between them.

In a televised address to the nation on Monday, French President Emanuel Macron announced that the country’s lockdown would remain in place until May 11, at which point he hoped that restrictions could gradually be lifted.

Macron spoke of the need for widespread testing and contact tracing in order to keep the virus under control, at least until a vaccine is developed. He also spoke of the need to transform French society in the wake of the pandemic.

“We will have to rebuild France’s agricultural, health, industrial, and technological independence,” he said. “In this moment, let us think outside the box and reinvent ourselves. Me first,” he added, hinting that “the happy days” he had promised will require a radical change in how society functions.

“I fully understand the effort I’m asking from you,” Macron told the French people. “When will we be able to return to a normal life? I would love to be able to answer you. But to be frank, I have to humbly tell you we don’t have definitive answers.”

With reporting from HuffPost Spain, HuffPost Italy, HuffPost France, and Reuters.

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