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At some point governments across the world are going to have to start taking some very tricky decisions as to when to ease the COVID-19 lockdown. But when that happens will the virus stage a vicious comeback? Jim Preen looks ahead…

The UK government talks relentlessly about taking decisions ‘based on the science’. This is one decision that will have input from scientists but will also require a political judgement as to how long the citizenry can stand being stuck behind closed doors.

France, Spain and Belgium already have expert working groups examining when a gradual easing of the lockdown for schools and businesses might happen.

In Wuhan, where the pandemic originated, restrictions are being lifted as infections decrease.

If infection rates in the UK plateau or start to fall, there will be intense pressure on the government to loosen the reins. But with that comes problems.

Easing containment

Suzanne Bernier, part of the Canadian government’s pandemic planning team, says: “If you start to open up the borders again, take away restrictive measures, people get a little more careless again, forget hygiene procedures and social distancing.”

And should that occur, there is every possibility of COVID-19 cases rising once more. “It happens every single time with every pandemic in history there will be a second wave,” says Bernier.

Only when a substantial part of the population has some form of immunity either as a result of recovering from the disease or via a successful vaccine will we be able to look at COVID -19 through the rear-view mirror.

If a significant part of a population has some form of immunity then the virus would struggle to gain a foothold once more.

Unfortunately, even in Wuhan, which accounted for more than half of all the cases in China, it’s thought only around 10 percent of the population are now immune. And as we are constantly being told, a vaccine may not be ready for at least a year.

Communications planning

Bernier is concerned that governments worldwide are stuck in a 24/7 reactive response mode and need to start thinking proactively about communications in the event of a second wave.

“They are so busy dealing with something so unknown that they’ve never done before, and not faulting anyone, but the best way to alleviate your communities’ fears is through proper communications. I think this would relieve a little bit of the panic that would happen again when the second wave happens. Messaging for that exact scenario needs to be created now.”

It’s likely that the lockdown in the UK will be relaxed gradually and will be monitored closely with containment measures reintroduced quickly should new cases of COVID-19 start to spike.

For the government to lift restrictions, perhaps to allow schools and some businesses to reopen, would be enormously welcome. Having to come back to the podium to say sorry but you’d better get ready for lockdown #2 would challenge the most seasoned communicator. Let’s hope government comms teams are already giving this some serious thought, because it’s highly likely that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

Ray of hope

But at times like this we can all use a ray of hope and there is a possibility of a second wave being mitigated. Anti-viral drugs, already in use, are currently being tested to see if they could be an effective treatment for COVID-19.

Pharma giant Gilead is testing its drug Remdesivir and elsewhere chloroquine is being investigated as another promising drug. These are not vaccines but could help manage the infection and significantly reduce the number of deaths.

If a drug, which is currently available, proves effective, it’s possible the second wave could then be managed more like a conventional ‘flu pandemic.

The author

Jim Preen is Crisis Management Director at YUDU Sentinel. Sentinel is a powerful app-based crisis communication system that allows organisations to send mass notification alerts, share documents and communicate with colleagues.

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