A jogger who skims heavily past two hikers in the forest. A customer who grabs a carton of milk from the dairy shelf in the supermarket, while another customer selects squat cheese underneath. A train passenger on a full balcony who wears his mask only over his mouth and is the first to push himself outside.
Many people experience fear and disgust in corona times, especially in public spaces. At the same time, most infections occur in the home situation, source and contact research has shown for weeks. It was mainly barbecues, funerals, gatherings and parties with family and friends that led to 1,329 new confirmed corona cases in the Netherlands last week.
Elsewhere in Europe it is going faster and there is fear that the ‘second wave’ is about to break out. From Antwerp to Barcelona and from Madeira to Mykonos, additional measures were introduced and travel advice was tightened. After a spring of lockdowns in which mainly young people were struggling with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), the motto this relaxed summer is YOLO (You Only Live Once). People go out in Albufeira, Knokke and Hersonissos, those who stay at home fill the festival-free summer with house parties. And in the Muslim world, Friday, the Feast of Sacrifice began, which traditionally involves extensive family visits.
Also read: Pandemic is far from over, ‘getting worse and worse’
Resumed life is leading to a new trend: infections are mainly diagnosed in young adults and older adolescents. Teenagers, people in their twenties and thirties who on average become less seriously ill from the virus or even notice nothing at all. But who can pass it on to vulnerable others, such as older family members. The World Health Organization (WHO), among others, warned on Wednesday about the increase among young people.
In order to quickly break through infection chains, calls are made in the Netherlands to a person who has tested positive to trace their recent contacts and also to inform them. The GGDs actually hold these conversations, so as not to talk to people about guilt and to find out as much as possible.
That is why employees do not ask whether an infected person did not know the risks of family visits, says Putri Hintaran, doctor of infectious diseases at the GGD region of Utrecht. “We do not specifically ask. But the perception often seems that people trust familiar people more. It is believed that they have followed the rules or simply pose less risk. ” Together with “the clear need to regain social interaction,” this will lead to diminishing vigilance this summer.
Our current perception of the virus therefore resembles that of crime. People most often feel unsafe at night and in places where young people hang out. Murder or rape statistics indicate that you have the most to fear at home – from your partner or a family member. That front-desk or front-platform thief is seen as a creepy man in a dark alley, but it’s probably riskier to hug a grandchild just back from a party holiday.
The social chain that needs to be retested appears to be a lot longer in young corona cases, says GGD doctor Hintaran. “They have a much more intensive social life, with more changing contacts – not just sexually.” It feeds the fear that they may be the driving force behind a second wave, after the summer holidays and in the autumn. “If we sit back together again and keep the windows closed more often.” She advocates already working on behavioral change. “So we’re ahead of that.”
Also read: Citizens are corona tired, can be seen all over Europe
More countries are aware of this. For the time being, the Netherlands is attempting a social media campaign such as ‘Smarter chilling = corona killen’. In Belgium, the ‘bubble’ of social contacts was reduced and Antwerp set a curfew. Family visits were restricted in Northern England. Spain, which registers more than a thousand new infections per day, is shutting down nightlife now that the virus mainly infects teenagers and people in their twenties and thirties.
Family as a risk factor?
At the onset of the epidemic, in March and April, mortality peaked in Spain and Italy in particular. Those two countries would have suffered so much because family ties are stronger there. Grandpa and grandma live with the children and grandchildren, or close to each other. Lunch is taken together every Sunday and more children are looked after.
Italian statistical research published in scientific journal this month PNAS questions the hypothesis of the family as a risk factor. In twenty European countries, a statistical relationship was sought between counted corona cases and Covid mortality and the percentage of multi-generational households. At a national level, such a connection sometimes seems to exist (Spain, Italy), but sometimes it does not (Slovenia, Portugal, Greece). At the provincial level, the alleged family effect sometimes even disappears completely.
“Of course family contacts at an individual level can be risky, but we found no evidence in our macro data that living with or being with family is more risky. There doesn’t seem to be a clear pattern, ”says lead author Bruno Arpino by phone from Florence. He points to Lombardy, which, according to Italian standards, has relatively few multi-generational households, yet was one of the hardest hit regions in Italy. “Many elderly people live in care homes there.”
In Barcelona, which is currently flaring up as a seat of fire, Dutch sociologist Diederik Boertien conducts demographic research into the socio-economic effects of household compositions. During the long Spanish lockdown, he and colleagues calculated which provinces would be most vulnerable to infections in the home. That turned out to be especially Galicia. The population here is aging and relatively often lives with younger family members. However, the remote northwestern region was spared those early months and major cities of Barcelona and Madrid were hit. It points to more factors playing a role, Boertien says from the Catalan capital.
Family is an important social safety net during these times of crisis
“For example, how close people live to each other, how much they go out and how much they commute with public transport.”
Scaling down family ties is difficult anyway. In times of crisis, the family functions as a social safety net, certainly in countries with a less generous welfare state. Just as during the credit and euro crisis, the corona recession will leave South European youths even later than they are now. “More will want it, less will be able to do it,” Boertien predicts.
Also read: In ‘family country’ Spain, thousands of elderly people died lonely in homes
And in this pandemic, the family is also a medicine for loneliness and psychological complaints. Arpino finds government advocacy social distancing (social abstinence) therefore wrong. “It was necessary at the beginning of the outbreak, but the lack of social contacts had serious consequences for people’s mental health.” He believes that governments should now push for this physical distancing. “You can continue to see each other, but at an appropriate distance or, if necessary, via a screen.”
However, it is necessary that young people in particular do not feel untouchable. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director Europe, stated this week that they should be addressed with a positive message. “Blaming them is the worst thing we can do,” he said Euronews.
Since they often do not get sick themselves, information campaigns will have to address them about the risks to their environment, says GGD doctor Hintaran. “On what is important to them. Something like, ‘You don’t want your mother and grandmother to get sick, do you?’ ”
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC Handelsblad of 1 August 2020
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next dated August 1, 2020