How is Outlawing Fireworks Going to Save Us from COVID?

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For those not in the know, the Dutch government has been very vocal about “trusting the population” during the entire COVID crisis. People should be smart about who they see, be smart about vacationing, be smart about distancing, about hoardingshopping, and smart about wearing PPE like masks. We’ve basically been a mini-Sweden just without all the positive press worldwide, but instead with a country much more connected to the rest of the world (not situated in some dead-end between Norway and the bufferzone to Russia and with the busiest airport in the EU). So far, we’re doing swimmingly with a nice 19th place on the list of countries with most infections with the smallest country ranked higher on the list having twice the population (also, our testing capacity is still barely able to handle everybody who wants to get tested).

The government has insisted we need to keep society open for the small businesses (yet still closing the ones most in danger, like horeca), but introduces rules that seem entirely insane at first sight.

One of the rules that has been in place for most of the time is that cafés are not allowed to open or has limited opening hours. I can understand discos and the like being closed, they are just drunk people rubbing against each other and super-spreader events with loud music and alcohol. Cafés and restaurants are harder for me to understand. They have very strong incentives to keep things clean and keep people at a reasonable distance: not only does the law force them to do so, but if they host a spreader event, not only are they forced to close for weeks, the news will also spread, hurting business. On the other hand, people have not held back on receiving guests at home (despite the rules saying so, but nobody is looking to through the windows unless people get very loud). Sure, most people behave, but it’s not impossible to imagine people hugging goodbye even though they are not supposed to, especially if it has been a while, and they have shared a bottle of wine. These are not necessarily super-spreader events, but enough to increase the spread. Logically, to me, keeping cafés open would encourage people to meet up at a café where keeping distance is easier, likely balancing out whichever extra spread caused by having cafés and restaurants open? Apparently, tests have shown that cafés and restaurants are a huge vector of infection, which is why they are closed. I’m still sceptical, but surrender to data, so I’ll accept that one.

Another rule is no sale of alcohol after 20. Not in bars, not in cafés, not in restaurants, not in hotels, not by delivery, and not in supermarkets. This one obviously has no impact on the spread of disease, but here I can also follow the rationale: if one kind of establishment is not allowed to sell alcohol, why should another one be allowed? This has caused some genuine tension with stores weaselling their way around the intent of the rule (e.g., hotel bars or restaurants being allowed to serve alcohol while regular bars/restaurants were not). I think the rule is silly, but I accept the reasoning, even though I feel bad for the very nice kids keeping my local super market open now having to deal with saying no to alcoholics choosing to stock up at 20.02 in addition to wiping off carts.

A third rule that initially seemed entirely insane to me was that all schools, including primary schools, would switch to remote teaching. Children are a minor vector of infection, and surely we can accept that bit of overall increase to allow kids to have a daily life closer to normal. This also benefits people who cannot work from home. The reasoning for the rule completely changed my mind: it turns out, people, despite persistent government recommendation cannot stay their ass home from work, even if their job is touching computers at an office. But if they have to keep their kids home, they have to stay home. An added benefit is that when people are driving their kids to school (because they can apparently not bike/walk to school themselves anymore?), continuing down the street to the office is less of a stretch than having to leave home altogether. That… makes sense. Yeah, keeping kids home doesn’t meaningfully impact infection on their own, but since idiots cannot figure out to work from home, forcing them to stay home with their kids does.

That brings me to the fourth rule I’d like to discuss: no fireworks for New Years. No sale, transport, or use. The reasoning seems fair: by forbidding fireworks, they want to reduce stress on the health system due to accidents and policing due to fireworks. Except that explanation does not hold to even superficial scrutiny: police in several regions have reported they are doubling their man-power to enforce the ban. Wait, that’s the absolute opposite of the intent… In addition, the number of accidents on New Years in the Netherlands is approximately 1200 treatments in hospitals/emergency services, 3500 calls to emergency services, and 100 attacks on police/firemen. Sure, it would be good to get rid of them, but I’m asking myself if they really will go down? Based on what I can hear just outside my house, people are still setting off fireworks. Maybe less than normal, but I wonder whether the reduction is in the illegal firework people get from across the border causing most of the accidents, or in the legal fireworks parents with two children set off at 10 on New Years? My guess is that the number of accidents will be barely impacted, at least the 400 needing hospital treatment as people who already set of illegal fireworks will not be impacted by the ban. At the same time, while the number of calls to emergency services due to legal fireworks may be down somewhat, the number of calls due to illegal fireworks, which is now all fireworks, will be up. I’m sure the government has better numbers, but I simply cannot imagine a good reason for the fireworks rule.

At the same time, the government is only now starting to stop international flights, providing more than a loose recommendation to quarantining after going abroad, and actually closing down borders a bit. This is the dumbest shit: why have all international travel not been shut down since March? Only exception is shipping and all international travel comes with a mandatory 2 week quarantine. Now, we’re getting a new extra special COVID variation from the UK and South Africa, which is 70% more infectious. It’s been going around in the background and is likely already out of control globally; we just haven’t noticed yet (except the UK, they have noticed). We keep getting daily news the variant is showing up in more and more countries. It is probably too late to contain it and we’re repeating all the glorious mistakes we did in March with COVID version 1.0. We did not know where the mutation would come from or whether it would be more infectious, more deadly, or more resistant to treatment, but we did know that it would come (TBH, my best guess was it would come from Brazil due to the spread and resignation there a couple of months back). Heck, the same happened during the Spanish Flu which is why the second wave was so deadly. We should have closed down the borders in March (or January, really), or in June for the summer vacations, or anytime in-between.

My guesshope is the “no firework” rule is an attempt to bikeshed from these travel restrictions, and the much more restrictive lockdowns that will become necessary in January. Even at the strictest lockdowns earlier in 2020, the R value in the Netherlands has only been below 0.7 for one week. With COVID version 2.0, now with 70% more infection, a similar lockdown would yield an R value of > 0.7 * 1.7 = 1.2 > 1. Granted, that was when we knew less about the disease, but also when lockdown was still new and exciting (and it was summer). Things are going to get so much worse the next month or two: vaccination takes two doses with 3 weeks between them. It’s only 50% effective a week after the first dose, rising to 95% a week after the second, meaning that it will only start becoming effective near the end of January, and numbers will only ramp up in the spring/summer. Simultaneously, X-mas has ensured the new COVID 2.0 has been spread all over the country, and likely world. We basically, have to weather the entire winter unprotected but with a virus that’s twice as infectious.

I can see how restrictions are politically difficult. So far, governments everywhere have reacted days or even weeks after it becomes clear that something must be done (closing down flights from UK almost a week after the new variant was announced, and we were even the first in the world to do that), even though that was likely a month or more too late. I’m not expecting the government to be able to predict the future flawlessly, but closing down the borders was a no-brainer. My guess is, the only reason they don’t act on the recommendations they likely get from actual experts instead of grumpy bloggers who are very much not experts, is that if they do impose restrictions and are right, nothing will happen. Then all the conspiracy nuts will complain about restrictions put in place for no reason (see also how they already complain about lockdowns despite the disease remaining contained due to lockdowns, or how people complained about preparation for Y2K despite few issues due to Y2K preparation 21 years ago). For some restrictions, the conspiracy nuts will be right, they will not have been necessary. But some of them will, and beforehand (and even afterwards) we will not be able to tell the difference between restrictions that saved lives and restrictions that were not needed. Miss just one necessary restriction, though, and people will complain about why that was not put in place. Restrictions that save lives are basically a losing proposition politically.

So, I hope that the government is putting in the firework ban to detract from imposing and maintaining real and necessary restrictions (primarily on travel). Because otherwise we are seriously fucked. The Dutch people are reasonably good at adhering to a rule (we have a pretty good mask adoption after it became mandatory in public places), but people see guidelines as the the maximum amount of care to take rather than the minimum (and working from home is for the plebs, not me, an important business person with important business computer touching to do at the business office with my business colleagues). During the crisis we have shown we are not able to use common sense, and the government needs to set down strict rules, preferably before necessary instead of a month late.

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