The Strange World of Hygiene Theatre and Covid-19…

Good article by Derek Thompson over at The Atlantic on Hygiene Theatre. As you may remember Security Theatre is the name given to the practices at airport security that don’t actually do much to reduce terrorism but let the government pretend they are doing something. You know the taking your shoes off, no water bottles, frisking 80-year-old grannies from Cullybackey within an inch of their lives etc.

Covid-19 has given rise to a similar phenomenon where people are cleaning their homes like never before, and businesses and public transport are covering every square inch with industrial strength cleaning products at every opportunity. There is no real evidence all this cleaning makes much of a difference when it comes to Covid-19. From the article:

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to clarify that while COVID-19 spreads easily among speakers and sneezers in close encounters, touching a surface “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Other scientists have reached a more forceful conclusion. “Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science,” Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told me. He also emphasized the primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission.

Surface transmission—from touching doorknobs, mail, food-delivery packages, and subways poles—seems quite rare. (Quite rare isn’t the same as impossible: The scientists I spoke with constantly repeated the phrase “people should still wash their hands.”) The difference may be a simple matter of time. In the hours that can elapse between, say, Person 1 coughing on her hand and using it to push open a door and Person 2 touching the same door and rubbing his eye, the virus particles from the initial cough may have sufficiently deteriorated.

The fact that surface areas—or “fomites,” in medical jargon—are less likely to convey the virus might seem counterintuitive to people who have internalized certain notions of grimy germs, or who read many news articles in March about the danger of COVID-19-contaminated food. Backing up those scary stories were several U.S. studies that found that COVID-19 particles could survive on surfaces for many hours and even days.

But in a July article in the medical journal The Lancet, Goldman excoriated those conclusions. All those studies that made COVID-19 seem likely to live for days on metal and paper bags were based on unrealistically strong concentrations of the virus. As he explained to me, as many as 100 people would need to sneeze on the same area of a table to mimic some of their experimental conditions. The studies “stacked the deck to get a result that bears no resemblance to the real world,” Goldman said.

So the main transmission method of Covid-19 seems to be airborne or person to person contact. All this cleaning can have negative consequences such as schools and other locations, being shut down for unnecessary ‘deep cleans’. Likewise, buses and trains being taken out of use for cleaning can have impacts on service levels.

In simple terms, the chances of picking up Covid-19 from surfaces are slim, especially outdoor surfaces. Any Covid-19 bugs on a pole on a bus, for example, would likely die within a few hours so the normal cycle of buses and trains being rested overnight should be enough.

As long as people wear masks and don’t lick one another, New York’s subway-germ panic seems irrational. In Japan, ridership has returned to normal, and outbreaks traced to its famously crowded public transit system have been so scarce that the Japanese virologist Hitoshi Oshitani concluded, in an email to The Atlantic, that “transmission on the train is not common.” Like airline travelers forced to wait forever in line so that septuagenarians can get a patdown for underwear bombs, New Yorkers are being inconvenienced in the interest of eliminating a vanishingly small risk.

Finally, and most important, hygiene theater builds a false sense of security, which can ironically lead to more infections. Many bars, indoor restaurants, and gyms, where patrons are huffing and puffing one another’s stale air, shouldn’t be open at all. They should be shut down and bailed out by the government until the pandemic is under control. No amount of soap and bleach changes this calculation.

Instead, many of these establishments are boasting about their cleaning practices while inviting strangers into unventilated indoor spaces to share one another’s microbial exhalations. This logic is warped. It completely misrepresents the nature of an airborne threat. It’s as if an oceanside town stalked by a frenzy of ravenous sharks urged people to return to the beach by saying, We care about your health and safety, so we’ve reinforced the boardwalk with concrete. Lovely. Now people can sturdily walk into the ocean and be separated from their limbs.

By funneling our anxieties into empty cleaning rituals, we lose focus on the more common modes of COVID-19 transmission and the most crucial policies to stop this plague. “My point is not to relax, but rather to focus on what matters and what works,” Goldman said. “Masks, social distancing, and moving activities outdoors. That’s it. That’s how we protect ourselves. That’s how we beat this thing.

Wise words indeed. And when it comes to our homes the latest research is that too much cleaning is bad for your health. It turns out like the body, houses have a microbiome and use of too many antibacterial cleaners and wipes plays havoc with this ecosystem. Best to use more natural cleaning products, steam cleaners or just a microfibre cloth and some soap. All things in moderation.

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