John and Jane Jones were an ordinary couple, living in an ordinary house in an ordinary suburb. Billy was an ordinary eight year old and Belinda was an ordinary six year old, although they were far from ordinary to John and Jane. They went to the local state school, which was pretty OK for the most part.

John was the accountant at a bank, while Jane was in-house legal counsel for an insurance company, both in the centre of town. They relied on the school’s aftercare facility to keep the children occupied after school and, occasionally, on their children’s friends’ parents; help they reciprocated. The system more or less worked.

When Covid 19 struck, John and Jane found working at home pretty OK, despite spending more time in virtual meetings than they had in real ones, pre pandemic. The time saved by not commuting was largely consumed by extra work, but that was OK too. They counted themselves lucky to be able to continue to earn their living when so many people could not. The only real problem was when the school closed. Many schools seemed to adapt quite well, alternating video face-to-face and homework-like and online activities. Unsurprisingly better resourced private schools adapted best and some state schools did well too. But many seemed not even to try.

With the brand new tablets John’s parents had bought the children for Christmas, Billy and Belinda could have kept learning, yet their teachers kept them busy for not much more than an hour a day. It seems that even after eighteen months of on-off confinement, they had not managed to set up adequate online classes for children stuck at home, placing most of the burden on parents. Week seven of the sixth confinement and both parents were severely stressed by the conflicting demands of being a full time professional and near full time teacher. Their doctors advised a break from work. But, as anyone who has had jobs like theirs will attest, you can take only so much time off work at any time: as a rule, after three weeks, your employer will find ways to edge you out permanently. Unfair yes, illegal perhaps, but a fact of life. Losing sleep made it hard to do one, let alone three jobs each. The kids were stir crazy and the four of them were beginning to hate each other. They needed to get away, away from the house, to have fun together.

John proposed they drive to his parents’ holiday place on the coast. It would be no different, really, from staying where they were, but at least the kids could run around a bit, and there was the beach…. Of course, with the confinement, they were supposed to stay within five kilometres of home. But who would know? They would be in their car, so just as isolated as at home. Jane suggested that, to be safe, they really should all be tested first. However, that was risky: first of all, the tests take a couple of days and if any one of them turned out to be positive, then the four of them really would be stuck at home. “Oh, come on,” John said, “how can any of us be positive, we haven’t seen anybody! Nobody will know and, heaven knows, we need the break!”

Unlike other governments, their country did not offer quick ten minute turnaround tests. If somebody did test positive, then they were forced to quarantine, rather than be asked or advised to self-isolate. Slow and cumbersome testing procedures and the threat of forced quarantine are powerful disincentives to get tested, although they do keep the number of (reported) cases low. It turned out that Jane had picked up the bug a few days earlier while chatting to an acquaintance at the supermarket. No symptoms, but that’s how it is with most people anyway.

It was at least six hours’ drive to the holiday house, so breaks for meals and comfort stops were unavoidable. One of the roadside places had a children’s playground, where Billy and Belinda burned off some of the energy with three other children. How happy they were to reach the house. John went to the village for some fish and chips. While waiting for the food to be cooked, he chatted with Bob, an old fishing friend of his dad.

Vaccination was belatedly happening, but only in big cities. John, who caught the virus from Jane, had now given it to Bob, who became sick with Covid 19 and his infection was traced back to John. They faced a $10,000 and public disgust at their selfishness; also several sick, vulnerable people.

A quick test would have shown Jane to be carrying the virus, in which case they definitely would have stayed home close to the best medical care in case one of them needed urgent attention. Anyway, had the school been teaching the children rather than palming them off onto harried parents, the Joneses might have been happy to stay at home and work.

We may not admit it publicly, but in a similar situation many of us might do much as John and Jane did. If we wish to curb infections, a good start would be to reduce the incentive to break rules. Better online teaching for all children and easier testing, rather than draconian quarantines, might have led to an altogether different outcome.

Feature image by Cottonbro on Pexels.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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