Saturday, 26 September 2020

Is it time we learned to live with the virus?

When the Covid 19 virus first appeared almost everyone was unprepared. Some governments like China, South Korea and Germany did better than others; they reacted quickly and took control. The result was that they had fewer cases, fewer people with serious illness, fewer deaths and less severe economic effects.  Other states like Italy, Spain, the UK and France had leaders who were slower and less capable of reacting to the situation before they had a severe outbreak resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. Still others, like the leaders of the USA and Brazil, refused to take the disease seriously and actively attempted to minimize its impact and consequences. In some cases this was in spite of their knowledge of the true facts. They preferred to prioritize the politics of the pandemic rather than listen to their scientific advisers and we can now see the results of that in death rates.

Following the example of China, Western governments almost universally instituted drastic confinement measures to slow down the transmission of the virus and prevent a situation in which hospitals were overwhelmed and people were dying on stretchers in car parks. On the whole and despite the high number of deaths this was a qualified success. It reduced infections drastically and people did comply with the draconian restrictions, in spite of the very severe economic consequences.

The second wave.

Then, as the virus declined in Europe in the summer, we all relaxed and started mixing normally, crowding onto beaches and having parties. So of course the virus came back and is now circulating freely and reproducing exponentially in many places, including France and the UK. Whilst infection rates are high, death rates are low at the moment, but they will increase after a lag period of a few weeks.

Fortunately, and although it is less than perfect, as a result of the increased availability of testing we now know much more than we did before about the geographical spread of the virus, and can identify hotspots where infections are spreading more quickly than in other areas. This allows politicians to try a more graduated and localized response. It remains to be seen whether recent relatively minor restrictions, like restricting social events and closing pubs and bars at 10pm will make any difference. It should be said that the rate of testing is very much higher than it was in March and April and so many more active infections are now being identified and reported.

Whilst the UK government appears to be reacting on the hoof to day to day changes and not communicating clearly, France has set out an alert system, based on infection rates, which will trigger progressive local restrictions decided by the Prefecture of each Department. At the same time, under their new Prime Minister Jean Castex, they seem to be downplaying the extent of the rise in infections and prioritizing keeping open schools and the economy.

Is it time we learned to live with the virus? 

In my opinion that's exactly what we are in the process of doing now, and only time will tell if less restrictive measures than were applied earlier in the year will be effective. So what is there still to debate?

Some people resent the restrictions on their freedoms to circulate freely and carry on as before. Others are very cautious about social mixing. Some people deny the existence of the virus altogether! Still others are concerned about the damage done to individuals and the economy by movement restrictions and lockdowns.

An impossible balance.

In my view the choice between voluntary or compulsory measures comes down to politicians attempting to strike an almost impossible balance between the needs of individuals to maintain their freedoms; the need to allow economic activity to continue; and the need to protect vulnerable people at greater risk of severe illness or death. Also let’s not forget that even young and fit people can find themselves incapacitated and unable to work months after overcoming the original infection, the so-called Long Covid.

It is the mindset of the individual which determines whether they value their own freedoms to such an extent that helping others to stay clear of infection by accepting constraints is much less important to them. Individuality versus Solidarity. In consequence there will always be people who are dissatisfied with any restrictive measures that are imposed or who consider that they have not been taken early enough.

Striking this balance also concerns the perception and evaluation of risks, about which most people are highly irrational. I’m glad that I’m not a politician charged with the task of weighing all these considerations. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for them, but not for long!

I have no time whatsoever for people who deny the existence of the virus altogether and prefer to believe in a worldwide conspiracy theory to explain the deaths and testimony of victims. Unfortunately there is a significant number of them!

Lockdown versus freedom and a thriving economy

Presenting free movement and lockdown as alternative responses to the pandemic is, however, a false comparison. I don’t think that a nation can have a functional and thriving economy in a situation where a dangerous illness is circulating freely. People will seek to avoid and minimize their risks by working from home; by not using public transport; by not going to concerts, the theatre or restaurants; and by stopping unnecessary shopping trips and travel. Various sectors of the economy, and their employees, will suffer severely as a result. This is continuing to happen even though lockdown was lifted long ago.

The Swedish example.

The experience of Sweden, which with some restrictions kept everything open, can be quoted to deny this viewpoint, but Sweden is a country with a high standard of living. It’s not overcrowded and has notoriously reasonable inhabitants who have a high level of trust in their government. It’s very different from the overcrowded cities of Southern Europe, South America or India. Even so up to the 22nd September 2020 Sweden had a total number of deaths of 5,877 for their 10.23 million inhabitants compared with a total of 1,253 for their neighbours Norway, Finland and Denmark who have a combined population of 16.76 million and followed a lockdown policy. Is that a success? I suppose it depends on what value you put on human lives compared to economic losses.


In my view, both from a health and an economic standpoint, it’s in everybody’s interests to reduce the circulation of the virus. So if that means accepting restrictions on my freedom to travel and socialize that's fine with me!

Roll on the availability of an effective vaccine!