Covid: ‘The cure is worse than the disease’

Boris Johnson: He claims that we have reached “a perilous turning point” in the pandemic.

Is it time we learnt to live with the virus? Governments across the world are imposing harsher restrictions to reduce further outbreaks. But some believe this will do more harm than good.

You could almost hear the groans echoing across Britain as Boris Johnson made his latest announcement: “Here we go again,” people were thinking. The prime minister was outlining new measures to control the pandemic – such as curfews for restaurants – and warning that they might not be lifted for six months.

Some welcomed the measures. They pointed to the alarming rise in cases: 40% up on the previous week. The easing of restrictions, they argued, had gone too far, too fast. It would have been better to have a more comprehensive lockdown.

But many are unconvinced. They claim that politicians who see lockdowns as the answer are misguided, and reimposing restrictions whenever the infection rate rises will only make things worse.

One such person is Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University. He says we must accept that the virus is here to stay and strike a balance, living our lives as normally as possible while behaving sensibly to minimise the risks.

A leading sociologist, Professor Robert Dingwall, agrees. He believes that people are already starting to acknowledge that thousands will die of the coronavirus every year, just as thousands die of flu. World leaders, he says, should be brave enough to tell the public that it will be around “for ever and a day”, even if a vaccine is developed.

One argument for living with the virus, as opposed to trying to suppress it, is the damage inflicted by lockdowns. According to Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University, they blight the economy, endanger children’s education and increase mental health problems to the extent that the “cure has been worse than the disease”.

Instead of adopting blanket measures, he says, we should focus on protecting the vulnerable. There should be more intensive testing of the elderly, particularly in care homes, but we should also establish a “chain of trust”, whereby people are more cautious when they come into contact with those at high risk.

A key question is that of immunity. The usual pattern with coronaviruses has been that people who survive are more resistant to them in future: if the illness does recur, it will be in a milder form. If Covid-19 conforms to this, it should eventually become no more dangerous than flu.

Professor Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University even argues that for this reason we should allow young and healthy people to be exposed to the virus. "This is how we have always managed viruses,” she says. “Why is this so different?”

Others, though, are more cautious. They say that to maintain herd immunity from established diseases, such as German measles, 95% of children have to be vaccinated. If a Covid-19 vaccine is released, It is too much to assume that a similar number of young people would sign up for it.

It is also too soon to determine the long-term effects of Covid. All we know is that some people have been suffering from the effects for months. Until we have better data, says Professor Christina Pagel of University College, London, allowing the virus to spread would be irresponsible.

Is it time we learned to live with the virus?

Viral spiral

Some say, yes. We should regard Covid as we do the other viruses we have to cope with – such as flu, AIDS and SARS. Humans are social creatures, and it is an inevitable consequence of our interactive lives that such diseases will spread among us. The best we can hope for is to achieve herd immunity. Lockdowns do more harm than good, particularly to the poorest members of society.

Others insist that we need to take every precaution we can, particularly while Covid is so much of a mystery. Viruses are constantly mutating, and can recur in stronger forms as well as weaker ones; one strain of flu can kill far more people than another. No one would suggest trying to live with Ebola. If science gives us a chance to eradicate Covid, we should not hesitate to take it.

You Decide

  1. If you were offered a vaccination against Covid-19 that had just been developed and approved, would you accept it?
  2. Is it acceptable for governments to impose measures such as lockdowns, or should everyonel take responsibility for their own health?

Activities

  1. Write a story about a herd of sheep preparing to defend themselves against a predator.
  2. Imagine you are the owner of a bar or restaurant and have been ordered to close your doors at 10pm. Write a letter to the government explaining why you think this is wrong.

Some People Say...

“May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”

Peter Marshall (1902–1949), American clergyman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that although there is still much to learn about Covid-19, we are now far better placed to deal with it than we were in the spring. Two steroid treatments have been found that reduce the risk of death in the very ill. Medical staff know to look out for particular problems, such as kidney damage and blood clots. Now that everyone is aware that older people are especially at risk, both they and those around them are taking more precautions.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is over how much we should trust testing and statistics. Professor Heneghan worries that the Covid test is oversensitive, picking up dead traces of the virus long after someone ceases to be infectious. Others argue that governments should not base their decisions on the number of people admitted to hospital because these have usually been infected days earlier. By the time there is a spike in admissions, it may already be too late for anything other than drastic action.

Word Watch

Curfews
Occasions when closing down is enforced or movement is restricted. It originally applied to the extinguishing of fires in people’s houses.
Vulnerable
Open to harm. It derives from a Latin verb meaning to injure.
Vaccinated
When a small amount of a virus has been used to stimulate the body’s immune system. The word derives from the Latin for cow; the first vaccination was developed to combat smallpox using a virus that affected cattle.
AIDS
Acute Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It interferes with the immune system, leaving sufferers more vulnerable to common diseases. Around the world, almost 40 million people are believed to be living with the disease.
SARS
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a disease that makes it very difficult to breathe.
Mutating
Changing. A famous Latin phrase, “mutatis mutandis”, meaning “once the necessary changes have been made”, is commonly used in law, economics and logic.
Ebola
A highly infectious disease causing internal and external bleeding, first recorded in the 1970s.

Subjects

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