‘Freedom day’ sparks debate over Covid risks

Mixed diagnosis: Covid-19 could be the world’s sixth-biggest killer this year.

Should we be worried about Covid-19? As the UK inches closer to unlocking on 19 July, some fear life is about to get much riskier – but others say we should keep coronavirus in perspective.

The day is 19 July. You wake up to find that every restriction you have got used to following for more than a year is gone. No more rule of six. No more social distancing. No more masks. Suddenly, life seems to be swarming with risk: every trip on public transport, every hour spent in a café, every conversation, carries the danger of getting infected with Covid-19.

But life, after all, is full of risks. Many people die on the roads, which is why we make people earn a licence before they can drive, and learn from an early age how to cross them responsibly. We swim, we fly, we go camping and light fires to eat tinned foods because, although we know all these activities carry risks, we believe we can manage them.

So exactly how much risk does Covid pose to us?

There have been around 184 million confirmed cases around the world. Almost four million of those people died of the disease. At first glance, that gives it a fatality rate of a little over 2%.

But the risk from Covid is not equally distributed. For people under the age of 50, there is less than a 1% chance of dying of the disease. For those over 70, though, it can be as high as 10%.

Having a pre-existing health condition or a disability also makes a person more vulnerable to Covid-19. The mortality rate for people suffering from cardiovascular disease is also thought to be around 10%.

And that is only accounting for those who die from Covid, there are also many who have long-term effects such as fatigue or shortness of breath months after infection in what has been coined Long Covid. The percentage of sufferers is estimated to be anywhere from 2-20% of those who have had Covid.

These figures still make Covid-19 one of the world’s less deadly conditions. According to the WHO, the top three causes of death around the world are heart disease, stroke, and chronic pulmonary disease, which together kill almost 18 million people each year. Heart disease alone is responsible for 16% of all deaths – around 8.9 million people. The fourth-biggest cause of death, at around 2.5 million a year, is lower respiratory tract infections.

Risks vary around the world. In low-income countries, the greatest risk is simply being born: the most significant cause of death, claiming more than half a million lives a year, is disorders developed in the first four weeks of life. In high-income countries, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are the second-biggest killer, at more than 800,000 a year.

Different age groups also experience different risks. Children under the age of 15 are most likely to die in road accidents or of cancer, both of which kill just over 62,000 each year.

Many infectious diseases have a much higher mortality rate than Covid-19. Mad cow disease and rabies have an astonishing 100% rate. Bird flu kills 60% of its cases and ebola, 50%. However, these diseases are less transmissible than Covid-19, so they end up killing far fewer people.

Although we tend to regard the 20th Century as a time of medical breakthroughs, the major risks to human beings have not changed much in the last 100 years. In 1921, heart disease was already a leading cause of death, alongside flu, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Should we be worried about Covid-19?

Risky business

Yes, say some. Even if the risk to you might be low, the likelihood is that you frequently come into contact with people who are likely to die from Covid-19: older people and those with pre-existing health conditions. We must take every precaution against it so that we can avoid spreading it to them. Moreover, Covid-19 can still cause serious illness even in those it is unlikely to kill.

Not at all, say others. We manage to avoid worrying about much more serious dangers: unhealthy lifestyles, other infectious diseases, grave accidents, drink and drugs. We simply find ways of minimising the risk from these hazards in our everyday lives by exercising, eating healthily and taking care while crossing roads. It is time to start doing the same thing with Covid.

You Decide

  1. What risks do you successfully avoid every morning on your way to school?
  2. Is it the role of the state to try to minimise risk for its citizens?

Activities

  1. In a small group, choose one of the leading causes of death above and create a poster warning people of its dangers.
  2. Write a letter to your local MP supporting or opposing the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions on 19 July, then show it to the person next to you and compare your ideas.

Some People Say...

“If you take risks and face your fate with dignity, there is nothing you can do that makes you small; if you don't take risks, there is nothing you can do that makes you grand, nothing.”

Nassim Nicholas Talib (1960 - ), Lebanese-American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that one reason Covid-19 has such a relatively high mortality rate is that it is a novel disease: people who contract it generally have no immunity to it at all, whereas when we get the flu, we have some pre-existing immunity even if we have contracted a new variant of flu. As time passes and Covid-19 becomes endemic, it is likely that its mortality rate will drop, although it will remain dangerous for older people.
What do we not know?
There is debate over what Covid-19 restrictions are for. Some argue that they are there to save as many lives as possible. As such, they suggest, the restrictions should be maintained for as long as needed to ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer avoidable deaths, and to keep variants from developing. Others think they are there to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. Once most people are vaccinated and thus unlikely to be hospitalised, they argue, we must lift restrictions.

Word Watch

Cardiovascular disease
Any disease affecting the heart and blood vessels.
Chronic pulmonary disease
Any disease affecting the lungs.
Lower respiratory tract infections
Infections of the lungs that affect the airways or the air sacs, like pneumonia or bronchitis.
Dementia
A syndrome characterised by loss of cognitive skills, like memory.
Mad cow disease
A disease that attacks the brain tissue. It mostly affects cattle, but can spread to humans.
Rabies
An infection of the brain and nervous system generally spread by animal bites.
Bird flu
Bird flu often spreads amongst poultry populations, from which it can jump to humans.
Ebola
Conditions caused by ebolaviruses causing fever, vomiting and diarrhoea.
Pneumonia
A condition caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses. It results in the air sacs in the lungs becoming filled with fluid.
Tuberculosis
An infection historically known as consumption. It was once almost 100% fatal, and once infected it never leaves the body.

Subjects

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