Are we threatened by a Second Wave of COVID-19? The prime minister seems to think so, although the scientific community is less certain. Some scientists believe COVID-19 will behave like influenza – the 1918 pandemic came in three waves and other respiratory viruses are more active in the winter. But we already know that COVID-19 is different. People are infectious before symptoms appear. Many people carry the virus without ever getting ill. Children, in particular, are rarely sick and are not ‘superspreaders’ as they are with flu. The World Health Organisation thinks there will be one wave which gradually decays into localised outbreaks. These could be contained by local efforts.
The truth is that no-one knows for sure and there will be no clear answers until next spring.
Of course the government should have a Plan B for a second wave. But this might also be a moment to ask where pandemic management is taking us.
We now know that something like 70 percent of the cases detected in the community are unlikely to develop symptoms. Of those who do, about 80 percent will not need to go near a hospital. When patients are admitted to hospital, only about 10-15 percent require intensive care.
COVID-19 was linked to about 50,000 deaths in the first 16 weeks of the UK pandemic – but about 11,000 people normally die every week. In the last five weeks, fewer people than usual have died. COVID-19 simply brought deaths forward by a few weeks or months – 80 percent of the victims already had life-limiting medical conditions.
Six months into this pandemic, we have learned that it is not going to wipe out human life on this planet. It is a nasty infection and we should never forget that every death represents a person loved by someone. But it is time for a sense of proportion. While some people become seriously ill, and a few die, most shrug it off. Nevertheless, some UK medical leaders are calling for ‘zero-Covid’, intensified controls to eliminate the infection. Some even want control measures to continue indefinitely in order to block influenza and other respiratory viruses.
These demands do not come from experienced clinicians, who know that no-one lives for ever. The only questions about death are when and how. Reasonable people might prefer longer lives to shorter ones. But they also have a right to be concerned about the quality of those lives. There is a real danger of slipping into a situation where we think health is the only purpose in life.
It is not an accident that the US Constitution gives equal weight to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ as the guiding principles for government. A concern for life and health must always be balanced with a concern to protect spaces for us to do our own thing and to define well-being in our own way. A pandemic may be an opportunity for some medical leaders to impose their ideas of how other people should live – but it does not mean they should be allowed to do so.
It is time to stop ‘following the science’ and recognize that we are making choices about the sort of society we want to live in. We must question the medical focus on health at any social or economic cost. Many other things make human lives worth living. In attempting to achieve zero-Covid, we may eradicate industry, commerce, trade, travel, arts, leisure, learning, sports, culture, liberty, and privacy. We will imprison ourselves in our homes, too scared to venture far, to mix with others, to learn from diversity, to have new experiences and discover new ideas.
We have never thought it necessary to do this with other infections. Could we live alongside the COVID-19 virus as we live with other viruses? We would have to pay a bit more tax to provide extra NHS capacity and better manage social care – which we need to do anyway. The alternative is to huddle in our homes, hide our faces from one another, and gradually grow poorer. We may prefer that – but let it be a positive choice rather than because we allowed ourselves to be frightened into compliance with the political programme of a narrow medical elite.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Express on August 2, 2020. A previous typo for the UK weekly death rate has been corrected – the original has 1,000 instead of 11,000.