Neither Zero Covid nor Vaccinations will Allow us to Return to Normality: We Must Learn To Live With Covid

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Much of the developing world continues to suffer serious casualties from COVID-19. But some wealthier countries are groping towards the end of the pandemic.

The Lunacy of «Zero Covid»

As Australia clearly shows, a ‘zero Covid’ approach is not a way out of the pandemic but only prolongs the agony. Australia is exceedingly boastful of its record during the pandemic, recording under 31,000 cases and just 910 deaths. However, Australia has not managed this feat thanks to a well-designed pandemic preparedness system. In fact, it was no better prepared than most neoliberal states, collapsing into extremely costly emergency lockdowns and internal and external border closures.

Prolonged lockdowns through 2020 failed to eliminate the disease, and governments failed to build the healthcare capacity necessary to deal with Covid patients when the country is not locked down. Consequently, today, all it takes is a small handful of cases to trigger state-wide lockdowns. Australia is locked in a doom-loop of lockdown-unlock-lockdown. Australia’s ‘zero Covid’ approach has also meant agony for thousands of its citizens stranded overseas.

Some 34,000 remain unable to return home, because the Government has limited the number of inbound flights, pushing their costs to unaffordable levels . As of February 2021, some 90% of Australia’s cases and deaths were traced to quarantine hotels. Bringing stranded citizens home therefore portends higher case numbers — irreconcilable with a ‘zero Covid’ objective. This toxic combination of government ineptitude and warped popular attitudes is now blocking Australia’s exit from the pandemic.

The Government’s misplaced sense of pride in its ability to manage COVID-19 apparently blinded it to the necessity of securing an adequate supply of vaccines. Australians seem to have imbibed a misplaced sense of pride about how wonderfully they have managed COVID-19, to the extent that many see no need to rush to get vaccinated. This naturally prolongs the lockdown doom-loop, because the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths has not been broken by widespread vaccination. The Australian government’s newly announced four stage strategy to exit this doom-loop remains exceedingly vague.

The only positive aspect is the recognition that COVID-19 must eventually be managed in a way «consistent with public health management of other infectious diseases», like influenza. This is an effective admission that the new coronavirus cannot be indefinitely suppressed — that is, ‘zero Covid’ is a ridiculous pipe dream.

Vaccines = Freedom? Not so fast…

The British Government’s decision to procure vast quantities of vaccine — 400m doses — and to insist on domestic production and watertight supply agreements is the sole bright spot of its otherwise disastrous response to the pandemic. It has put it well ahead of other European countries, arousing much bitterness and rancour among EU leaders, whose own response has been even worse. Currently, over half of the population has been fully vaccinated. Consequently, once this group is vaccinated, the major risks to the population as a whole are eliminated.

It seems highly probable that, unless something shifts over the next couple of months, as cases inevitably rise over winter, alongside the seasonal flu epidemic, we will be plunged back into lockdown. The nervousness around so-called ‘Freedom Day’ was not driven by any rational assessment of the data. True, July ‘cases’, measured by PCR tests, were rising on July 19th, thanks to the latest, ‘Delta’ variant. But ‘cases’ have always been an illegitimate way to measure the progress of the pandemic, because ‘case’ historically meant a clinical diagnosis accompanying actual symptoms, plus a positive test.

Many ‘cases’ are entirely asymptomatic, yet there is precious little evidence that asymptomatic individuals spread the disease, despite this being a major assumption underpinning lockdown policy. More importantly, the extent of vaccination — which, combined with acquired immunity to COVID-19 and similar diseases — has clearly broken the link between infections, on the one hand, and hospitalisations and deaths, on the other . Put simply, ‘cases’ may have been rising on July 19th, but hospitalisations and deaths remained relatively flat. In the week ending July 2nd, 109 people in England and Wales died with COVID-19 on their death certificate.

We know that this measure over-records the impact of the virus, as not everyone with the disease is killed by it, but let’s accept this top-end figure for the sake of discussion. The current level of deaths is actually well below the five-year average. As of July 15th, 3,964 patients were in hospital ‘with’ the disease, 551 of whom were being ventilated. Again, this is not a precise measure because many people are admitted to hospital for other reasons, then test positive for COVID-19 — but, again, let’s accept this maximal figure for discussion.

Indeed, the NHS has never been very close to being overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, even during the torrid winter of 2020–21 . It strains credulity to believe that it will be overwhelmed this summer, when vaccination rates are so high, and vaccines are proven to reduce transmission, the severity of symptoms, and the risk of hospitalisation. Moreover, if we are genuinely concerned that NHS capacity might be exceeded, rather than simply agitating for continued restrictions on the citizenry, we ought to be asking why the NHS is so fragile. Why is the NHS’s intensive care unit capacity so low compared to other similar countries — more than four times lower than the U. .

The Only Way Out is Through

Clearly, vaccination is not the magical escape route from lockdown that many thought it might be. Restrictions — and public demand for them — can persist even when high vaccination rates have transformed the relationship between cases and deaths, and the continued disease burden, is readily manageable with existing public health resources. Answering this question involves reflecting on why they were imposed in the first place — and thus turns less on issues of vaccination rates and hospitalisation data, and more on problems of politics and social psychology. Lockdowns and other societal restrictions were never recommended in pre-Covid pandemic planning by the World Health Organisation or national governments, because they were of unproven and dubious efficacy and came at tremendous cost.

That most countries collapsed into some form of lockdown, throwing out their existing pandemic planning, thus indicates decisions taken in moments of panic, amid mounting, media-induced fear among the general public. In most countries, governments lacked the necessary authority to resist such pressure and hold to existing plans, which focused on delaying the spread of new diseases and mitigating their impact. Crucially, moreover, in many places, including Britain and Australia, the state was also very poorly prepared to do even this. Successive governments failed to invest in necessary capacities, outsourcing planning and preparedness to local authorities and private companies.

It appealed to politicians because it gave the public what they seemed to be clamouring for, and bought time to organise a better response. The trouble is that justifying and securing compliance with such draconian measures entailed a colossal propaganda effort that has permanently skewed public perceptions of the virus, and inverted the proper relationship between state and citizen. Government deliberately mobilised behavioural psychology to instil fear into the population to increase compliance with lockdown measures. The proper relationship between citizen and state in a democracy has been turned on its head, with the Government telling the public what to do, rather than vice-versa, and demanding that people stay home to «protect the NHS», when the NHS’s job is actually to protect us.

The politicians in charge can never admit that lockdown policies were disproportionate because the costs they have imposed on society are colossal. Equally, thanks to the politicisation of science that accompanies technocracy, many scientists have become cheerleaders for lockdowns. The issue of ‘sunk costs’ must be a reason why, even today, we still lack a serious official cost-benefit analysis of lockdown policy. Government is a flimsy document from November 2020, which declined to use the normal quantitative measures used to justify health interventions — «quality-adjusted life years» — presumably because it would reveal that lockdowns could not be justified.

Independent analysis suggests that each QALY would have to be valued at between £96,000 and £1.97m for lockdown to make sense, depending on how effective lockdowns are in preventing deaths . The stated desire of many people to continue practising restrictions even after they are lifted also reveals the way in which hyper-hygiene has become a marker of moral superiority. The panicked retreat into lockdown and the subsequent reign of terror has destroyed our societies’ normal capacity to assess risk and make rational trade-offs, while playing into some very negative cultural tendencies. We have focused myopically on a single disease, to the exclusion of all other health problems, many of which will be exacerbated by lockdowns.

Through a one-eyed focus on a single disease — one with an average infection fatality rate of 0.05% for the under-70s — we have made a small number of epidemiologists the arbiters of human flourishing, and they will not easily relinquish their newfound power and status. Vaccination can never be a silver bullet for these problems, which can only be confronted collectively, through vigorous public debate and political activism.

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Source: Dr. Lee Jones | The Daily Sceptic

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