By Integrated Care Journal-
“Have you heard? There have been only 300 deaths today…” Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people a day have died in the UK since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. After an initial period of shock, we have somehow become immune to death on such immense scale, approaching these figures with a sense of numbness and powerlessness. But how have we got here? How on earth can 300 deaths a day be met with anything other than despair?
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed the historic EU withdrawal agreement on 24 January 2020, which would have allowed the UK to formally leave EU the week after, the public stood resigned, hoping to put an end to years of arguments and divisions.
Around the same time in China, a previously unknown respiratory virus was attracting little attention in the western media. On the same day as the signing, Hospital Times sister publication Integrated Care Journal covered the story: “Coronavirus outbreak reaches over 200 cases in China as fears grow. ”
Authorities in #China have identified more than 200 cases of a new 'SARS-like' #virus, now labelled as 2019-nCoV. UK experts have warned that there might be many more, with estimates reaching over 1,500. #coronavirus #outbreakhttps://t.co/c9QZZAvQsH— Integrated Care Journal (@ICJnews) January 20, 2020
As new infections were detected in neighbouring countries in Asia, media coverage grew. But many leaders in western countries sought to play down the threat. Speaking in the House of Commons on 23 January, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock had said: “The Chief Medical Officer has revised the risk to the UK population from ‘very low’ to ‘low’ and has concluded that while there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country, we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them. ”
With little to no urgency assigned to the then-faraway virus by the UK Government, no-one could have imagined that it would come to claim the lives of more than one million people worldwide, creating the biggest health and economic crisis since the Second World War.
At the time of writing, in December 2020, the World Health Organization reports 59,816,510 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 1,410,378 deaths. Sadly, the extent of the crisis that Covid-19 has brought to our societies goes far beyond these grim figures.
In the UK, one of the strongest economies worldwide, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has forecast that unemployment will rise from 4.5 per cent to 7.1 per cent in 2021. The UK, already suffering the worst death toll in Europe, will no doubt feel the impact of this crisis in years to come.
Despite the virus causing so much suffering in the past year, it has also provided an opportunity for reflection.
Are we choosing our leaders wisely?
The virus has reached every corner of the world, both rich and poorer countries suffering disastrous consequences without distinction. Instead, a key difference between countries has been the way they responded to the crisis. Covid-19 reminded us of the importance of electing competent leaders. The lives of millions were in their hands. The non-introduction or late introduction of a government policy could has led to hundreds of deaths. Sadly, most of them have failed us.
A clear example would be outgoing US President Donald Trump. Despite the US being one of the countries in the world worst affected by the pandemic, Mr Trump held campaign rallies with thousands of people, often without masks, and against the US’s official public health advice.
A research paper published by Stanford University in October 2020 looked at 18 Trump rallies held between 20 June and 22 September, analysing Covid-19 data for the weeks following each event. The researchers found that the rallies ultimately led to 30,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19.
They also concluded that the rallies probably led to more than 700 deaths. On the contrary, countries such as New Zealand and South Korea have successfully taken control of the pandemic, showing the rest of the world that containing Covid-19 was not impossible.
Have we become immune to the Government’s incompetence?
Even in the UK, the Government’s handling of the pandemic has been disastrous. The first national lockdown in March was introduced too late and, consequently, thousands of people have lost their lives.
Professor Neil Ferguson, who was in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) during the early stages of the outbreak, told MPs in the House of Commons that “had we introduced lockdown a week earlier we’d have reduced the final death toll by at least half”.
In July the UK's Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance admitted that the government was urged by SAGE to impose full lockdown measures around a week earlier than they were introduced.
It was Government policy until 15 April that hospital patients could be discharged to care homes without taking a Covid-19 test. This reckless move has also, most likely, led to outbreaks in care homes and the inevitable deaths of hundreds of care-home residents.
The so called “world-beating” NHS Test and Trace system, which should have been a key component to containing the virus, has also been a failure. The percentage of contacts of infected patients identified and tracked down by the system ranged between 60 and 70 per cent – and just a few times exceeding 70 per cent. However, Sage estimates that a successful contract-tracing system must identify 80 per cent of contacts.
Britain’s public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, released a report in November 2020 criticising the Government for a series of failures and a “lack of transparency” when it awarded more than £17 billion worth of contracts to private companies to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
In one instance, a £250 million contract was awarded to an American jewellery company to provide personal protective equipment to the NHS. Yes, you read that correctly: a jewellery company – and one with no previous experience in producing healthcare equipment.
The crisis has never been about the left or the right wing; it was not a matter of political beliefs. Politicians had one job to do: to keep the public as safe as possible. Perhaps their record in this crisis will make us reconsider the way we choose our leader. When doing so, we should no longer focus on less-relevant qualities such as charisma, enthusiasm or sympathy, but judge them on competence, experience and reliability.
The fundamental question that we should be asking ourselves when casting our ballot is: “Can I trust him/her to lead the country during a crisis? ”
Was it ever a choice between health or economy?
One assumption that many political experts and commentators have made during this past year is that every country has had to face a trade-off between the health of its citizens and its economy. Is this assumption true?
According to science publication Our World in Data, it is rather the opposite. “Comparing the Covid-19 death rate with the latest GDP data, we see that the countries that have managed to protect their population’s health in the pandemic have generally also protected their economy too. ”
Therefore, the countries that have suffered the most severe economic downturns, such as Spain and the UK, are generally among the countries with the highest Covid-19 death rates. This contrasts with countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Lithuania where the economic impact has been modest, and they have also managed to keep the death rate low.
While urging its citizens to remain patient with the new Covid-19 restrictions, Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “In the fight against the pandemic it's not about health or economy, health or education, health or culture, health or social contacts, it's about all of these things,” she said. “To think of these things in opposition to one another is a common misunderstanding, but it's always about both."
Has Covid-19 changed us?
From a pint in the pub to office working, Covid-19 has impacted the very nature of human interaction. Governments around the world have rightly encouraged their citizens to maintain “social distancing” as a primary line of defence against the virus.
Studies have shown, however, that when facing danger humans tend to draw closer together. Nevertheless, loving and caring for someone during the Covid-19 crisis was shown not by hugging and kissing them, but by staying away – something we have never experienced before.
"When people are afraid, they seek safety in numbers. But during the pandemic, this impulse increases the risk of infection for all of us. This is the basic evolutionary conundrum,” Professor Guillaume Dezecache told ScienceDaily.
The consequences that social distancing has had and will have on our behaviour, in particular on the most vulnerable, remain unclear. While the vaccine may well end Covid-19, public health experts have warned that the mental health impact of the pandemic will outlast the virus, as millions cope with depression, anxiety and isolation. Will we ever go back to normality? Or will there forever be a before and after Covid-19?
Main Image: Philippa Steinberg for the Innovative Genomics Institute.
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