, October 25, 2021

The return to normal gamble


  •   6 min reads
The return to normal gamble

Masks are coming off, the UK Health Secretary likens Covid with flu, and in the US, the CDC relaxes guidance on people who have had two jabs. So is this a gamble that could backfire?

"We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu," said the new UK Health Minister Sajid Javid in the Mail on Sunday.

"If we can't reopen our society in the next few weeks when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and the school holidays, we must ask ourselves 'when will we be able to reopen?'" said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Meanwhile, in the US, the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed its recommendations. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said: "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment."

Here is the snag:

COVID-19 Data Explorer
Research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems

Here is a second snag; remember this time last year; the number of Covid cases in the UK crashed.

United Kingdom COVID: 4,930,534 Cases and 128,231 Deaths - Worldometer
United Kingdom Coronavirus update with statistics and graphs: total and new cases, deaths per day, mortality and recovery rates, current active cases, recoveries, trends and timeline.

We are advised to follow the data, but the data says the recent fall in the number of deaths is a summer-related blip. This time last year, people were hailing the end of Covid. And as summer turned to Autumn, public opinion was split. There were those who said the number of cases was low and deaths even lower; it was time to go back to normal; others said Covid would return as temperatures dropped. It was the pessimists who were proven right.

A year on, and there are massive similarities with this time last year. To say let's go back to normal because cases are falling is to ignore the data; it is cognitive dissonance, right?

No, not really?

Now, let's throw two curve balls into the debate.

The first relates to data.

Last year, in the UK, the press was plastered with images of holiday crowds crammed onto beaches — Bournemouth beach, particularly, made the front pages. Covid pessimists warned trouble would result; that another outbreak of Covid was inevitable as a result.

Did the outbreak occur? No. And the reason for that is that Covid is far less likely to spread when you are outside. In any case, the photos of the crowds were misleading, taken at angles that suggested people were much closer together than they actually were.

This time around, Covid pessimists are slamming Boris Johnson's government's decision to allow more people into Wembley to watch the Euros Final — time will tell if they are right, but the lesson of British beaches from last summer is that there will not be a significant increase in Covid cases as a result.

Then there is the big hope — the vaccine. There is no data to allow us to compare with last year because last year there was no vaccine.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations - Statistics and Research
Our vaccination dataset uses the most recent official numbers from governments and health ministries worldwide. The population estimates we use to calculate per-capita metrics are all based on the last revision of the United Nations World Population Prospects. A full list of our country-specific sou…

This time it is different

So we are in a position where we just don't know. Last year's data points to a winter return of Covid, but the data from last year tells us nothing about the effect of the vaccine.

Changing one's mind

Changing one's mind is difficult. However, it seems that many people got into one frame mind regarding Covid, and they are sticking to it.

The Covid cynics only ever see evidence that lockdowns were unnecessary or maybe grudgingly admit that the first lockdown was necessary 'but no more'. The cynics cherry-pick the data; they insist that the data confuses deaths by Covid with deaths of people with Covid that were going to happen anyway. But they ignore the fact that at certain stages during the pandemic and in most countries, average deaths were much higher than normal.

The Covid cynics see conspiracy; they note the low number of flu cases and say the data is confusing Covid with flu, but don't grasp that social distancing measures designed to reduce Covid infections were always going to be especially effective in reducing infections of the less contagious flu.

Some flu strains possibly wiped out by social distancing,
Conspiracy theorists take note, pandemic might have wiped out some strains of the flu

They cherry-pick data on Sweden indicating that there are no more deaths than usual but ignore data suggesting that the number of deaths was much higher than usual and even Covid deaths were rising.

But Covid believers may be about to become equally guilty.

They are so used to arguing against the deniers that they are in danger of missing a change. Something that was true before is not necessarily true now.

Suppose a significant number of people have been double vaccinated, with the vast majority of vulnerable people vaccinated, is there still a need to wear a mask outside in the summer while keeping a respectable distance from others?

Under such circumstances, is watching football in an outdoor stadium's really such a dangerous thing?

Mask wearing

And let's not let mask-wearing become a permanent legacy of Covid. Let's not allow Covid to lead to the end of kissing, hugging and even shaking hands.

Face contact matters; if you are anything like the author, you had no idea how important lip reading is in communication.

And don't masks create barriers between people, especially strangers; making it less likely that we will exchange smiles and small talk with people we only vaguely know and who we pass in the street or at the supermarket.

Will we return to kissing and hugging and shaking hands post-Covid?
Covid hasn’t changed our humanity, but the way we manage the aftermath might. Will we return to kissing and hugging and shaking hands post-Covid?

Unknown

And yet, we don't know what will happen next; the data from last year suggests a winter return of Covid is a danger. Common sense suggests that come the winter, the virus may have mutated, rendering existing vaccines ineffective.

We must be careful, and when Mr Javid draws a comparison with flu, he makes many recall the errors that were made at the beginning of 2020.

Nuanced

And here is the big problem; reality is nuanced. The evidence is ambiguous: the data points one way, vaccine rollout levels point another way.

Alas, when public opinion is so polarised, nuance goes out the window; all arguments are presented as black or white, you are wrong or right.

In reality, you can be half right and half wrong. And failure to accept nuance is one of the biggest challenges with human nature today.

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