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Get Ready to Live With Covid’s Hassles Forever

Get Ready to Live With Covid’s Hassles Forever

Wednesday, 30 June, 2021 - 04:30

“I just want my life back,” said the singer Britney Spears on Wednesday.

In 2008, Ms. Spears’s father was granted a conservatorship over her because of concerns about her mental health. According to her testimony last week, the arrangement has been used to force her to go on tour, to undergo psychiatric evaluations and to take medication.

“I don’t feel like I can live a full life,” she told a Los Angeles judge. She could not even visit with friends who lived “eight minutes away.” The conservatorship was doing “way more harm than good,” she said.

The parallel is not exact, I admit. But one woman’s desire to be free of conservatorship sounded to me a lot like the rest of humanity’s desire to be free of Covid-19. Since the novel coronavirus began spreading throughout the world nearly a year and a half ago, we have all, to varying degrees, been subjected to regular evaluations of our health (tests) and encouraged if not required to take medication (in the form of vaccines). As for not seeing our friends … Well, I think we all want our lives back.

It would probably be wrong to conclude that lockdowns did more harm than good in the developed world, though they could certainly have been avoided or shortened by earlier reliance on testing and tracing. But a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research strongly suggests that lockdowns did do more harm than good in developing countries. “In low-income countries,” the authors argue, “a lockdown can potentially lead to 1.76 children’s lives lost due to the economic contraction per Covid-19 fatality averted.”

There was an “intergenerational tradeoff” in the developed world, too, in the sense that younger people suffered significant educational and economic losses because of restrictions imposed mainly to limit sickness and mortality among the older age groups most vulnerable to the pandemic.

Regardless of our age, we all want this to be over. But it so isn’t. I knew when I was finishing my book on the history of disasters late last summer that the pandemic had some way still to run.

There was a chance, I wrote, that it might be over by Easter 2021, and that “the world economy would snap back to life once this became clear.” However, “there was a worse scenario, in which we would spend years playing whack a mole with an endemic, evolving SARS-CoV 2, with no vaccine that really worked and no immunity that really lasted. By the standards of past pandemics, this one might still be at an early stage — perhaps not even at the end of the first quarter.”

I wrote those words nearly a year ago, on July 6, 2020. It turns out that the vaccines (well, some of them) work better than I had dared to hope, and the world economy is indeed snapping back. And yet we may still be languishing in the second quarter of this pandemic — or maybe it’s early in the second half.

My struggle last week to get from northern California to South Wales to see family and friends after 18 months of separation has convinced me that the return to normality is going to be a lot slower than most of us would like to believe — and not only because of this virus’s shape-shifting character.

I have a bad feeling that even if we succeed in containing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 — to the extent of bringing mortality rates back down to normal levels everywhere — we may be unable to get rid of many of the pandemic-induced constraints that now restrict our freedoms as much as Britney Spears’s conservatorship restricts hers.

Let me illustrate the point with some personal experience, which I offer here not as a Britney-style lament but as an example of what most international journeys are like these days. My wife and I have been fully vaccinated since March. Our sons, who are both under 10, have not been. In order to fly to the UK, of which three of us are citizens, we had to fill in a great many online forms, take PCR tests, and arrange and pay for two further rounds of testing during the 10-day quarantine imposed by the Welsh government.

We arrived at the airport very early, bearing a file full of documents that were carefully scrutinized by airline staff before we could board the aircraft. During the entire 10-hour flight, all of us — including our 3-year-old — had to wear face masks. The cabin crew insisted that we could only remove these momentarily to sip a drink or take a bite of the rations that were served. (Warning: When it comes to food and drink, all flights appear now to be operated by EasyJet.) Following our arrival at Heathrow, the documents were once again examined by UK border officials.

To say that this was fun would be a lie. It was in fact quite stressful. At each stage of the process, we saw other travelers fall foul of the health bureaucracy.

One couple were prevented from checking in at San Francisco as they lacked the correct documentation for a connecting flight to Croatia. At the departure gate, another woman’s test results were found in some way deficient. I heard more oaths and saw more tears than I can ever remember on such a trip.

Since arriving at our vacation home, we have been quarantined. This is supposed to be for 10 days but, as one’s arrival day is “day zero,” it will in effect be for 11. We have all passed the first test; our noses and tonsils will be swabbed again later today. When the landline rings, it is nearly always a polite lady from the Welsh test-and-trace service making sure we’re still there and not gallivanting around the fleshpots of Swansea.

Even when we get out of Covid jail, government rules will limit how many of our relatives and friends we can see in our remaining time here. Restrictions on social life that were supposed to be lifted on June 21 were extended, just before we set off, for another four weeks.

Masks are still required in many indoor settings and on public transportation. Outdoor gatherings of up to 30 people are allowed but, if you want to meet indoors, the maximum number is six, unless you restrict the gathering to members of just two households.

The police can break up gatherings that violate these rules and impose fines up to $14,000. At first sight, the “rule of six” poses a significant challenge to the planned rehearsals of the jazz septet to which I belong.

In short, if you are thinking of taking a long-haul flight anywhere in the world right now, my advice is: stay home.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that all these restrictions are unnecessary. True, the UK Office for National Statistics recently confirmed that daily Covid deaths have fallen to the lowest level since last September (the seven-day average is just 16). But daily cases, which fell below 2,000 last month, have surged above 16,000, due mainly to the rapid spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

Paradoxically, the UK now leads Europe in terms of both vaccine doses per hundred and cases per million. Hospitalizations are also up.

My 22-year-old son and his friends have spent much of their university careers at Bristol in a shared house, studying remotely and observing the social distancing rules. But the end of exams (cue parties, albeit outdoors) coincided with the arrival of the Delta variant. Last week he and several of his friends tested positive. Maddeningly, he had only just had his first of two vaccine shots.

In his case, as for many other young Britons, vaccination came too late. The UK not only left the 20-somethings until the later stages of its vaccination rollout. It also prioritized getting first shots to as many adults as possible, rather than aiming for earlier full vaccination of a smaller proportion of people.

At first, this seemed smart. The problem is that, compared with earlier variants such as Alpha (B.1.1.7), the Delta variant is significantly easier to catch if you’ve had only one shot. Indeed, it turns out to be easier to catch even if you’ve had both shots.

A new study published in the Lancet — based on 19,543 confirmed infections and 377 hospitalizations in Scotland between April and June — shows that implied vaccine efficacy 14 days after the second dose fell for both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. For the former, efficacy fell from 92% to 79%; for the latter, from 73% to 60%.

Nevertheless, these are still pretty good efficacy numbers. I therefore remain skeptical that fully vaccinated people need to be confined to barracks for 10 days, especially when they fly in from a country like the US where the Delta variant is (as yet) not very widespread. The rule of six also seems excessively restrictive for fully vaccinated Britons.

When both clinical trials and real-world data point to high vaccine efficacy, especially for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and when governments are keen to persuade people to get vaccinated, why on earth make the social benefits of being vaccinated so negligible?

The answer is clear. Such restrictions persist not because they have any foundation in scientific research. They are the products of one of history’s most powerful but often underestimated phenomena: bureaucratic inertia.

The medical reasons why the pandemic could drag on much longer than we would like to face are obvious enough. First, the virus simply cannot be eradicated because we are not its only hosts. Good luck vaccinating the minks. Second, to quote a sobering new piece co-authored by the great American epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, “The world will not reach the point where enough people are immune to stop the virus’s spread before the emergence of dangerous variants — ones that are more transmissible, vaccine resistant, and even able to evade current diagnostic tests.”


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