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Delay, vaccinate and cross our fingers

By Mindo - 12th Nov 2020 | 11 views

Is a ‘third way’ possible in our response to the pandemic?

Level 5 is hard. The pub and café at the heart of Dromineer are shut. For six weeks, only one person is allowed inside my garden gate. I have friends who may lose their jobs or businesses, as shops, pubs, and cafes in Nenagh remain closed. There’s pain and hardship everywhere. I find it depressing and yet I’m lucky. I have no real problems. Of all the people who are suffering under Covid-19 restrictions, I feel truly sorry for young adults. They’ve lost everything that’s part of being young. It’s okay for my IT nephew, who’s married and settled in his career. He and his wife have moved to a battered farmhouse in rural Mayo, with polytunnels, hens, and fibre broadband, all for less than €100,000. You could call them Covid winners. But there are Covid losers too. Annie is not so lucky. She’s been awarded an honours degree in stage management, but theatres everywhere are dark, events all cancelled. She can’t learn to drive – there’s a waiting list for the theory test. Even karate has gone online. Then there’s my special niece Lia, who’s started her two year arts and science course in Trinity College. Unfortunately, she can’t have the university experience, can’t even walk in the famous arched entrance. It’s all online. Her big brother Eoin should also be in Trinity, completing his engineering degree. Think back to final year in college – now imagine not meeting any of your friends or classmates.

As I write, there are over 1,000 new cases per day. Over 300 Covid patients are in hospital, nearly 40 in ICU. Fortunately, deaths so far are low. A lot of people were upset when Tanaiste Leo Varadkar disagreed with Dr Tony Holohan, and the Government refused to bring in level 5 restrictions the first time. I felt differently. I found it reassuring that there was questioning and debate. A health worker agreed with me, but said it’s as if people are “hypnotised”. I suppose uncertainty is wearying and frightening. People prefer rules. Personally, hearing other voices and opinions, even wrong ones, helps me to understand our predicament better. Unfortunately, it seems to be unacceptable to articulate other solutions, or to deviate from the mainstream view.

Looking at Twitter gives me a headache and that’s just the people I like. Sure, wouldn’t it be a dystopian world, if Irish people obeyed doctors’ advice without debate, disagreement or consulting Google? Recently the Tánaiste said our national strategy is “delay and vaccinate”. That’s how we’ll achieve herd immunity. A leading vaccine candidate comes from researchers in Oxford, under Prof Adrian Hill. (He’s Irish and we were at school together when we were little.) But there’s so much we don’t know. Will a Covid-19 vaccine give lasting protective immunity? We could delay infections, probably with recurring lockdowns, but be unable to usefully vaccinate. I find it helpful, and appropriate, to look at other strategies too. We can’t do ‘zero covid’, like New Zealand. We can’t close our borders – because of The Border. No one wants to “let it rip”. That would be like the horrors we watched unfold in Bergamo. If we were like Germany, we’d have 8,000 more hospital beds for our population and nearly 2,000 ICU beds. A squeezed hospital and ICU system means we have less freedom to choose a strategy. Eoin the Engineer and I watched a video of Prof Sunetra Gupta who says lockdowns harm people, especially the poorest. This echoes comments from the World Health Organisation, including from Mike Ryan, another Irishman.

I reckon some young people (not all) would choose to get Covid, if they could also get their youth back. What would a third way look like for them?

(Sunetra Gupta married my school pal Adrian Hill, so let’s claim her as Irish too.) Some have characterised Prof Gupta’s view as “let it rip”, but I don’t think so, it’s more like a kind of ‘third way’. Under this version, at-risk people would protect themselves, while others would go back to a normal life. I reckon some young people (not all) would choose to get Covid, if they could also get their youth back. What would a third way look like for them? Don’t tell anyone, but I fantasise about it. In the New Year, instead of another lockdown, young people could volunteer for a lock-in. They’d stay in vacant student blocks for a couple of months and continue their online courses, online work. Families would supply food and, of course, drink. The young would have a moral obligation to socialise, in order to catch the virus from one another. They would be offered antibody testing to see how they’re getting on. Is it possible? I don’t know. I understand the choices we’re making, based on limited ICU and hospital beds. I understand delay is the answer for now, to prevent Bergamo happening in Ireland. Maybe that means delay, cross our fingers, and hope that a vaccine works.

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