8 April 2021
Life and Risk
By Lynda Goetz
My neighbour’s father has just died of lung cancer at the age of 90. He was a lovely man (who incidentally had never smoked) and we are all saddened. For his daughter and son-in-law who had looked after him at home for the final 6 weeks of his life it was, of course, particularly hard; although also, as his granddaughter said, a relief; his last days were difficult. This was not, however, a tragedy, just an inescapable part of life. His wife and son had predeceased him, but he had nevertheless determined to live to the full the life that was left to him. He stayed in his own home with daily help from his family until he felt he really could no longer cope. He was, fortunately for him, not in a care home for the last years or months of life with a government enforced policy of no visitors over most of the last year (although sadly his 90th birthday party celebrations were cancelled last October because of Lockdown No.2).
Unlike my neighbour’s father, many over the last year have died cut off from their family as part of a worldwide experiment in pandemic management. The cruelty of the authoritarian measures put in place by governments around the world to ensure the ‘safety’ of their citizens and to prevent the collapse of their health systems is unprecedented in countries describing themselves as liberal democracies. As we motor at a tortoise-like pace along Boris Johnson’s roadmap to freedom, many of us are still wondering at the breakneck, hare-like speed with which restrictions were not only imposed (albeit after a hesitating start) by governments, but embraced by the vast majority of the population. The journalist Janet Daley who writes for the Sunday Telegraph asks this very question in an interesting article last weekend. She remains uncertain what the answer is and feels a full and rigorous examination of what happened is necessary.
It does not seem likely that this will happen any time soon. Possibly at some time in the future, the extraordinary events and behaviour of the last year will receive proper analysis. In the meantime, as governments around the world, not just here, double down on their actions and draconian legislation, it really feels as if those who question all this are not only in a minority, but a heretical minority. The supremely logical and rational voice of Lord Sumption, who has tried again and again to point out the irrational and damaging nature of Covid legislation in this country; Toby Young, the controversial journalist and educator who set up the Free Speech Union and Lockdown Sceptic website; Dr Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and other scientists who signed the Great Barrington Declaration have all somehow been denied the oxygen of publicity and effectively shouted down or treated as ‘heretics’.
We have been subjected over the last year to endless and dreary statistics daily[i] on the BBC and ITV about the number of those positive Covid cases, the number of those hospitalised and the number of deaths (within 28 days of a positive Covid test – even where Covid was not the primary cause of death); but the corresponding information – regarding such things as the number of those who recovered, cancer deaths or the deferral of other treatments, the mental health problems and suicides or the increase in domestic abuse and alcoholism – has all been information we have had to seek out elsewhere. In other words, the government insistence on its reliance on ‘the data’ is extremely focused. Focused, that is, on only the data it wishes to draw attention to.
The economic effect of shutting down society has also largely been, if not ignored, at least played down in many quarters. Whilst it may well be true that all the government support which has been put in place could result in a fairly rapid recovery of the economy as a whole, this does not take away from the fact that many may never recover from the effects of having to shut down newly-set-up businesses and the loss of saved capital or the disappearance of jobs post furlough. These risks and outcomes appear to be ones that both government and the majority of the population (presumably mainly those not affected or who think they will not be affected) are prepared to accept in return for their ‘safety’. Are their perceptions of risk actually based on the data or on the propaganda?
As I walked round the supermarket last week I increasingly felt as if I had been transported into some dystopian world of the future. Interrupting the canned ‘musak’ every so often would be an announcement urging me to respect others, keep my distance and save lives or some such (I have grown rather good at tuning out both the unwanted music and irritating announcements, as I’m sure have the staff), but it did occur to me that this is how a nightmare totalitarian state might constantly impinge on its citizens. What though in fact are the chances of any one of us dying of Covid-19? I am no statistician, but Heart Matters, the online magazine of the British Heart Foundation shows some interesting examples using risk tools like QCovid and OurRisk developed by bringing together large amounts of data to calculate potential individual risk.
Unfortunately, such nuanced information has not been at the heart of governments’ approach to advising the public during the pandemic. One of this country’s government’s successes has been that of persuading a fearful public to stay indoors for most of the past year. Indeed the extent of compliance has been far greater than was ever anticipated, apparently. According to one report, psychologists are now accusing the government, acting on the advice of behavioural experts, of emphasising the threat from Covid without putting the risks in sufficient context, leaving the country in “a state of heightened anxiety”. According to one survey carried out by Kekst CNC last summer, one third of those questioned believed that 6-10% of the population (ie up to some 6.7 million people!) had died from Covid-19, when the reality at the time was around 44,000. (The actual current percentage is 0.19%). Even allowing for the misconceptions pointed out by Full Fact, most people seemed to think the percentage of the population killed was 1%. Small wonder they were fearful. Laura Dodsworth, author and photographer who has researched the subject for her latest book, A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic, said “The problem with fear is it clouds rational thinking… We have forgotten how to analyse risk.”
Using fear to manipulate a population into compliance rarely works long term. The issue we appear to be facing, not just in this country but around the world, is when to stop promulgating the fear of this virus and start living normally again. Unless our once libertarian government has some other agenda it needs to start shifting responsibility back to the voters, allowing us as individuals to assess our own levels of acceptable risk (in health as in other areas).
The use of the Astra Zeneca jab has currently been suspended in a number of countries over fears it may have a causal link to an extremely rare blood clot condition. In this country the current trials with children have been paused. Although the Europeans have been using unverified concerns over this particular jab in their ‘war’ with the UK, the actual risks associated with this vaccine are clearly outweighed by the benefits[ii]. Almost any drug taken (including common ones like antihistamines and pain killers) comes with a terrifying list of possible side effects. Do most of us usually take any notice of these? Rarely. We weigh up the benefits against the rare chance of harm in our own particular case and decide the benefits outweigh the risks. The same surely has to be true of our reaction to Covid-19? The benefits of liberty, freedom and a return to normality surely outweigh an overly-cautious approach to living, particularly now that we have vaccines? After all, we are all sadly destined to die of something. The chances of it being of Covid-19 are far less than it being of a heart attack or cancer. (The Odds of Dying; Cancer Mortality Statistics.) Likewise, the chances of it being when we are older are greater than when we are younger. The government and the media must stop generating anxiety and help the public to evaluate the risks.
[ii] 30 cases of blood clotting out of 18,000,000 people given the AZ Oxford vaccine means that you have a 1 in 600,000 chance of getting blood clots should you receive the vaccine.
Cover page image: photo Lubo Minar, Unsplash.