COVID-19 year 4

Three years ago, feeling much like a hedgehog staring into headlights, I wrote about exponential growth, at the point where UK hospital cases from COVID were doubling every 4 days due to a colossal failure of government to do anything about it. Eventually they did, far too late, causing many unnecessary deaths in the UK.

Two years ago, soon after getting my first vaccination, I wrote some reflections about how much everything had changed, and how the government had lifted its restrictions far too early, causing many more unecessary deaths. Last year I was taking a break from this blog and didn't write anything; in any case, COVID was feeling like the new normal. By this time last year, I had been vaccinated twice and had one booster; I had also travelled internationally.

I hadn't been abroad since my trip to NYC in 2019 for the Stonewall 50 march, but in December 2021 I flew to Paris. While I was there, the UK government finally decided to take action on the growing COVID surge (far too late – is a theme emerging yet?) and changed its travel restrictions while I was abroad, requiring me to get a PCR test before travelling back. This was a deeply strange experience for several reasons, not least because if I had tested positive, I would have been denied entry to my own home country – an odd feeling.

I hadn't yet caught COVID, but about a year ago, the government scrapped all commercial and travel restrictions due to COVID, so naturally it began to circulate more. Further, people mostly stopped wearing masks, which would slow its spread (and is still recommended by the World Heath Organisation). I have continued to mask in supermarkets and on public transport, but finally caught COVID in October 2023, on a trip to London – I believe I caught it on the train on the way there or coming back, since that's the time you sit next to strangers for 3 hours, and I was unmasked part of that time to eat and drink. It was a horrible experience, with a temperature of 39.5, coughing all day and all night for several days, and with two occasions where my windpipe was completely blocked and I seemed to be moments away from passing out and potentially dying.

As I write this, I have COVID for the second time, and it's been more like the less scary experience that younger colleagues have talked about – with symptoms milder, in fact, than those following my very first COVID vaccination. Once again, it came on a few days after one of my regular work trips to London, and perhaps I caught it on the train again. Certainly, there have been fewer and fewer people in London wearing masks every time I've gone, to the point where I'm now usually the only person wearing one on a crowded tube platform or train.

So this, it would seem is the new normal: we have decided to pretend COVID-19 doesn't exist, and that the increased days lost due to sickness are unavoidable, and that the deaths due to it (mostly the elderly and clinically vulnerable) are acceptable. COVID-related deaths in the UK are just about to hit 200,000.

But now we are into the fourth year of COVID, and at some point the ONS will have to stop using the pre-COVID 5 year average. And then thousands of people dying of COVID every month will truly be normalised. We could cut this down by everyone wearing masks, but apparently we as a society can't be bothered. When historians close the chapter on this period in history, our response to COVID-19, like our response to climate science, will be remembered and we will not come out of it well.

Three years ago, the data showed that infections go down when you stop people mingling, then start to climb again when you let them again. That's still true. If we really wanted to stop COVID killing people (and it's clear at this point that we do not), we'd develop a rapid-deployment braking system in which, whenever a surge started, we'd close down venues where the public get together too densely, at short notice, for short periods. Restaurants, supermarkets, libraries and other public places would be required to deploy their distancing and one-way systems in these periods. They could be compensated by the government using the money saved from hospitals not having to deal with surges of hospitalisations from COVID. In this technological society, where taxi companies can routinely deploy “surge pricing”, we could easily achieve this. The fact that we haven't got the will to save lives when we easily could, is damning.

I'm starting to feel like the emphasis on individual convenience over the public good is feeling a lot like the “no such thing as society” 1980s. We're overdue for a swing back the other way.