Ben Lowry: Covid has been bewildering and humbling pandemic

Eighteen months ago, in early February 2020, the first cases of coronavirus had only just arrived in the United Kingdom.

Saturday, 7th August 2021, 6:07 am
Updated Saturday, 7th August 2021, 6:33 am
A water park in Sydney, currently closed due to lockdown. Australia seemed to have done so well with its zero Covid approach, but not now. Around the world, different theories as to what was happening, and how best to respond, have waxed and waned

So much has changed since then that the intervening period seems to have taken us into a different era.

The other day I noticed with surprise a picture of a gathering of people and then realised it was from early 2020, when our attitudes to close human contact were so different to now.

It has been a humbling experience for politicians and commentators and even for much of the scientific and medical world.

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Many different theories as to what was happening, and as to what was the best approach to it, have waxed and waned.

At the start of March last year, still early in the crisis, I was at an event in Dublin, March 2, then days later, March 6, at one in Holywood Co Down,at both of which I was surprised to find people were still shaking hands, despite firm and widely trailed public advice not to do so.

Yet at the same time even a woman as measured as the German Angela Merkel was still going to shake people’s hands (until on March 3 she was publically rebuffed by one of her ministers).

Declining a proffered hand back then, even if you knew it was the right thing to do, still seemed rude or awkward then. Within weeks no-one was shaking hands.

Boris Johnson, however, not merely continued to shake hands, he actually boasted about it (also March 3). A month later he was fighting for his life in hospital.

And yet those who sneered at Mr Johnson’s stewardship of the virus, above all critics of Tory Britain based in Ireland who said Dublin was responding better to the pandemic, later saw the number of cases surge in the Republic, while cases came under control in the UK.

The cases surged again in Britain, while coming down in Ireland, before rising again there too.

It has been a bewildering and wearying saga, and hard to follow the latest trends as to where is doing well and where not.

America has been no different. Remember when the densely populated northeast seemed worst hit, and the sunnier south barely touched? Then warmer locations such as Florida were slammed.

Or think of Sweden. Its laid back approach seemed to have been an overall success, then a disaster, then not so bad and so on.

OK, China seemed to get on top of the spread of Covid early on, but it did so at the cost of brutal lockdowns that non authoritarian societies simply would not accept.

If we think we had a lockdown, it was nothing compared to China.

The spread of a virus among humans will of be course halted if you can’t leave your house at all, for fear of swingeing penalties, then.

Meanwhile, the whole notion of herd immunity was mocked and seen as reckless, but is now accepted, albeit in tandem with vaccines.

My own thoughts on restrictions were influenced by a compelling article I read in March 2020 by two Canadian infectious disease experts who had worked on SARS 2003 called lockdown “a sledgehammer approach” that will cause great harm to young people for whom Covid is no worse than cold. Targeted protection for vulnerable groups seemed the best way to go.

With time, that anti lockdown theory seemed to be discredited.

Late last year I began to think that countries that had taken a ‘zero Covid’ approach, like Australia, had got it right. Huge initial sacrifice, then a faster return to normal.

But that is not so. Australia is suffering outbreaks, is far behind on vaccinations, and trapped — unable to reopen to the world, and perhaps undo all its hard work.

There has been similar uncertainty on education. Early school closures were demanded, particularly in NI to match the Republic, yet now the damage to young people’s social skills and their learning is increasingly seen as having been a cure that was worse than the disease.

When it comes to jabs, the UK, which had a very bad early pandemic response, became a global leader.

So as I said at the start of this, Covid has reminded humans of our huge knowledge gaps.

Almost nowhere on earth got this entirely right, and we won’t know for many years, if ever, which was the best approach.

I do think now that we have reached a point where no populations anywhere are going to accept the sort of lengthy lockdowns, lasting a year or more, that we have (just about) tolerated to date.

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor

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Ben Lowry

Acting Editor