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.
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.
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
Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:
• Ben Lowry Aug 2: Three points to keep in mind when arguing against the NI Protocol
• Ben Lowry July 31: The last NI housing boom was disaster, and we need to beware a repeat
• Ben Lowry July 24: Hot weather ought to be welcome in NI but this is extreme
• Ben Lowry July 17: UK has tipped into an amnesty after a long approach to IRA that lacked bite
• Ben Lowry July 15: We should be honest as to how we have arrived at a Troubles amnesty
• Ben Lowry July 10: We will find soon if UK is for once going to criticise Ireland
• Ben Lowry July 10: I once always wanted England to lose, now I want them to win
• Ben Lowry July 3: The mild DUP response to the protocol will cause Boris little concern
• Ben Lowry June 26: Neither Dublin nor IRA have been put under any pressure on legacy
• Ben Lowry June 26: A slight sense of sadness as the days again begin to shorten
• Ben Lowry June 19: Somehow the appeasement of Sinn Fein got worse
• Ben Lowry May 22: Instead of ‘moving on’ from IRA funeral, we still need proper answers
• Ben Lowry May 22: If Joel Keys, 19, wants to help unionism he should get a law degree
• Ben Lowry May 15: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism
• Ben Lowry May 8: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old
• Ben Lowry May 8: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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