COVID: not a time to let our guard down

Today’s considerable number of infections - which would have shocked the nation two years ago or less – now hardly even makes the news headlines

Looking back over the past year, there can be little doubt that the COVID-19 vaccination drive was an overwhelming success. Consider, for instance, that today’s figures – with five deaths and 488 total cases yesterday; up from 315, on Sunday – are entirely analogous to the statistics being reported in June 2021.

Yet unlike this time last year. there is no discernible corresponding public alarm, of the kind that prompted emergency health restrictions over the past two years. Indeed, the ‘return to normality’ has (so far, at least) been a far smother transition than most had anticipated. Not only has social distancing almost become a ’thing of the past’; but despite the sharp increase in cases over the past month, the rate of hospitalisation – and even more so, fatalities – has remained conspicuously low.

So low, in fact, that today’s considerable number of infections - which would have shocked the nation two years ago or less – now hardly even makes the news headlines.

And this is, after all, as it should be; for it was all along the mortality rate of COVID-19 – and not its rate of transmission – that was cause for legitimate concern. So if governments, worldwide, resorted to such draconian restrictions as lock-downs, and enforced quarantine; it was because their health services were being overrun, by a disease which often proved fatal among vulnerable sufferers.

But with the threat of death now greatly reduced – as a result, it must be stressed, of the success of the vaccine – the disease itself becomes no more (or less) threatening than other illnesses we are more accustomed to: including seasonal influenza.

Nonetheless - and for much the same reason – it would be unwise to lower our guard against COVID-19, at this delicate stage.  While there is certainly no reason to panic at the latest figures- or to reintroduce emergency restrictions, which served their purpose at earlier stages of the pandemic; especially before the availability of vaccines and boosters -  there are still good reasons to remain vigilant.

For even if the virus is becoming less deadly, the latest Omicron variant not only spreads though the community more quickly; but it is more likely to re-infect victims, and break down vaccine defences.    

Therefore it is of crucial importance that vulnerable categories such as the elderly, or immuno-compromised individuals, retain the high levels of protection which can only be accorded by regular boosters.  

In this sense it is positive that those who missed their appointment to receive the second COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, will receive another invitation next week.  The reality is that some people (in particular, the elderly) will once again be at risk of hospitalisation and death, if the booster intake is low; especially in a situation where the rest of the population has lowered its guard.    

The government should facilitate the process by ensuring that applicants for the booster are given appointments as close as possible to where they live; and where necessary, to set up temporary vaccination centres in strategic locations.  

It simply does not make sense to expect vulnerable people to travel long distances, for what might prove to be a life-saving medical treatment.  

Secondly, amidst the latest surge in cases, the government should embark on an education campaign based on courtesy, and common sense. Moreover, all the public health gains made during the pandemic should not be simply thrown to the wind.  For example, it is regrettable that sanitizers have been removed from a number of establishments: including restaurants, offices, cafes and even supermarkets.  

The use of sanitizers is not only effective against COVID-19, but also against the spread of other diseases: including the seasonal flu, H1N1, colds and other viral- and bacterial-based diseases.   In this sense the government should consider ways to ensure that this positive legacy of the pandemic becomes part of our new ‘normal’.  

And while people can always use their own sanitizer, having sanitizers readily available in places where people congregate serves as a great incentive for their use.  Other positive legacies include avoiding unnecessary handshakes, and physical contact; not to mention maintaining social distancing – for example, in the form of seating arrangements - at public events.  

While one can understand that mask-wearing is uncomfortable in the summer months; and that people are relishing the freedom after months of obligatory mask-wearing, the government should seriously consider re-introducing obligatory masks in restricted environments: such as public transport, where people are in very close proximity to each other; even closer than in shops and supermarkets.   

The reality now is that very few people are wearing masks on buses; and this may well be contributing to the recent spike.  

Ultimately, we do not have any choice but to live with a virus which keeps constantly evolving.  Yet we should always remember that, if we can now do so safely, it is for two reasons: first, because the vaccines have boosted our defences, making infection less deadly; and secondly, because we have learned, over the past two years, to take extra sanitary precautions.  

We should not forget the lessons we have learned, in the rush to return to normality.