We need to ask ourselves how much death from Covid-19 is acceptable

IT’S time for a difficult conversation.

Gary Burgess, ITV journalist and columnist for JEP                                                             Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30745787)
Gary Burgess, ITV journalist and columnist for JEP Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30745787)

Just how much death from Covid-19 is acceptable for Jersey?

So far, 69 people have lost their lives after testing positive for coronavirus since the pandemic began last spring.

A year on, we know a lot more about the virus and the disease it causes, and the profile of the risk it poses is changing significantly, almost by the day, thanks to the roll-out of the vaccination programme in the Island.

Let me get it said upfront, I’m no reckless ‘fling open the doors and abandon all precautions’ proponent. Indeed, I am a clinically vulnerable person who has every cause to consider the threats posed. But, as I’ve followed events and reported on them in detail over the past 12 months, it’s become second nature to me to closely observe the research and data as it becomes available.

On that basis, I think we all have real cause to feel hopeful and confident about the weeks and months ahead.

Anyhow, back to that difficult conversation.

In a ‘normal’ year in the UK, around 9,000 people die of seasonal flu. In a bad year, mostly over winter, that can reach 20,000 deaths. It’s a stark number, but it’s also worth reminding ourselves that it is something we have become socially programmed to accept as a normal part of life. Viruses happen. People die. The question is where the balance lies between what we accept in exchange for our freedoms.

In Jersey, that number is around half a dozen people annually.

If we make that mental leap with coronavirus, what is the number we should accept? How many people dying with Covid-19 in a society where things are, broadly, back to normal is bearable? It sounds inhuman to talk in these terms. Indeed, previously I have written about the need to remember that those who have died are people and not just statistics. But, it really is a conversation we need to have.

Israel offers the best ‘testbed’ for Jersey right now of the efficacy of vaccinations. They have the highest rate of vaccinations given per 100,000 people – currently 120. But Jersey sits an impressive third in the world at 72, ahead of the UK, US and most of the rest of the planet with its roll-out.

There are some incredible graphs available online that show what’s been happening in Israel. As each age tier has been vaccinated, you can literally see the fall in cases of Covid-19 and then the subsequent hospitalisations and deaths. Each age line falls a few weeks after the previous one, as different age groups get their jabs. Never in my life has looking at a graph made me well up with emotion, but this did. It’s data-driven evidence, not opinion or anecdote. Indeed, at the weekend Israel reported zero deaths for the first time in ten months.

Now, at this point I do need to inject caution. As we have been told, to lift all restrictions suddenly while swathes of the population still haven’t been jabbed would be reckless and risk an outbreak among younger people and a scenario where new variants could mutate.

Which is why the step-by-step approach makes sense.

It’s what Jersey is now doing and, so far, at every step of what the government calls its ‘reconnection’, there has been no new outbreak. It’s been four weeks since there was last a community case of coronavirus in the Island. All known cases (as of the weekend when I am writing this piece) were caught at the border.

This week’s new variable is the return of the traffic light system at the border. But even that is slow and steady. Just 400 people arrived at the border yesterday. Some 2,500 people are expected all week. So this isn’t some day one free-for-all with the world and his dog flocking to Jersey. Most of the flights don’t properly return until late May or early June so, again, we have the chance to take things at a sensible pace.

We need to get our heads to the place where we accept a new reality, and that is the fact coronavirus is now endemic. That means it’s here and won’t be disappearing. But the important difference is that the vast majority of people won’t catch Covid-19, and even for the few who do, the vast majority will now experience something similar to seasonal flu and avoid the need to go to hospital.

The risk profile now versus a year ago is completely different.

For the small number who may end up in hospital, even there the knowledge base has changed dramatically. Therapeutics that can be administered to make a difference are of a different order to spring last year. Even the question of the benefits or otherwise of being attached to a ventilator have changed.

But amid all this hope we all have a huge role to play.

It is just patently obvious that washing our hands more, keeping our distance from other people and wearing a mask to create a shield to prevent our own aerosol of droplets spraying into the ether will protect us from any kind of virus.

It’s why so many countries, particularly Asian countries, have got used to doing this as a matter of course. It has the effect of reducing rates of so many viral diseases dramatically.

As will the way we all have learned to take greater responsibility for not infecting other people. You may, like me, have in the past dragged yourself into work coughing and spluttering with flu because it’s what you did. You soldiered on. That you then likely caused colleagues to get ill was accepted, even if some people thought you inconsiderate.

Those days have gone.

Every employer in the Island would now, surely, expect their employee to stay at home. Indeed, for many working in an office-based role it now doesn’t even mean there’s a need to be off work, as the working-from-home protocols can easily kick back in.

My point is, we’ve ALL learned so much over this past year. Arguably, we’ve all become individual public-health ambassadors through our actions.

That difficult conversation about living with coronavirus. We need to get to the point where we accept a small number of people will fall ill but that, hopefully, either no or barely a handful of people will die from it annually. The other side of that social contract is that society gets back its freedoms back by being part of the vaccination programme and by maintaining good hygiene habits.

It all means, ultimately, we can collectively look back on the past 12 months with horror at the harms it wreaked, but also with pride in what we did individually and collectively to get Jersey to the place it is now, and the relatively normality we can and should expect to enjoy in the months ahead.

For more comment and opinion pieces, see today's Jersey Evening Post.

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