Fear can be fatal. We need to be careful that the fear of Covid-19 doesn’t become more deadly than the virus itself.
Covid-19 is the biggest change we have experienced for generations. And like every major change that is forced upon us, the secret to success is to overcome our fears and begin to accept it.
Yes, this is a serious virus and yes, we should respect it, wear masks and follow social distancing rules. But the constant catastrophising about Covid-19 from our governments and the media is not good for us. It stokes our fears and sets us against one another — to the detriment of us all.
The single most important thing we can do for our own health, wellbeing and prosperity, is to take back control of the most important weapon in our armoury: how we react to this virus.
None of us asked for Covid-19, and like any large change, we can feel powerless in the face of such dramatic disruption. But we are not powerless. We have control over something incredibly powerful — how we react — and this can make all the difference.
The economic, social and personal impact of Covid-19 has been profound and, given the extent of the global reaction, its effects are likely to be felt for some time. It has changed our world in ways that we are yet to grasp fully.
But the last thing we need to be is afraid. Fear will stop us from making the changes we need to make. It will prevent us from making calm, informed decisions.
We need to make sure the pill isn’t worse than the ill.
Rather than lurching from one knee-jerk decision to another, our governments need to pause, take a breath, and look at the bigger picture. Yes this virus is contagious. Yes, it can be fatal, especially among the eldest members of our society and people with underlying conditions. And yes, this virus leaves some of its victims with long-term health implications. All of that is true.
But every action has an equal and opposite reaction: we need to make sure our reaction to this virus isn’t worse than the virus itself.
Focusing on Covid-19 to the detriment of almost everything else has its own set of consequences and affects the health of the entire nation.
Forced isolation through lockdown also endangers people, makes people physically and mentally ill, leaves some of its victims with long-term health implications and impoverishes others. Poverty and unemployment are incredibly bad for your health. In fact, they can be fatal. Social interaction is a critical component of our physical and mental health; we are a social species. Taking that away from our elderly, especially, is dangerous and can even shorten their lives.
Postponing cancer appointments kills people. A young woman I know had a malignant skin cancer cut out of her arm just before the March lockdown. Her follow-up scans were postponed. Twice. Six months on, she has been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer and her oncologist fears it may have spread. She is 24. Breast Cancer Now, a charity, declares that almost a million women have missed a breast screening appointment because of our reaction to the pandemic. How many thousands of people will die, not as a result of Covid-19, but as a result of our panicked reaction to it?
What are we afraid of?
Our government is afraid of appearing inept, ironically. I would argue that politicians are not afraid of actually being inept — it is the perception of ineptitude that terrifies them, as that is the thing that could prevent their re-election. Competent leadership demands clarity, honesty, empathy and confidence born from experience. It requires a clear picture of what we are seeking to achieve — and why. It requires a holistic strategy and genuine understanding of the implications. It requires trust.
But what are we afraid of?
Are we afraid of catching the virus? Well let’s lessen that fear by wearing masks, washing our hands between external interactions, and socially distancing. Perhaps we could also take some comfort in the statistics. The Office of National Statistics latest Infection Survey estimates that around 225,000 people in England had Covid-19 during the week of 25 September to 1 October 2020. That was about one person in every 250.
If we extrapolate that throughout the UK, it means that around 275,000 people had Covid-19 that week and just shy of 66.5m didn’t. This virus is contagious, so please take sensible precautions, but don’t be anxious about it. Anxiety can be extremely detrimental.
Are we afraid of “long Covid”? Some victims of the virus suffer terrible ailments for many months after recovery — severe fatigue, myalgia, breathlessness — and we don’t know how long these symptoms will last.
An estimated 60,000 have been suffering symptoms 12 weeks or more after leaving hospital, according to King’s College London. In August, Imperial College estimated that 3.4 million people have had the virus.
If we assume that number is now five million, then 1–2 per cent of people who have had the virus have suffered from “long Covid”. This surely means that you have a one in 10,000 chance of catching the virus and then suffering from long Covid — about the same odds of being injured by a toilet.
Are we afraid of dying from the disease? Not if you are young (or even younger than 45). The way our governments have reacted to Covid is far more dangerous to your health. Our young are more likely to die from accidents, cancer or suicide. Social isolation and unemployment can have serious long-term consequences. We are in danger of robbing them of their future.
If you are healthy and aged between 54 and 65, you shouldn’t be worried about dying from it, either. To quote a detailed multi-national study in sciencedirect.com: “People <65 years old have very small risks of Covid-19 death, even in pandemic epicenters, and deaths for people <65 years without underlying predisposing conditions are remarkably uncommon.”
Fewer than one in nine deaths from Covid in England and Wales have been younger than 65 — and that figure includes people with underlying conditions. (One per cent of Covid deaths were people aged 44 or younger, 10 per cent were 45–64, 15 per cent were 65–74, 33 per cent were 75–84, and 42 per cent were aged 85 and older. The average age of Covid-19 victims is 82.)
If you are 75 or over, yes, be careful. This can indeed be a deadly disease. But even this fact deserves a little perspective. In England, around 350,000 people aged 75 and over die every year. In 2017, 88,000 of these deaths were directly related to dementia, 74,000 from cancer, 39,000 due to chronic heart disease, and 37,000 from the likes of bronchitis or emphysema. 108,000 were listed as “other deaths”, which included the likes of influenza, pneumonia and ischaemic heart disease.
In comparison, the ONS reports that Covid-19 was listed as the cause of death for around 39,000 people aged 75 or older in the first nine months of 2020 across England and Wales.
This number is significant. Covid-19 can be a nasty and even fatal disease. So can cancer. So can heart disease. So can emphysema, dementia and pneumonia.
I am not trying to belittle the danger of this virus. Several neighbours have been horribly ill with it, for one it was a near death experience, and another friend lost his elderly father to it. And I am definitely not on the side of the lunatic-fringe “anti-mask” brigade. “Freedom” does not include the freedom to put others in danger.
But life is finite and comes with risks. We seem to be in danger of forgetting these simple truths.
What we need is balance. We shouldn’t fear this virus and we shouldn’t overreact to it either. While our government and our media do the latter, we are in danger of succumbing to the former.
Our elderly and people with health problems are vital members of our society. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and to be as safe as possible. But isolation is also dangerous, and surely we can protect our most vulnerable citizens without risking the health and future of the rest of society, especially our young. It’s about balance.
Achieving this will require our media to ditch its sensationalist rhetoric, our government to ditch its knee-jerk policy-making and Orwellian bluster, and for all of us to learn to accept the existence of this virus, taking sensible precautions while dialling the fear down several notches.
In the Embracing Change workshops I run for individuals and organisations worldwide, we discuss that there are things in life (and work) that we simply cannot control. The competence of our government and the hysteria of our media belong in that category. We need to focus on those things that we can control. How we react to change – to Covid-19 — is one of them.
Let’s react to this virus with some perspective and balance. Enough with the fear.
Main image credit: Getty