Cyprus Mail

Coronavirus: Stuck in a permanent state of emergency


The question now has to be ‘How do we get out of this? What’s the exit strategy?’.

It’s been often said that, when governments gain new powers, they’re extremely loath to relinquish them. But the time has come to let them go, so how do we manage that?

It may seem odd to be talking about exit strategies when Covid-19 cases are higher than ever. Yet the Omicron surge has also shown that the vaccination-based model that was touted for most of 2021 is not going to work as a long-term solution.

Vaccination doesn’t prevent infection or transmission of Covid. This is now clear, though arguments of the ‘Imagine how much worse it would be…’ school continue to proliferate, as they do for lockdowns.

It may well be that vaccines help slightly with transmission, as the vaccinated tend to clear the infection more quickly. Still, when you have over 80 per cent of adults fully vaccinated, when you’ve sidelined the unvaccinated and locked them out of public life (making them test even when they do venture out), and you still end up not just with numbers, but record-breaking numbers, it’s clear that the unvaccinated can’t be driving the spread.

Indeed, the narrative in most countries has already shifted to insisting that vaccines help prevent serious illness, though you can still get infected.

This is true, albeit with caveats. First, the protection eventually expires. Second, most Covid cases are mild anyway. Third, treatment will always be a better option because it can be tailored to a patient’s particular needs. Fourth, though vaccines help, they’re no magic bullet. Recent data from the UKHSA in England (Vaccine Surveillance Report, Week 51, p.38) shows 70 per cent of deaths in the double-vaccinated.

The larger point, however, is whether the vaccination regime that’s been put in place – proof of vaccination required to access public places, and even workplaces; mandatory vaccination in some European countries – can still be justified if the jab offers only personal protection.

It’s unclear if the state can intervene in our personal health decisions, absent a compelling social reason – even when those decisions seem irrational. Drinking alcohol, for instance, is clearly unhealthy, yet Prohibition as it existed in the 1920s now seems unthinkable. If the plainly irrational risk/benefit calculation for alcohol (putting something in your body that’s bad for you, but gives you pleasure) is allowed, surely the more responsible calculation for a Covid vaccine (wondering whether to put something in your body, in the absence of long-term data) should also be allowed?

The counter-argument is that there is a social reason, because vaccination means fewer people get seriously ill and more hospital beds are available. However, this argument has some problems.

First, it takes something which is the state’s responsibility (healthcare) and shifts the burden to the individual citizen. (It’s akin to mandating that people should drive less because it wears out the roads.) Second, it ignores the stratified nature of Covid, which poses different risks to different demographics. Vaccinating those at-risk should be enough to save the hospitals, without forcing it on younger people.

Thirdly, of course, Omicron has muddied the waters by hitting the vaccinated just as hard as the unvaccinated and being less severe for almost everyone. That last part isn’t entirely done-and-dusted yet – hospitalisations are high in some countries, though whether ‘from Covid’ or ‘with Covid’ is unknown – but this does seem to be an unusually mild (and infectious) variant, making vaccine-based restrictions even more questionable.

Some might argue that restrictions should nonetheless stay in place for the next variant, which is surely coming soon. We got lucky with Omicron, but we may not be so lucky next time.

That, however, is tantamount to saying that restrictions should stay in place forever. There will always be a ‘next variant’. This is the precautionary principle run amuck, and shouldn’t be allowed to divide our society.

Even those who disagree with the reasoning so far presumably accept that the SafePass regime must be dropped at some point – but if so, when? How do we actually get out of this? The latest measures (the unofficial ‘lockdown of the unvaccinated’, requiring at least one shot to access cultural and hospitality venues) are due to expire on February 17. Will they simply be renewed, without further ado?

It seems clear that Covid cases won’t magically drop to zero, at least not in winter (and every winter). So what will it take? We already had a few weeks of relative calm, last September and October when cases were low, yet virtually nothing changed – not even obvious over-reactions like the outdoor mask mandate.

As already mentioned, once a government gets its hands on new powers it’s invariably unwilling to give them up. The other problem, as the past two years have amply shown, is that our government has no mind of its own. At almost every juncture, we’ve simply copied whatever bigger countries do.

Do we therefore have to wait and see what Greece does? Do we wait for some signal from the EU before anything changes? If so, it doesn’t seem very likely. EU ‘leaders’ like France and Germany are among the most draconian vaccine regimes at the moment.

Do we wait for the WHO to declare Covid endemic? But that might take years – and why shouldn’t a small country make its own decisions based on its own specific situation, anyway?

If our government won’t voluntarily raise the issue of scaling back measures (and really, why would it?), it’s important that other institutions pick up the slack. Parliament could be far more proactive, for instance. Akel has always been happy to challenge and oppose the government on everything from labour disputes to the Cyprus problem. Why is it so quiet on the issue of vaccine passports?

The media could also start questioning the vaccine regime more aggressively; not in the sense of being irresponsible, just by thinking more about the long term.

We’ve been stuck in a permanent ‘state of emergency’ for almost two years now. The first year was spent waiting for vaccines to arrive, after which the emergency would be over. Then they did arrive, and nothing changed – in fact, the emergency got worse. So where does it end?

With Omicron having altered the dynamic, it may be time to take a step back and think about the future – and to ask ourselves what kind of future we want. Otherwise we risk becoming trapped in an endless present.

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