Is there an “acceptable level” of Covid deaths?

The last time I was involved in a car accident, it was November of 2015, and the main cause of the accident was that I left my wallet in my office and had to run back inside to get it. My now-wife and I were due, that evening, to have dinner in a nice restaurant. It might have spoiled the mood, I worried, had I pulled the old “I left my wallet in the office” excuse when it came time to pay the bill.

In any case, the time it took me to run back inside the office and pick up my wallet was about thirty seconds to a minute. Had I not forgotten it, I would have been ahead of the gentleman in the pick-up truck when he braked suddenly on a wet road, to turn right, and not behind him. In truth, I was probably trying to make up that lost minute, going too fast, and too ambitious on the brakes. At least, in the end, I avoided paying for dinner.

The point is this: Any event has innumerable causes, and countless little things that, were they to happen differently, would change the outcome. Forgetting my wallet was not the main cause of the accident – that was my poor braking decision – but it was a key cause nonetheless. Had I not forgotten it, the accident, most likely, would not have happened.

The reason that little parable comes to mind is this tweet from the venerable and respected former Irish Times journalist, Michael O’Regan, on the topic of Covid deaths:

Is there, in fact, an acceptable level of covid death? If the answer to that question is “no”, then the logical implication is that restrictions on normal human behaviour to limit or prevent the transmission of the virus must remain in place until such time as the virus is a threat to nobody’s life. If there is no acceptable number of deaths, then every death is unacceptable, and Government has a duty to prevent it.

And yet, if you answer that “yes, there is an acceptable level of covid death”, then you are basically telling the families of those who die that their loved ones perished, but their deaths were acceptable. Which, alas, would make you sound like an ass, at least without broader context.

But of course, there is indeed an acceptable level of covid illness and death. Indeed, right at the outset of the pandemic, everybody agreed that this was the case. “Flatten the curve” was the original stated aim of lockdowns and restrictions. A flat curve is not a non-existent curve. With a flat curve, you have some level of infection, transmission, and mortality. The explicit aim of Government policy was always to keep those figures down at manageable – and therefore acceptable – levels.

Had I, in 2015, not forgotten my wallet, I would not have had an accident. But on countless occasions since, I have forgotten a phone, or a wallet, or even car keys, without having an accident. In fact, for all I know, forgetting something may on occasion have saved me from having an accident. A few seconds later on the road, not being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so on. The point is this: Risks cannot be eliminated. Every time you get behind the wheel of a car, death could be waiting around the next bend. Every time you approach a set of stairs, a fatal trip and fall could be waiting for you.

So it is with Government and lockdowns. Had the Government not relaxed restrictions last Christmas, would Ireland have seen the enormous winter surge in hospitalisations, cases and deaths? Lots of people are very certain that the answer to that question is “yes” – but there is little evidence for it. After all, few if any countries avoided that surge, regardless of their policies. Even had restrictions not been lifted, many people would have ignored them anyway, such is the human desire to see our families and friends at certain times of the year. Perhaps the peak of the disease would have been lower, but it is hard to imagine that the course of our history would have been radically altered. Most things of this nature are beyond our control, just like our inability to see around the next bend in the road.

The problem with Michael’s tweet therefore is not the question itself, but the assumptions behind it. The idea that there is or is not an acceptable level of covid deaths relies on the idea that the Government, like the almighty, can prevent every covid death. It cannot.

In life, matters of life and death come down to chance. Lots of people who have been very careful about covid have gotten it anyway, and died. Others who have ignored the restrictions from the start, and thought the whole thing was fake, have managed to avoid getting it. Some of them probably forgot their wallets, and missed sitting beside an infected person. When Ireland is fully re-opened, some people, tragically, will still lose their lives from Covid. Some of them will have been vaccinated. Others may be young. But many, many more people, thanks to natural immunity, the vaccine programme, and the reduced lethality of the most recent variants, will recover. Every year, about one in a thousand people who get the flu will die. We consider that acceptable. Or, more accurately, we put up with it. A similar level of deaths from Covid is something we should put up with as well.

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