C: Jen Rossi on Wikipedia under Licence CC-BY-2.0. https://bit.ly/3pGkwZU

Lewis Hamilton: I have long covid, you know

Fascinating, and interesting, on a number of levels, this story:

Mercedes Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton suffered from dizziness after the Hungarian Grand Prix and said “everything got a bit blurry on the podium”.

The seven-time world champion said he was “just so exhausted afterwards” and said it was “one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had on the podium”.

“Real big dizziness and everything got a bit blurry on the podium,” he said.

“I’ve been fighting all year really with staying healthy after what happened at the end of last year, and it’s a battle.”

That was a reference to Hamilton’s end-of-year positive COVID-19 diagnosis that forced him to miss the Sakhir Grand Prix.

He returned for the season finale in Abu Dhabi but was still suffering from some after-effects there.

Some who contract COVID-19 complain of symptoms for a long time afterwards and while Hamilton said he thinks it is “lingering” he admitted he had not spoken to anyone about it properly and did not know if that was his issue in Hungary.

“I remember the effects of when I had it, and I’m training different since then, and the levels of fatigue that you get is different, and it’s a real challenge,” he said.

The first thing to observe here is that if Hamilton is suffering from long covid, as he suggests, it has not impacted his performance dramatically. He’s been as elite a driver this year as he ever has been, capable of doing things in a racing car that very few other people alive could. It might be easy for a lay person to under-estimate how demanding that is, physically, but these athletes spend hours in a very hot cockpit, with their bodies experiencing extreme g-forces. You or I, if we tried, might manage half a lap in one of those cars at full speed before suffering severe neck injuries. Hamilton is one of the fittest men alive, and it is therefore safe to say that if “long covid” is afflicting him, it has not had a massive impact on his performance.

The second thing to say, though, is this: Because Hamilton is one of the fittest men alive, it is worth noting that if he feels that Covid is impacting him noticeably eight months later, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that those of us who are less fit might suffer much more than he has. He did look noticeably drained, dizzy, and weak on the podium yesterday afternoon, which was unusual.

“Long Covid”, of course, is one of those things that is very hard to quantify. There are countless examples – not just in the case of covid – of people suffering viral infections and feeling not quite the same afterwards, sometimes for well over a year. It has been a relatively common complaint amongst people – usually younger people – who experience a bad covid infection.

The problem is that nobody can definitively predict whether somebody will suffer from Long Covid, or what the symptoms will be, or how one can treat it, or how long it might last. In fact, a long covid sufferer may have no obviously identifiable illness at all, even while feeling “not quite themselves”.

As we’ve moved towards greater levels of vaccination, and generally falling case numbers, the alarmist approach to Covid is moving more and more away from “deaths and hospitalisations” towards “the risks of Long Covid”.

The problem, of course, is that we cannot quantify the risks of Long Covid, since some people may have it and not realise (like Hamilton, apparently), others might have something else and think they have it, and frankly, because media reporting constantly hyping long covid might give hypochondriacs something extra to wonder about. It is not something around which you can base public policy – a condition which is unpredictable, unquantifiable, and, apparently, untreatable. It is perfect fodder for alarmists, and, like all of the worst aspects of the pandemic, entirely unchallengeable.

After all, who can say with any certainty whether Hamilton is suffering from “Long Covid” or not? Not even he can, and no doctor can, because he will have no virus in his system. All we can say with any certainty is that there is correlation. He had Covid months back, and feels a bit weaker now. But of course, he is also another year older. He’s 37 now: It would not be shocking if he was just a bit weaker in general than he was four or five years ago.

That’s the main problem with the Long Covid yarn: It might exist (in fact it almost certainly does) but the only way to detect it is via self-reporting. It seems to vary in impact. It cannot be treated because there is nothing except symptoms to treat. This month alone, the UK Government poured £20m into researching Long Covid – because at present, it cannot be independently detected, apart from through self-reporting of persistent symptoms. A chunk of that cash will go towards “better understanding Long Covid and identifying it”. 

But Hamilton’s case is a very good example of the phenomenon, as we presently understand it: He had covid months ago, and does not quite feel like himself. Some are eager to call that “long covid”, but the truth is that no doctor can actually diagnose it.

If you want to worry people, though, and preach “constant vigilance”, Long Covid is the perfect boogeyman. Which is one reason why we will hear more and more about it, in the coming months.

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