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Omicron: Are we controlling Covid, or are we letting Covid control us?

With the sudden emergence of the omicron variant of Covid, Ireland is facing the potential of a second straight Christmas with oppressive Covid-19 restrictions. Just when many of us had thought we could finally glimpse the long-awaited silver lining; that some sense of normality was just around the corner, we’ve been dealt another difficult hand. 

In what is a bitter sense of déjà vu, nightclubs across the nation have once again shuttered their doors, just as they were opening; table service is back; household gatherings have been curtailed; and indoor events have been capped at 50% capacity. Although the government says schools are safe, primary school children as young as nine have been told to mask up for the duration of the lengthy day in the classroom – and in the playground. 

Understandably, parents – along with droves of disenchanted business owners, hospitality bosses and those still standing in the entertainment industry – are imploring the government to give them a break.

The sense of worry around the new omicron variant can in a sense be understood, given that in the two short weeks of its discovery, we have been bombarded with headline after headline about it. A balanced level of caution is justified – given that the number of mutations in the omicron variant (roughly 50) is extremely high. However, the immediate alarmism  – which has included Ireland’s immediate introduction of fresh lockdown measures bang in the month of Christmas – is far from balanced, and is only focused on the limited knowledge and scientific information we have on omicron so far, with little consideration given to the harms of lockdown. 

Only one set of risks, centred completely on the virus, are given primary consideration. There seems to be a lack of concern for those who will face the real toll of restrictions – school children, business owners, the elderly in need of social interaction, those on hospital waiting lists, young people deprived of a social life, to name but a few. The disastrous impact another lockdown would inevitably inflict on ordinary people up and down the country hasn’t really formed part of the conversation for our government or media establishment so far. 

As one reader who bravely penned his story for Gript said: “Covid has delayed my treatment, and destroyed my mental health.” 

37-year old Dwain Schouten shared a story that resonated with many people as he spoke about how his own struggles with mental health were exacerbated by lockdown, with negative thoughts and depression fuelled by being placed on a long waiting list to receive treatment for a severe injury. His treatment was discussed and decided upon after suffering extreme whiplash in an accident, but he was told it would have to be put on the backburner until Covid had passed. Last year, medics said he would be waiting two years before his treatment could begin.

“Automatically I just add a year every time I see either lockdowns or suspensions in services, and all the while, I live with physical pain,” Mr Schouten said. 

“And I guess if we head towards another lockdown, I will be wondering can I make it through again,” he added

His story is real and it’s heartbreaking, and he is not alone. It is a nightmare that is being lived out by so many people in this country who feel their needs are being pushed further and further down the list of priorities, while Covid variants dominate every news bulletin, control the narrative, and form the centre of public policy, postponing vital treatments and causing havoc. 

We must ask ourselves: are we just trying our best to control Covid, or are we letting Covid control us?

Indeed, recent research from the UK showed that British are still suffering an impact on their mental health caused by lockdowns enforced during the Covid-19 crisis. In research commissioned by the charity ‘Walking With The Wounded’  four out of five of those surveyed said they still suffer from the effects of Covid measures on their mental health, equating to over 53 million adults. And those are statistics from a nation which opened up this summer, essentially dropping all restrictions, while we enforced Covid passports and continued to curtail freedoms. 

It comes as no surprise that here in Ireland, a country which has imposed one of the harshest, longest lockdowns of all, demand for mental health supports and suicide prevention services have soared during the 13-month Covid-19 pandemic, according to the country’s first Professor of Public Mental Health, Prof Ella Arensman. 

Despite such worrying statistics on the mental health consequences, it looks like Covid controls will remain in place for the foreseeable, with a full-on lockdown even on the cards for Ireland as well as the UK. HSE Chief Executive Paul Reid hinted at a continuation of the utterly depressing ‘new normal’ this week, stating: “Honestly, they’re (masks, strict social distancing and other measures) going to be needed for a sustained and long period of time.

“We don’t see people not needing to wear a mask, not needing to keep social distancing for some time to come […] They’re matters really for where this pandemic goes over the coming year or so,” Mr Reid said at a press conference.

The fear is that Omicron would place unbearable pressure on Ireland’s hospital system (a concern that has influenced policy worldwide during the Covid crisis). Yet most people in Ireland know that our health system has always struggled to withstand pressure, particularly during the winter. The challenge our health system faces has not emerged from Covid. Rather, Ireland has battled with a lack of capacity in our hospitals for years, despite the OECD warning that we spend more per person on health than any other country in the OECD bar one – yet despite our meteoric spending, we still have the fourth fewest number of hospital beds. It follows then, that the problem is successive Government incompetency, not Covid.

With a hyperfocus on Covid, much less attention is being paid to what we now know – a long and tedious 20 months on – about the real life cost of restrictions and the risks we can now be certain we will be taking if repressive measures are reintroduced.

Consultant medical oncologist in Cork, Professor Seamus O’Reilly, has warned that Ireland will see higher death rates from cancer for the next decade because of the disruption to cancer screening treatment over the last year. It should be noted that cancer treatment trials were down 40%, mammograms were cancelled for 6 months, and just one out of every five cervical checks were attended.

The proposed policy of working from has also come at a significant cost. While working from home brought benefits for many, including better work-life balance, it also led to an increase in domestic violence and abuse, and put increased stress on vulnerable households and relationships. 

A study recently done in the UK showed that 11 per cent of those working from home were victims of domestic abuse compared to 1 per cent of those continuing to work outside the home. This is a real and serious human cost of lockdown measures, one which could be long-lasting.

Further, the harm done to the social and educational development of children has become well established. UK education watchdog, Ofsted, in their annual report for 2020/21, spotlighted this impact, which extended ‘to almost all children’.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman wrote, “Almost all children felt the impact of Covid-19 and the resulting restrictions to some extent. Many of the youngest children had their development and progress hampered, with some even regressing. Given the vital importance to children of a good start in life and the learning potential of the youngest children, this must not be overlooked.”

Differences in children’s physical development were also noted in the report, with a loss in physical confidence among children that had less access to outdoor space during lockdown. Again, this is one lockdown measure that will have persistent consequences. 

A similar picture is painted in Irish schools, with one school principal telling Gript that Covid restrictions have made schools into “cold, harsh places for our children”.

“The harsh Arctic feeling that has taken hold in classrooms is not just only from winter winds blowing through our windows and doors but also from the lack of warmth and compassion that comes through music, drama and dance all of which are impossible to conduct in an Irish classroom today,” the principal wrote.

He added: “This is having a detrimental impact on our children. The inability to freely socialise at school, the encroachment on their liberties and the stifling of the freedom of thought is and will continue to impact negatively on their future. Children are creatures of habit and the lessons we are teaching them today serve no benefit for what is yet to come.” 

The effect of lockdowns and repressive Covid measures on older people borders on unspeakable and is hard to comprehend. As a leading medical expert warned back in 2020, lockdowns have the potential to lead older people to feel life might not be worth living at all — as he criticised the endless, and to this day, persistent, reporting of rising cases being used to ‘terrorise’ people with visions of hundreds of sick and dying people.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time last September, he said: “I think a lot of older people are now expressing the feeling that maybe life isn’t worth living any longer. Because there’s an equipoise now between their enjoyment of life and the lack of family celebrations, community occasions, sporting and cultural events etc.” Prof Rónán Collins also referred to the impact on peoples’ health, stating that increasing numbers of older people were presenting with other illnesses after the lockdown which had been missed.

In light of all the evidence we now have surrounding the impact of lockdown measures and restrictions, I think many of us are in agreement that it’s time to get on living again as far as we possibly can. As we face the dark winter evenings, it’s important that people have the type of support and structure they need. This is something which is provided by having places to go to meet, to share news and friendship, and to support one another — something which is provided by keeping churches, community centres, pubs, and other social venues open. 

Life is a gift and it is worth living. It’s not meant to be lived in a state of fear or constant worry, especially not about a future which none of us can predict. What is clear all around us is that we’ve created and fuelled a culture of fear that seems to be changing our psychology entirely. 

Yes, we must be sensible (measures like antigen testing could provide that sensible alternative to another tedious lockdown) but the truth is that viruses always keep evolving, and it’s almost impossible to really suppress a virus. Covid, in whatever new variant emerges, is here to stay. 

It’s important to note the examples above are all guaranteed costs of another lockdown. 

We can be sure they will happen because this is robust information we now have from the past (as opposed to any predictions that may be made about the future). Any decision to reimpose restrictions such as bans on public gatherings and working from home orders should only be made in full awareness that these consequences are real and inevitable. The question is, how can they possibly be justified?

Rather than the imposition of another soul-destroying lockdown —18 months on from the first one – it’s time Ireland starts learning to live with Covid.

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