One of the most fascinating bits of Irish Covid data came recently from somebody who is neither a journalist, politician, or scientist. In fact, he’s just a guy on twitter who pulls together stats for fun. Take a look:
In past 14 days, the number of cases is equal to the first 185 days of reported cases. The health outcomes as a "% of cases" has vastly improved
Hospital down 71%
ICU down 87%
Death down 95%
Not a reason to relax but also not a reason to panic either pic.twitter.com/j6xck4ayzN
— Conor (@RiochtConor2) October 29, 2021
In simple terms: Our case rate is vastly higher now than it was in the early stages of the pandemic, but the impact of those cases on our health service, and our lives, is very much less severe. Why? Well there are three overlapping explanations, all of them true and working together:
First, it has been widely documented that the average age of an infected person today is much lower than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. Covid has always been disproportionately lethal to the very old and very sick. We have gotten better at protecting those people, and those who are getting sick today tend to be younger, healthier, and at much less risk. What we are seeing here is the impact of Covid on a healthy population with strong natural and acquired immunity levels. And what we are seeing is not vastly worse than what we might expect to see from a bad flu.
Second, the disease itself has become less lethal over time. The vaunted Delta variant, for example, is much more transmissible, but much less lethal, than the original virus.
Third, the vaccines have made an appreciable difference to hospitalisation and death rates in every country in the world where such data has been measured. Though recent studies suggest that they do not prevent transmission very well at all (completely undermining the case for vaccine passports) the overwhelming evidence is that they reduce your chances of serious illness dramatically.
To the extent that there is “pressure on the health service”, then, it comes from the sheer volume of cases, not the lethality of the virus. Only 0.1% of those testing positive is ending up in an ICU bed. That’s remarkably low, but it remains a problem if cases explode. And a problem, perhaps, if the current covid wave was to be accompanied by a bad flu season at the same time.
But ultimately, that is a health service capacity issue, not a covid issue.
None of this, however, has stopped the panic. Consider that the most-read article in the Irish Times last Thursday was by Professor Ruairi Brugha of the Royal College of Surgeons. “Ireland is on the cusp of yet another covid related disaster”, he warned. Most of the article, though, is not about numbers, and instead focuses on calls for draconian extensions of state power, up to and including demands for removing drunk people from pubs:
“Those who sell alcohol and their advocates must take responsibility for preventing the excessive intake of alcohol on their premises, which is the single biggest factor leading to the breakdown of mask-wearing and social distancing.
There have been 30 or more revisions of the Government’s reopening guidelines for pubs in 16 months, and still no inclusion of guidance for pubs to prevent excessive alcohol consumption or eject those who are drunk. New guidelines for nightclubs also ignore the elephant in the room – drunken customers who refuse to comply with staff requests to use preventive measures.”
The problem here – aside from the regular pursuit of bizarrely authoritarian ideas like this one, which have no direct relationship to covid case numbers – is that much of Ireland’s establishment, and a big chunk of Ireland’s voters, are still treating Covid is if the date was March, 2020. We are almost alone in the world in taking that approach.
Over time, Covid has become a much less lethal, and much more manageable, illness. That is because of a combination of growing natural and vaccine provided immunity, natural weakening of the virus, and better treatments and early interventions.
Yet, to listen to coverage of the pandemic in Ireland, you would think that daily case numbers was still a useful metric. The Irish media bears much of the blame for that, but most of the blame lies with the medical establishment and NPHET, who have consistently and publicly refused to discuss the very real wins Ireland has had in the war on Covid, and instead pretended that a case today is the same as a case in 2020.
Until that cycle is broken, the cycle of public panic will remain as potent as ever. We are caught on a hamster wheel here, and we simply refuse to get off it.