Mrs G and I have developed slight colds this week. Barely noticeable, really, and par for the time of year, but one is sensitized by the fact we are under considerable legal constraints to prevent virus infections, so the question of provenance is more interesting than usual.
We live on our own in a little house in the country. The few excursions over the previous week or so were pretty much restricted to my wife’s food shopping, my picking up dog food from the farm supplier, a welcome trip to a near-deserted carvery for lunch, and a church service.
All of those, such as they were, involved careful social distancing and the mandatory face-covering on all sides, except for the meal out, of course, where we munched dutifully at our table and the masked and gloved staff dealt with us in that avoiding-contamination way we’re all getting used to. And that tells me, if the total lack of their impact on national COVID-19 statistics had not already done so, that all these precautions are useless. Viruses are designed to be carried in the air. They’ve had the whole of earth history to learn how.
Why that troubles me is that all the precautions we take give a false sense of security to those who are actually vulnerable. Our church has worked out an extremely careful set of risk-assessments to comply rigorously with government advice and regulations. These severely limit our numbers because the chairs are set out at the kind of distances used to avoid cheating in important exams, cover us in masks (nobody having yet dared to try our exemption for those with health issues), have us squirt our hands on entry, and forbid us to sing, or to confer afterwards. Live music is only due to start next week, when I as a singer will need to have a welder’s mask and a headset, even though yards from the nearest brother.
But all those precautions were true of our other visits, too (no singing in Tescos either!), and we still caught colds, presumably due either to an Adenovirus or to another strain of Corona. When you’re subjected to all those precautions, it’s natural to get some sense of security from them. But I think it’s misplaced, because none of them prevent even large rooms filling with any virus particles that are exhaled.
That is why I’ve been suggesting to my co-leaders that the minimum standard for church should be to tell folk plainly that congregating with others is a risk, which having estimated in their own case, they should decide whether to stay away or accept the hazard. If we view things thus, we will target our prevention on those who miss out in services, perhaps by focusing our pastoral input, or whatever is beneficial to them. Ideally we could then drop the restrictive measures which appear to be more cosmetic than evidence-based, if it were not that we’d no doubt be closed down and fined, even if our members are not so spooked by the last six months that they would insist on even harsher penances.
To be honest, my only comfort in this realization of helplessness is that those attending our well-conducted services with a false sense of security might not actually be better off cowering at home. One of the strong messages of lockdown, with which we’re all familiar, is that nearly every country including the exemplary Sweden let down those vulnerable people in care homes. They both failed in adequate prevention, and criminally sent infected patients there from hospital. It’s important to remember that this was not just the failing of Democratic US mayors, or the NHS, or the Swedish authorities – it seems to have been caused, like so much in this pandemic, by some kind of international policy based on some untraceable expert’s idea of “good practice.”
And so alternative strategies like the Great Barrington Declaration (have you signed? Why not?) quite legitimately propose, as I do for churches, targeting the protection of the vulnerable whilst relaxing things for everybody else. But given the way that viruses jump all the barriers we put in their way, I wonder if there is really any reasonable protection, short of cruel barrier-nursing, that would have prevented what happened in our nursing homes in the spring. We have no experience of success in such circumstances, after all, because in every previous year flu and other respiratory infections have taken their regular winter toll in every care home in the land. As I have repeatedly said, that is why God gave us immune systems rather than social distancing. But he diminishes that support somewhat as we get extremely old, perhaps with good reason.
But hopes of government even attempting focused protection, although so many public health experts have advised it, are vain. Because as we see in Monday’s government announcements, all they have to offer is further lockdowns in assorted sour flavours. And the justification they give is all those new “cases,” and hospitalization rates approaching those we saw in March… though that depends on what part of March you are looking at, on ignoring the slope of the curve, on forgetting that little testing was being done then, and on ignoring the time of year. But rhetorically, it’s good at engendering fear, so they go with it.
In fact, a little delving in the government’s own data is, as always, revealing. And it’s not hard to do simply from the main page I scan daily. Way down that page is a link marked The Excess deaths report. The latest data from this all-cause survey takes us to the last week in September, well into the current “spike.” You’ll have to follow the link because I can’t post the graphics. At the head of that report it says this:
In week 39 2020, no statistically significant excess all-cause mortality by week of death was observed overall through the EuroMOMO algorithm. In the devolved administrations, no statistically significant excess all-cause mortality for all ages was observed for Northern Ireland or Wales in week 39 or for Scotland in week 37.
The graph on that page clearly shows the story. A blue line shows the “average” deaths from year to year. Things like new flu outbreaks may take deaths above this line to cause “excess deaths.” Over to the right, in 2019/20, there’s a big spike corresponding to the COVID outbreak, and a tiny spike (for some other reason) in late summer. The table on the next page shows that, in 2020, outside of the COVID spike, deaths have been slightly above average in only 6 weeks. The rest of the time they have been below average. In other words, after the spike it’s a normal year, and remained so to the end of September, the latest available data. There is literally nothing to see in excess deaths, despite all the positive COVID tests.
The death rate, undoubtedly, is increasing. It remains to be seen if it goes above the usual upswing one can see on the graph in October. But look, if you will, at previous recent years on that graph such as 2016/17 and 2017/18. There are some big spikes there. Deaths are going to have to surge pretty massively to match even those unremarkable years. Before the period of the graph, there have been many far worse flu years, even excluding pandemic years like 1968-9. Quite literally, the government data show there is nothing unusual, so far, about deaths this winter. And not a lot to suggest that will change beyond what was seen in recent years. Everything is looking normal.
Except, that is, for government lockdown activity and the resulting catastrophe. That is unique in the history of the world.