Is Covid-19 making us irrational?

The risks have changed but too few of us understand what that means for our behaviour

I don’t want to start a panic, but I do wonder whether Covid is making people less able to think properly. I’m not talking about those poor individuals who have actually had the disease. I’m talking about (almost) everyone.

An essential part of human survival is the ability to avoid danger. Evolution has given us the sensation of pain as a simple warning when actual harm is present. It has also given us a brain to learn from past mistakes and assess future risks. Covid is complicated. There has been a lot to learn since it first appeared, but no shortage of lessons. And yet far too many people cast aside all reason in favour of dogma.

Whenever there is talk of reducing the restrictions on people who have been vaccinated, someone – often in the media, or given a platform by the media – is quick to respond with the cry: “It’s not fair.”

Maybe it isn’t. But Covid isn’t fair. It discriminates by age. It discriminates by ethnicity. It discriminates by gender. And, very significantly, it discriminates against those with underlying health conditions. The restrictions imposed upon us over the past 16 months weren’t designed with individual fairness in mind. They were designed with the aim of protecting as many of us as possible.

The initial lockdown required most of us to stay at home except for exercise and essential outings – but not all of us. People with extra vulnerabilities were advised to shield themselves even more tightly than the rest of us: they didn’t go to the shops and they couldn’t leave home for exercise. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were some groups who were encouraged to leave home for work. And, if they had children, they were allowed to send their children into school, rather than having to teach them when they returned home.

Discriminating in this way wasn’t fair, for the simple reason that fairness wasn’t an option. Not if we wanted to maximise the chances of survival. So long as Covid continues to be a threat, asking for equality in the way we fight it is ill-considered and, frankly, foolish.

In recent months, Covid vaccines have brought some respite. The most vulnerable people among us have typically gained most from the jab. But that’s not the case for all who are vulnerable. There are those for whom receiving the vaccine would be more dangerous than not receiving it. This group includes people with particular allergies and people who are immuno-compromised. Such individuals have always needed to take more precautions than the rest of the population – and not just because of Covid. It is extremely unfortunate for them. But it makes no more sense, now, to regulate the whole population based on the vulnerabilities of an extreme few than it did in the days before Covid.

I write this a matter of hours before the UK will relax many of the restrictions that have been in place since the pandemic began. The government will scrap its Covid regulations and replace them with guidance. The Prime Minister spoke of people taking “personal responsibility” when he announced the impending change. It was a completely misleading message. A stupid mistake from someone who should have known better – or been advised accordingly.

Placing the emphasis on “personal” responsibility has led many people to think that, if they feel safe – perhaps because they are immunised or in a safe age group – they can stop wearing a mask. They think the only person they are putting at risk is themselves.  How wrong they are!

Face masks are worn to protect others. We have been told, over and over, for the past year or more, that a mask helps to prevent coughs and sneezes spreading out into the surrounding air; it does little to stop the virus getting in. (It’s to do with particle sizes – not because we are wearing the masks inside out.)

A further, more nuanced risk is the development of new variants. A virus – any virus – can mutate as it spreads. When this coronavirus spreads through younger members of society, it may not cause them much harm, but each time it spreads from one person to another there is a risk of a new variant developing – potentially, one that is resistant to the vaccine. If that were to happen, we can expect the lockdown to start all over again. Is that what anyone wants?

Frankly, I despair at the way the current risks are communicated by our government and by the media. When the virus first appeared, the emphasis was, quite rightly, on explaining how we might each reduce our chances of getting seriously ill. Now that the vaccination has taken on the heavy lifting for millions of us, the risk management strategy has to focus on keeping the unvaccinated safe – for their sake and for ours. It’s not a difficult concept to explain or to comprehend. But too few are even trying.

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