by Guy de la Bédoyère
I wonder how helpful at this stage Dr Alberto Giubilini’s article really is. It belongs to a range of claims that one group or another has suffered more or less than others either from lockdowns or other Covid-suppression measures. In this case, he argues that the young have been hit more than anyone else in the Government’s quest to make us all pay the price for Covid in the interests of ideological moralism.
Some of what he says is true. I certainly agree with him that the media’s obsession with trying to find unrepresentative stories about younger people dying from Covid in an attempt to make a false extrapolation that ‘we’re all in it together’ is grossly misleading. The data, as he says, speaks for itself and only in this last week we have learned the sad fact that 60% percent of Covid-related deaths in the last year in the UK have occurred to the disabled, confirmed by the ONS. And it is absolutely correct that young people’s lives and prospects are being devastated for the sake of something that barely affects them. With four adult children of my own, all in their thirties, I am painfully aware of the impact of lockdowns and other restrictions on their lives and those of their own children.
But it is not that simple.
In the most recent edition of New Statesman, the resident medic Dr. Phil Whitaker, paints in his weekly column a sentimental and self-regarding picture of elderly ‘survivors’ coming for their vaccines and drowning him and his colleagues in effusive thanks. Reinforcing the notion that there is an unfair conflict of interest at play, he says of his elderly patients who have arrived to be vaccinated:
They must be all too aware of the strand of opinion that bemoans what society has borne in order to protect them. The vaccine offers the chance to leave such commentary behind. They have survived a year of Covid – unlike the 110,000 who have, to date, succumbed.
The disparaging tone in the reference to ‘the strand of opinion’ is all too obvious. We should all have willingly sacrificed everything.
What both Whitaker and Giubilini overlook is that it will be a long time, especially with the young, before we can really assess the relative impact of all the measures. It would be more constructive at this point, especially with our concerns about the impact of Government measures, to consider how lockdowns have affected everyone but in very different ways, including – crucially – the elderly.
The over-75s in this country are a much larger cohort than ever before. This is a consequence of modern medical intervention, improved housing, better pensions (for some), and general living standards. It has not altered longevity in the sense that human beings cannot live longer than they ever could, merely that more have a better chance of doing so.
By definition the over-75 cohort is packed with people who suffer in some way either from existing illnesses or conditions or an increasing individual threat of such afflictions. That is why in normal times they dominate hospital admissions and deaths. Of the 1,500-1,600 normal deaths per day in the UK around two-thirds are from that group.
The Government has successfully presented protection of the elderly and vulnerable as the prime justification for Covid restrictions and especially the lockdowns. The dominant impact of Covid on that age group is clear for all to see now, a year on into this nightmare. But this has unhelpfully fuelled the sense of injustice that Alberto Giubilini explains.
It’s obvious, if you think about it, that elderly people are in fact just as likely to have been hit by Covid restrictions but in different ways to young people. As those most in need of medical treatment for existing or incipient medical conditions the elderly are the ones far more likely to have not sought medical treatment for fear of overloading the NHS (another effect of Government propaganda), or because they were so terrorised by the disease they dare not go to hospital (a very reasonable fear as it turns out).
They also may not, indeed probably have not, been offered medical treatment. They may even have been actively denied it. I can count my aged father among the latter. He has been vaccinated but has also been told his failing eyesight won’t be treated as he is ‘too old’ (he’s 86). The post-Covid NHS may be in such a state of understaffed dereliction the health impacts for these people may affect them for the rest of their lives.
The level of collateral premature deaths and serious illness caused by these factors over the longer term is something we all, and especially the Government, await with dread.
There is anecdotal evidence that even the elderly with Covid are not being treated in preference to using scarce resources for those with a better chance of survival, though I suspect it will be a long time before anyone finds out whether that is true, or the extent.
On top of all that, the massive restrictions have had a huge impact on the elderly even if still in good health. The fear levels for some are through the roof, many terrified of going out of the front door, and the current media obsession with vaccine-resistant mutations means that peace of mind is being made elusive once again.
The elderly have been denied access to their families, often of far greater importance at their age when travel and other diversions have become more difficult to manage. Those in care homes have been reduced to a state of imprisonment, in some cases to virtual solitary confinement. As an age group they are less likely to be familiar with ICT and therefore less able to take advantage of the miserable electronic substitute consultations available.
For all these people the last year and the nebulous number of lockdown months to come are a smaller proportion of their total lives than of the lives of young people, but all things are relative. The time is a far larger proportion of what the elderly have left, and it was abruptly pulled from under their feet. Take a nonagenarian in a care home who may only have a year or less to live in the natural course of events. The closing part of her life has been reduced to a studied exercise in emotional brutality, made even worse if she suffers from dementia and depends on regular visits from a family member to give her any quality of life. To this there as yet seems no end in sight.
Even those elderly and vulnerable who have been lucky enough to be given treatment in a hospital for an existing condition suffer. They have a high chance of catching Covid as indeed every one of my elderly neighbours who has been admitted to hospital in the last year for other conditions has done so. They are denied visits from family members until the point of death.
The trope subsists that the elderly and vulnerable are only threatened by Covid and that everyone else should willingly sacrifice everything to save them from that threat. The huge threats to their lives as a direct result of lockdowns are overlooked. Some medical personnel conveniently ignore their role in denying treatment for other conditions, while depicting themselves as vaccine saviours. It’s a handy way of deflecting attention from their contribution to making a bad situation worse than it already was.
Now, I am not for one moment arguing that the impact of lockdowns is worse for elderly people than the young. I am simply pointing out that the effects are different and in their own way just as great. For a young person the effects may well be serious, even devastating, now and perhaps for years to come but are unlikely to dominate the majority of the rest of their lives. I hope. For some of the elderly their latter days are being destroyed and may ruin the whole of the rest of their lives. And don’t think they are immune to the financial consequences of a collapsing economy either. Their savings may disappear in elevated care home costs, private healthcare, bankrolling their adult children’s destroyed businesses and mortgages, or paying up to feed their grandchildren.
Up till now the defence of the elderly and vulnerable has been consistently wheeled out by the Government as the justification for lockdowns. That’s only part of the story, and both misleading to them and everyone else when taken wholly out of the wider context. We are all losing out on a monumental scale even if the disease has hit society very unequally and we are all set to lose out a great deal more if this goes on much longer. In that sense, it is a quite remarkable achievement to have dealt with Covid by imposing collateral fallout across society in general, regardless of age or conditions. It is surely one of the greatest acts of self-harm any society has ever achieved.
In the same edition of New Statesman, Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist behind the Covid Symptom Study App, commented:
We and politicians and the media have become over-focused on the deaths from Covid. When we do the final reckoning of this, I think we’ll have a different view. If you take a holistic view, I think we will look back on this period and realise how it’s very hard for humans to react beyond immediate risk.
Understanding how we got here, and the extent to which we are all being damaged by the measures, but in what different ways, is a much more useful lever for finding an exit from lockdowns rather than arguing over who has lost out the most, which at this stage we cannot possibly calculate. The costs of lockdowns have meant that we are all in it together now, just as Alberto Giubilini noted, but I don’t agree with him that arguing the lockdowns mainly discriminate against the young is going to help us out.
The much stronger argument now is that the impact of lockdown measures has been so wide-ranging that everyone, even the elderly and vulnerable, have lost out to an unacceptable degree with the damage permeating everywhere. Our response now should be to act together in our collective interest of coming to terms with the disease by mitigating and treating it and returning to a manageable normality, not indulging in competitive victimhood.