Two years ago today, the first reports in the West reported the detection in Wuhan, China, of 44 cases of pneumonia of unknown cause. The World Health Organization, which had been alerted a few days earlier, said that “based on preliminary information from the Chinese investigation team, no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission and no infection among health workers have not been reported “. Despite this, Beijing was worried enough to start sealing off Wuhan from the rest of the country. Thus began not only the coronavirus pandemic but also what was to become the universal means of dealing with it: containment.
This strategy of controlling and restricting human contact was considered essential to stop the spread of the disease. Yesterday there were nearly 300 million confirmed cases worldwide and 5.4 million deaths attributed to Covid. The blockages, in other words, haven’t stopped the disease in its tracks, but we’ll never know how much worse it could have been without them.
The point is that a limited range of levers are now operated whenever there is a spike in the cases. We are experiencing another one right now with the rapid escalation of cases related to the omicron variant. Parts of the UK have already taken tougher measures in recent weeks without halting the spread of the virus. In England, Boris Johnson and his ministers have opposed new checks and yet there is grim familiarity about the ongoing debate.
Around the same time last year, the goal was to keep the schools open and yet they were closed a few days after they returned after Christmas. Ministers are adamant this will not happen again, but the signs are worrying. Schools are worried about the prospect of a widespread staff shortage.
Older children who return to school this week will once again be forced to wear masks in class, an imposition that appears to be inconsistent. If the key measure used to determine the level of control is the hospitalization rate, why target children who represent an infinitely small proportion of those who become seriously ill? If the reason is to prevent teachers from contracting Covid, is this a proportionate response to a disease that for the vast majority of people vaccinated will not be much worse than a common cold? If the flu was wreaking havoc in a school, we wouldn’t respond by forcing kids to sit all day in masks, so why is it happening now? Plus, how does it make sense that kids have to do it when office workers don’t?
From the start, the younger generation had to bear a heavy burden to curb Covid despite being almost entirely immune from its worst effects. Have they not suffered enough to spare themselves the misery of wearing a mask, even though ministers say it is a temporary measure until January 26? These deadlines are used to being extended and teachers’ unions are already calling for “urgent measures”, although what they could be, unless schools are closed again, is hard to imagine.
As Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, noted, ministers had previously told MPs that “there is no evidence that masks are effective” in children. So will the government now state what evidence it has to show that this will make a difference?
In addition, will it publish the cost-benefit analysis carried out to establish whether these measures are detrimental to the well-being and mental health of children? If compulsory mask wearing is required to keep schools open, it is a failure of policy and is reflected badly on the educational institution and on the government.
Time and time again, politicians and scientists say that we will have to “live with the virus” and yet this option is not available to the country despite the success of the vaccination program.
People who contract Covid, even mildly, must self-isolate for seven days until they have tested negative, assuming they can get hold of a kit to check. Shouldn’t this period be reduced to five days as in the United States and Germany? If the big problem now is absenteeism, then everything must be done so that people can work and children can go to school normally.