We are currently hearing a lot of speculation about a possible third wave of COVID-19 and why this means we must be cautious about how we come out of lockdown. It has been suggested that if a third wave hits then this could lead to a return to previous restrictions and a longer period of social distancing and face masks. The possibility is based on observations about what is happening elsewhere in the world and what we have already seen in terms of how the virus transmits when restrictions are not in place.
However, that’s not really enough information for us to make decisions. You see, if the virus transmits rapidly and infects lots of people but it is primarily experienced with minimal symptoms then, that isn’t a problem. The only problem comes if it leads to a level of serious infection that risks causing our emergency services to be overwhelmed through full wards and ICUs and then from there a high mortality rate again.
It is important to emphasise this for both sides of the lockdown debate, especially in church circles. There remain those who want to see strict lockdown measures for months ahead out of concern for a third wave but actually, the third wave only becomes problematic if it puts pressure on our hospitals. Yet at the same time, there are those who have persistently argued through the virus that we should ignore restrictions and get our churches open because after all, why should we allow our lives to be ruled by the fear of a 1 in 100 chance of dying. The problem with that argument is that it misses the point that if I become seriously ill, then yes for me there is no worry, I know that if I die I will be with the Lord but in the intervening period I am likely to take up a hospital bed and a ventilator, I’m going to put the treatment of others at risk and I’m going to put friends and relatives into potentially a distressing situation. Indeed, it is possible that I will recover from serious illness but be left with the long term affects which again will put a burden on others.
So, it is not enough to know that there is the probability of a third wave or even how many will be infected. We need to know some more specific things as we make decisions. The two questions that need to be answered are:
- How effective is the vaccine at reducing the risk of serious illness and hospitalisations? If it is effective then whilst infections may increase, then that will still not justify restrictive measures.
- What is the probability of an escape mutation that completely evades immunity rendering vaccines completely ineffective and/or at the same time is more deadly so that it risks causing severe illness and death to a wider section of society?
To answer those questions we need more that computer graphics and soundbites. We need to hear, in detail from the specific experts best able to answer those questions. Indeed, just as at the start, there was a risk of listening to anyone who was a scientist or doctor when we needed to hear from epidemiologists who know how epidemics and pandemics work, so too, there is a risk now at listening to any quote from someone within the broader medical/scientific community. Dare I suggest that even asking an epidemiologist isn’t going to get to the specific expertise needed. They may be able to offer us models and predictions based on comparable data. However here we need those with particular expertise in microbiology and in the specific virus and its treatments. Until those people comment on a specific projection or a specific mutation then we have to acknowledge that we don’t know how the pandemic will finally pan out.