John Roughan: The real meaning of freedom in a Covid-19 world

OPINION:

Boris Johnson has declared this coming Monday to be “Freedom Day” in Britain, inviting scorn from those who point out the place is far from free of Covid-19. But that is the point. Freedom Day marks a decision to live – really live – with a vaccine and a virus that is not going away.

Nobody can really live in a sanitarium, no matter how free they are to move around within it, how pleasant the environs may be or how enjoyable its games. Living requires the courage to be free, to breathe the air we share with the rest of the biosphere and be trusted to act in the best interests of our own health and others’.

Freedom returns when a state provides a vaccine to everybody who wants one and reopens to the world. London, the most international of cities, is almost there.

The crowd in Wembley Stadium last Sunday was not masking the excitement, then agony, on English faces or the glee of the many Italians present. Masks were still dutifully worn inside the grand halls of the All England Tennis Club, but not by the cosmopolitan crowds in Wimbledon’s stands, even when the roof was closed during a fortnight of mostly dismal weather.

The virus meanwhile is doing what viruses do – mutating and forming new variants, some of them far better at connecting with the cells of human respiratory tissue than the original invader was. Covid-19’s Delta variant is reckoned to be reproducing at eight times the rate of the original.

But so far vaccines against Covid-19 are proving effective at reducing rates of serious illness and death from the new variants, if not their infection rates. Britain was recording around 30,000 new cases a day last week and their health minister says the number could climb to 100,000 a day during this northern summer. “Coronavirus is not going away,” he said.

With 66 per cent of its adult population fully vaccinated, Britain is still some way below the levels epidemiologists reckon necessary for herd immunity but its Prime Minister has enough confidence in vaccines to declare there will be no more mandatory lockdowns and restrictions.

Politically it is brave. He knows news media will continue to highlight the number of “cases” (of infection) rather than the numbers in hospital, and every time the daily infection rate soars cynics will recall his “Freedom Day”.

But he probably counts on the public no longer being alarmed by infection rates so long as very few cases end up in hospital. The vaccine seems to be effective in that way and infections may actually help. The New York Times noted this week that rising rates of infection among young people, who tend to suffer less seriously, could eventually provide Britain with a higher level of immunity.

Never have the antipodes seemed so far away and so far behind. Here in the sanitaria of the South Pacific we’re still counting ourselves fortunate to be free from one lockdown to the next. Our vaccination programmes have been given no urgency. New Zealand’s is accurately called a “roll-out”.

Unlike Singapore and Australia, we have no idea what our Government will do when its roll-out is complete. Singapore has declared it is not aiming for zero transmission of the virus. It plans to dispense with mandatory quarantine for travellers and close contacts of cases will not have to isolate. It also plans to stop announcing daily case numbers.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has agreed with state and territory leaders that once a vaccine is available to all Australians the goal will no longer be suppression of the virus but to minimise serious illness and deaths. Covid-19 will be managed like any other infectious disease, with no more lockdowns or border closures and quarantine required only for unvaccinated travellers.

That sounds like “Freedom Day” for Australians, though it may be six months away. Their vaccination rate has been even slower than ours.

The Delta variant has now reached the South Pacific, where populations have had very little exposure to the virus. Yet in Sydney the state government is struggling to convince citizens to stay at home, and in Fiji there is serious vaccine resistance judging by the refusal of its rugby team to wear a pro-vaccination jersey in their first test in New Zealand last Saturday.

I’ve been waiting all week to hear the team get a rocket from Fiji’s health authorities but I must have missed it.

I’ve been waiting much longer to hear our Government give us a clear indication of what the goal of its vaccination programme will be.Is it to make a vaccine available to everyone, like Australia, or is it to vaccinate everyone?

If it is the latter, we may have a long lonely wait for our Freedom Day.


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