John Roughan: Dialling back the fear of the deadly Covid-19 virus

My 10-year-old granddaughter went back to school this week scared. The fear she expressed wasn’t a jumpy, screechy thing like her fear of bees, this sounded real.

I don’t think any of us were aware of it until this week when her parents started to explain to her the school’s arrangements for the children’s return.She covered her ears and said, “I don’t want to hear about it.”When they pressed her for a reason, she said, “I’m scared.”

Not many things in life hit you harder than a child’s fear.It must be much worse when the fear is justified, but it is pretty hard to take when the risk to their age group has been exaggerated. I’d fondly imagined they were deaf to the public messages put out to reinforce lockdowns.

When we visited them they always seemed happy to be at home, playing games on digital devices for as long as they were allowed, and skating, cycling or shooting netball hoops in the yard. When they visited us they talked about all sorts of things as usual and never mentioned the virus.

They knew it was the reason they had been told it was not safe for them to be at school for the past three months. Now they were being told it is safe, but they shouldn’t be too close to each other and the older ones must wear masks. It stands to reason they’d be nervous.

Happily we got a text after school on Wednesday to say our granddaughter had a “great day” so the teacher must have done a fine job that first day and she’ll be fine. But it left me wondering how much trepidation there may be around the country, particularly now that we have a date for opening Auckland’s gates.

Sydney and Melbourne are a few weeks ahead of us. When a Melbourne epidemiologist was asked on television here how governments should do about easing restrictions, he said, “Well the first thing to do is dial back the fear.”
The fear in the messaging, I think he meant, for there is not much fear I hear from the public, here or there.

Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield began dialling back the fear in their messages from the Beehive podium by suddenly highlighting hospitalisations rather than cases of infection and making it known that the vast majority of hospital cases were unvaccinated.

They have pointed out that younger people have made up a greater proportion of infections and hospitalisations this time because older people are more than 90 per cent vaccinated. And Dr Bloomfield has revealed that many of those in hospital with Covid-19 are not there primarily because of Covid-19.

It is now evident that despite the greater virulence of the Delta variant, it is putting little pressure on intensive care units and so far has caused fewer deaths than the original virus did in last year’s outbreak.

All of this suggests the vaccine is highly effective against serious consequences of infection, and if anyone in the rest of the country is scared of Aucklanders coming for Christmas, there is a ready solution freely available for them. It’s not even a “jab”, it’s more like a pinprick and they have just enough time left to get two of them before the roadblocks are removed.

But dialling back the fear in official messaging is easier than dialling it back in the media. The news is still focused on rising daily cases numbers and the ominous predictions of epidemiologists who would prefer that Auckland was still tightly locked down in pursuit of elimination.

It is hard to know how much this frightens the public. I keep telling myself I should be getting a little scared. The virus is spreading through Auckland at a rate of 100-200 or more newly detected cases a day.It can only be a matter of time before it reaches me.

Yet I know of no one near me who has had it, or who appears to know anyone in Auckland who has had it, which should not be surprising since the country’s total infections from the onset of the pandemic number not much more than 8000 so far.

But that is about to change.Next month, when vaccinated Aucklanders are mingling in restaurants and bars again, and moving around the country, we’re going to get to know Mr Covid more intimately. Nobody pretends vaccination prevents infection and transmission. Modelling of 90 per cent coverage produces over 400,000 cases a year.

I think I should be scared but I’m not, and nor is anyone else I know. I hope I can say the same this time next year.

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