Sunday, March 29, 2020
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A DIY guide to dodging the virus

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IS Covid-19 a scare story? Pace a number of TCW commenters on the last piece: no. You will recall that Professor Neil Ferguson was quoted as saying the risk of infection in the UK could be 60 per cent and the fatality rate 1 per cent, meaning a possible 400,000 victims. 

That is simply logic. If the coronavirus spreads easily and nobody does anything, many people will catch it. The point is to change our behaviour to reduce the risk. Some of those changes can be a matter of individual choice, some collective.

The wrong collective action may result in worse outcomes. The Diamond Princess cruise ship had some 3,700 souls on board when ten passengers were diagnosed with the illness. In quarantine, the number of cases has risen to 691 (as of 12:25 GMT yesterday).  That is about 18 per cent of passengers and crew, not the 60 per cent that the Professor speculated; on the other hand, these were frightened people keeping in their quarters, trying very hard not to be the next patients. Sadly, the ship’s ventilation system could have helped spread the virus in a way similar to Legionnaires’ disease. 

Of those infected, only four (less than one per cent) have died so far; but the passengers on a luxury sea voyage will be well-nourished, well-cared-for people, and the seriously ill were taken to Japanese hospitals, presumably among the best in the world. Globally (but so far, overwhelmingly in China), 3.4 per cent of cases have resulted in death, 37 per cent have recovered and 59 per cent are still ill, so it is too early to say what the ratios will finally turn out to be.

However, for the sake of argument let’s say everybody decides to ignore all risks and precautions and the professor’s estimate is exactly correct. Result: 0.6 per cent of the UK population dies, but by the same token, 99.4 per cent will not die of Covid-19 (though many may suffer a period of unpleasant illness).

What we need is neither panic nor complacency: we need perspective. In 2017 the UK population was (officially) 65.6million and 607,172 people died from all causes – fewer than one in a hundred. In fact, the average person’s risk of dying in the next 12 months stays below 1 per cent until her or she hits the late fifties. You have to be in your mid-eighties before the chance of meeting the Grim Reaper gets higher than ten per cent – good odds!

The issue is avoidability: the Office for National Statistics estimates that almost a quarter of those 2017 deaths – i.e. more than 140,000 fatalities – could have been avoided, either by ‘timely and effective healthcare’ or ‘public health interventions’ (and there are three big things we can do personally to improve our chances of a long life, viz. stop smoking, lose weight and reduce blood pressure). A laissez-faire approach to Covid-19 could add up to 400,000 unnecessary deaths to the total, quadrupling the toll.

We can’t leave everything to our chronically inept government. Apart from anything else, we have to think what we would do if, say, a lockdown was imposed and shop shelves were cleared in panic buying, as has happened in Italy – our worst enemy could be other people’s behaviour. It’s no good waiting till then: as the ancient Greek saying goes, there is no borrowing a sword in time of war.

Not only are there practical things we can do to protect ourselves, we have a good idea who is most at risk so we can give them extra help. For example, we can ensure that an elderly or infirm relative has enough goods in the house not to have to go out if the virus has come nearby; and that visitors, carers and medical staff are firmly reminded to check who they’ve been in contact with recently and to sanitise their hands frequently. Alternatively, if you’re impatient for Granny’s worldly goods, take her for a bus ride daily at schools chucking-out time; or on a cruise.

We all have to go some time, but if we plan the right course of action it is likely we will die another day, not today; that should provide us with a quantum of solace.

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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