The constant flow of bad news about the coronavirus, from the increasing number of deaths to doctors and nurses risking their lives due to a lack of protective equipment, has naturally caused great anxiety.
This is clear from the proportion of adults worried about the threat they believe the virus poses to themselves.
Older people are the most affected, but even among younger age groups, the majority think they are at risk.
But have we put this out of perspective? What is the real risk posed by coronavirus?
Those most at risk are the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. The overwhelming majority of deaths were recorded in these groups.
But young people are of course still dying – by the end of April there had been over 300 deaths among those under 45 years of age.
In addition, there are many more who are seriously ill and have long-term effects for weeks.
So how should we interpret this? And what does it mean for life after the lockdown?
Our constant focus on the most negative impacts of the epidemic means that we have “lost sight” of the fact that the virus causes mild to moderate illness for many, says Dr. Amitava Banerjee of University College London.
The clinical data science expert believes it is important not to make hasty conclusions about the deaths of younger and apparently healthy adults. Some may have had undiagnosed health problems, he said.
But he admits that there will be otherwise healthy people who have died – as it happens with everything from heart attacks to the flu.
In the future, we need to stop looking at the coronavirus through such a “narrow lens,” he says. Instead, we should take more account of indirect costs, such as increased rates of domestic violence during confinement, mental health problems and lack of access to health care in general.
A “nasty flu” for many
Boris Johnson is expected to explain how the restrictions will be relaxed in England on Sunday. Everything indicates that it will be a very gradual process to reduce the rate of transmission of the virus.
But some people think we don’t have to be so draconian.
The University of Edinburgh and a group of London-based academics published an article this week arguing that restrictions could be lifted significantly if the most vulnerable were fully protected.
This would require the continued isolation of these people and the regular testing of their caregivers – or shields as researchers call them.
If we could protect them – and this would require very good access to rapid tests and protective equipment – researchers believe that we could lift many restrictions and allow a “controlled” epidemic in the general population.
Good hand hygiene, isolation when you have symptoms and voluntary social distancing if possible would be necessary. But people could go back to work and school – within a few months. The majority could even eat in restaurants and go to the movies.
For the non-vulnerable population, coronavirus poses no more risk than an “unpleasant flu,” says Professor Mark Woolhouse, an infectious disease expert who led the research.
“Without the fact that he poses such a high risk of serious illness in vulnerable groups, we would never have taken the steps we have and closed the country.
“If we can really protect the vulnerable, there is no reason why we cannot lift many of the restrictions in place for others.
“The foreclosure had enormous economic, social and health costs. “
It’s about, he says, finding the right balance of risk.
A risk of living with
This is a point that others have made.
The University of Cambridge statistician, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, highlighted evidence that shows that the risk of dying from coronavirus is very similar to the underlying risk that people of all age groups start in their twenties have to die anyway.
His view is that getting it is like wrapping the equivalent of a year of risk in a short period of time for adults. The younger you are, the lower the risk.
For children, as you can see in the graph, the risk from the virus is so low that you had better worry about other things. After the first year of life cancers, accidents and self-harm are the leading causes of death.
Researchers at Stanford University in the United States have tried to count risk in another way – by likening it to the one we face when we die while driving.
In the UK, they calculate that those under the age of 65 have faced the same risk in the past few months of the coronavirus they should have faced while driving 185 miles a day – the equivalent of traveling from Swindon to London.
Strip under 65 health problems – about one in 16 – and the risk is even lower, deaths in non-vulnerable groups being “remarkably rare”.
Putting risk into perspective will be essential for individuals and decision makers, suggest the authors.
If we do, we can learn to live with the coronavirus. We may have to do it.