To mark three years since Covid was declared a pandemic, Dr Katie Musgrave reflects on how the respiratory disease – and our response to it – has impacted our lives
It’s almost as if the past three years never happened. Day-to-day life has, for the most part, returned to normal. Sports clubs have resumed. Theatres have reopened. Schools, pubs and shops are busy again. I see some reminders in my surgery with the few remaining masks.
However, it seems that the legacy of the pandemic is now largely behind closed doors: the elderly patients who have not emerged; the teenagers who can no longer face leaving home; or the business owners whose lives’ works have collapsed.
But what of all the other effects? The unimaginable economic costs, those months of schooling that millions of children missed, the families who did not say goodbye to loved ones, the loosening of relationships, the preference for working less or not at all, the newfound reluctance to socialise or volunteer? What impact are they having on our society? On our health, prosperity and wellbeing? If we knew then what we what know now, would we do it all again?
Putting aside the first lockdown – which I think most would agree was justified due to uncertainty and the need to develop some testing capacity, protective equipment, protocols and the like – how do we now feel about the decision to close schools in 2021 for months, after the vaccine rollout had begun?
How do we feel about the mass testing of children, masking them, social bubbles, and repeated periods of isolation? What do we think of the rules against leaving the house for more than an hour? The limitations on exercise? The rules against travelling to visit family, or loved ones in care homes? Should we have been more targeted? Could wider harms have been reduced? Was Sweden right all along?
Having been through this experience, seeing first hand the impact that Covid and the subsequent lockdowns have had on patients, how do we balance the risks and harms? With millions now on waiting lists for outpatient appointments and surgery, how do we feel about these prolonged effects? Could they have been lessened?
I find I am now practising medicine as if Covid were no longer a threat. I forget to ask about Covid tests when patients report a feverish illness. I rarely think of it when reviewing a persistent cough. In my mind, it’s now firmly in the category of common winter viruses, which may or may not lead to serious illness.
Whether it’s Covid or the flu seems fairly unimportant. I don’t seem to have too many long Covid patients, and I still suspect a lot of this was a post-traumatic psychosomatic reaction to prolonged uncertainty and the removal of support networks. I have never lived through such a tumultuous time – and at times, just getting up each morning felt challenging. Of course, people also suffering from post-viral effects would be hard hit. The fear, uncertainty, isolation, and constant changes were immensely difficult to adjust to. I now view the lockdowns as a sort of national trauma, which will take time to heal.
If we were faced again with a novel respiratory virus, which predominantly affected the elderly or those with comorbidities, would we call for a shutdown of society again? Should the Government have tried to ‘frighten the pants off everyone’? Or would we walk a middle road, trying to protect the vulnerable but also striving to protect the young, mental wellbeing, the economy and our local communities?
Did we get it right? What can we learn? And how can we help all those who have been damaged through this period?
Dr Katie Musgrave is a GP in Devon and quality improvement fellow for the South West