The winter of sickness

Have you been sick this winter? A few lucky people out there may be able to answer that in the negative, but for a large number of southerners the response is more likely to be "several times".

After two winters of being largely protected from various ailments due to Covid-19 lockdowns, closed borders and the consequent non-arrival of residents and visitors harbouring various viruses and bacteria, this season seems to be playing catch-up mode.

As well as the ever-present threat of catching Covid-19’s Omicron strain and its new sub-variants, a particularly nasty influenza is doing the rounds, along with several stomach bugs, colds and a resurgence of the worrying respiratory synctial virus (RSV). That’s not to mention the higher risk of spread in the community of diseases like measles and mumps.

And how many cases of "phantom Covid" have we all suffered in recent months that ended up coming to nothing? That slightly odd tickle in the throat, or annoying sniffy nose, or that concerning night-time sweat that suddenly lifts the paranoia levels.

Overseas there have now been about 2500 cases of monkeypox in the past couple of months, and just this week the poliomyelitis virus has been discovered in a sewer in London. Long-since thought to have all-but died out, the finding sparked the UK Health Security Agency to declare a "national incident" in the country declared polio-free in 2003. Thanks to the pandemic, we have all become more aware of the diseases around us and understandably more anxious about what might come next. It is all rather depressing, and it is unsurprising that our collective mental health is also suffering alongside our physical health. However, brushing such matters under the carpet because they are upsetting and unsettling will not help anyone. Being prepared for the next onslaught is a much wiser course of action, especially as there is a feeling that Covid-19’s mutations are merely taking a bit of a breather before haring off in another direction.

It was good this week then to see director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield and new Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall tell the public how the often-beleaguered Ministry of Health is planning on how it can lead the country in dealing with new coronavirus strains.

Dr Verrall said there was clearly uncertainty over how the virus would mutate and that, quite rightly, the plans to deal with it needed to be flexible and broad, rather than "highly prescriptive", which can hamstring any response.

The dangers of those kinds of prescriptive constraints are precisely what we have seen with the Government’s farcical traffic-light alert-level system. The lights have been permanently rusted on the Orange phase while South Island hospitals have been overloaded, at which stage the setting should have shifted to Red, allowing for more restrictions on outdoor gatherings and stronger mask mandating.

For some reason, those with the power to make the change have deemed it has not met some arbitrary threshold, and so the status quo has prevailed. Well done then to read that Dr Bloomfield suggested the alert-system might benefit from being reviewed, given it was actually developed for the Delta variant.

He also said the ministry had come up with five scenarios for new Covid strains, based on their severity and transmissibility. The most vulnerable had to be protected while minimising disruptions to daily life and the running of businesses, and health and educational institutions.

It comes as quite a relief to find the ministry, and the Government, are still concerned about the vulnerable. There has not been much of a sense of that in recent months as Omicron has been running rampant around the country and the South, with no effort to change the alert levels to protect those same vulnerable members of the community.

Masks remain a vital protection, not just against Covid-19 but all the other illnesses swirling around. We would welcome some stronger, clearer directions on compulsory mask wearing from the Government, which are long overdue.

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