April 23, 2020 11.34 am This story is over 43 months old

Barry Turner: After the Covid-19 lockdown, its aftermath could be with us for a generation

We were not even prepared for the immediate consequences of the outbreak

If anything has been consistent during the current pandemic it has been the repeated observations that we were not ready for this. This is sometimes a simple observation, but more often than not it is a condemnation – or at the very least sharp criticism – “someone is to blame”.

It is certain that we in the UK were not ready for a global pandemic, even though it has been obvious for a long time we would get one sooner rather than later. The virus that is causing the potentially fatal illness is one of a group that a been known about for decades. It was obvious that one day a variant of it would go beyond the usually localised outbreaks to affect the world. In short we should have known it was when rather than if this would happen.

It has been pointed out countless times now by politicians, healthcare professionals and medical scientists that now is not the time for the blame game and that is true. We all have enough to concern ourselves with in getting through this pandemic and hopefully supporting those less able to get through it too. However, although we may be right to postpone the search for the culpable, it is inevitable that in the not too distant future that will become the dominant theme as a postscript to the lockdown and the casualty list.

In spite of our experience of SARS viruses going back many years, we are still remarkably ignorant about these pathogens. If anything this pandemic is showing us, not that there is a culprit or culprits out there who inflicted this upon us all but that we have not as a society taken the threat of infectious disease seriously enough. The societies of the affluent developed world were affected by a hubris and false sense of security that many in the poorer parts of the world were not.

Politicians and scientists are now reassuring us that the pandemic will end. Some say soon others are much more cautious. Estimates range from weeks to the end of the year, depending on what criteria are used to determine what the end of the pandemic looks like. With so little known about the virus, that is difficult to determine even for the best of the worlds’ experts.

Some maintain that the pandemic will be over when the infections show a steady decline, others that it will not really be over until a viable vaccine is deployed and a reliable treatment available to treat the disease. The former is in sight, the latter at the moment is a long way off. In short, we do not know how long this virus will remain a potentially deadly threat to many people. Somewhere between those two events however the lockdown must be eased before being finally lifted.

The consequences of this pandemic will be with us for many years after the virus ceases to be a direct infectious threat. We will have no excuse for not anticipating these and preparing for them. We are all now only too familiar with stories of the damage this virus causes to our lungs and other organs. and the experience of lockdown is one we will all remember for a very long time. After the infection has, gone the aftermath will be our next priority.

The politicians and economists are tasked with rebuilding the economy after the pandemic is over. This will happen in stages with some of them imminent, such as allowing some workers gradually to return to productivity. Slowly but surely our economy will recover, there will be inevitable casualties that will not, but eventually we will get back to normal, even if at present we cannot define what normal might be.

There is another health consequence of this pandemic that will out-live the virus when we finally have the vaccines and medications to neutralise it. This consequence is an increase in mental health problems caused in part by the intense psychological shock that disease and lockdown have brought and in part by an as yet not fully understood effect of the infection.

After the last SARS epidemic, autopsies carried out on the victims indicated neurological damage in a significant number of them. SARS genome sequences were found in the brains of those who had died from the disease and tissue damage was detected. In those that survived such injury could be the cause of post-viral syndrome causing fatigue, lethargy and depression. The aftercare for those surviving Covid-19 must include caring for their neurological and psychological conditions.

It is certainly the case that we were not prepared for the immediate consequences of the outbreak of Covid-19, who is to blame will probably be argued about forever, but those who govern us and those who advise them will have no excuse for not being prepared for its aftermath.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.