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Opinion

Freedom’s meaning

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

Four hundred and eighty days since restrictions were imposed across the United Kingdom to limit the spread of COVID-19, most were lifted in England on Monday. It was dubbed “Freedom Day,” but I was reminded of Nelson Mandela’s definition of freedom: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Apparently, “plague island” is trending on social media if you want to know their reaction.

It was a plan long in the making, the date set by the government of Boris Johnson months before, though it had always held out that the actual conditions were more important than the date itself. Now that it’s come, it is inevitably politically controversial as well as questionable for public health.

There are now no limits on how many people can meet or attend events, nightclubs reopened at midnight and pubs and restaurants will no longer need to provide table service. People queued outside clubs waiting for them to open at midnight, singing and dancing at weddings is allowed again.

The famously trenchant UK media didn’t let the government get away with the positive narrative they would probably have preferred. Banner headlines included: “Freedom Day Farce,” “PM and Sunai isolating on freedom day after trying to dodge rules” and, my favorite: “Flip flopping fop’s a flipping flop.” Prime Minster Johnson, Chancellor of the Exchequer (the title given to the equivalent of the Finance Secretary) Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid are all in isolation for 10 days after Javid tested positive for COVID and Johnson and Sunak were pinged by the government’s own track and trace program ordering them to isolate. At first Johnson and Sunak had said they would continue with “essential government business” and take daily tests rather than isolate, but the furious public backlash forced them to reverse their decision within three hours of their initial announcement.

Significantly, David Nabarro, special envoy on COVID-19 for the World Health Organization, told Sky News: “Of course, at some point, as ministers have said, we have to get on and get our lives going again. It’s just what is our attitude while we’re doing it? There is no sense of freedom in my heart. Unfortunately there’s a sense that this virus is very much here and is giving us lots of surprises, lots of anxieties and, therefore, as a society, we go into the next period with our eyes wide open, knowing pretty well what to expect. That is: more disease, more long COVID and more challenges.”

His comments come at the same time that a scientist who advised the government on the lockdown measures at the start of the pandemic, Professor Neil Ferguson, warned that it is inevitable that England would reach 100,000 infections every day and could even rise to as many as 200,000 daily infection rate.

The UK vaccination program has definitely weakened the link between infections and hospitalizations and death, but it is still there. Scientists emphasize that a high rate of infections means that even a small percentage of people being hospitalized and/or dying will still be a big number. Government science advisers predict that there will be 1,000 to 2,000 hospital admissions every day over the summer now that lockdown’s been ended, and 100-200 deaths a day.

That’s really worrying from the perspective of the pressure on the National Health Service where thousands of Filipinos work. If there are more than 2,000 people being hospitalized every day, that would be equivalent to the situation in the week before Christmas. Although people currently being hospitalized do not fall as severely ill and are much less likely to die, Ferguson said that “if you have enough cases, you can still have quite significant burden on the health care system… major disruption of services and cancellation of elective surgery and the backlog in the NHS getting longer and longer.”

Coronavirus infections in the UK are surging again and hospitalizations are on the rise, driven by the spread of the Delta variant and the partial lifting of restrictions. Now that nearly all restrictions have been discarded, including mask-wearing and social distancing mandates, the numbers are going to rocket higher. It’s been left very much up to the public to take precautions and get vaccinated; in turn the government will have to decide whether the unlocking of restrictions will be permanent or not. Scientists have warned there would probably be a surge in cases no matter when the remaining restrictions are lifted.

One global survey run by the Global Change Data Lab indicates that the UK has one of the highest daily new case rates per million globally, according to the Our World in Data project run by the Global Change Data Lab, a UK-based non-profit organization, behind only Indonesia and Brazil that are ahead in the rolling seven-day average of new daily COVID cases.

There’s some comfort to be found for those erring on the side of caution and continuing all measures to stay safe, but that will only go so far. Nelson Mandela would probably not have imagined such a situation as the world now faces, but his words ring true through this pandemic and are worth bearing in mind to test against government policies and our own behavior at all times and places.

COVID-19

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