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Jennifer O'Connell: Sole weapon to beat coronavirus is our safe togetherness

If we don’t take drastic social distancing actions, no one will be safe – young or old

We’ve spent much of the past decade creating a world in which it was possible to retreat into total isolation behind a screen. Now that world is here, we’ve had enough.

Some people have been relieving the tedium and the terror by making stuff up: memes, spurious advice, dire warnings about armies mobilising. Of all the odious things dreamed up by the online hordes in recent days, the worst is the hashtag #boomerremover.

They've had enough of the mainstream media, so they get their news from WhatsApp. Some of them could be seen out at the weekend in Temple Bar

The term, repulsive though it is, does serve a purpose. It shows how this virulent pathogen has divided the world in two. On one side are those who think they can afford not to worry about coronavirus, that it only affects the frail and vulnerable and those perpetually memeworthy boomers. Or that it’s a panic being stoked by the media. Or an excuse for a few scoops.

This group – dwindling in numbers, but still vocally unconcerned – are clinging to the fantasy that 60 per cent of the population getting sick is a worst-case scenario, rather than a juggernaut racing towards us with dreadful inevitability. They prefer the wisdom of the sweaty herd in the pub to the unpalatable facts delivered by experts. They've had enough of the mainstream media, so they get their news from WhatsApp. Some of them could be seen out at the weekend in Temple Bar, spraying their saliva everywhere to the tune of Sweet Caroline. They're not all young, of course. They were present in their droves in Cheltenham too, braying their delusions of indomitability from the stands.

Risking infection

The second group are those who have woken up to the realities of the new world order. They include frontline medical staff – the nurse who tweeted a photo of herself crying as she breastfed her daughter for the final time, before her husband took the baby away to live with grandparents, so they could help with childcare without risking infection. My own relative, who took a few hours out from his senior job in a hospital this week to put up a trampoline for his young children, because he doesn’t know when he’ll have an afternoon at home again. Yes, he said, he was frightened. “Colleagues might die. Friends might die.”

They include those who have already lost their jobs. Or those who haven’t yet, but are struggling to hold on to them, while managing children at home.

In a crudely biological sense too, this is now a two-tier society: those who are at real risk of death from Covid-19, and those who are not. The percentage of people in their 40s who will require hospitalisation is just under 5 per cent, according to a report by scientists at the Imperial College of London. For those in their 60s, it's 16 per cent. Above that, it's one in four. The fatality rate is less than 1 per cent until you hit your 60s, when it rises sharply to 2.2 per cent. By your 70s, it's 5.1 per cent. In your 80s, it's almost 10 per cent.

The strategy being employed by Boris Johnson until his sudden pivot earlier this week was described as "allowing the virus to pass through the entire population". They called it "herd immunity", but it sounded a lot like "boomer reduction". It seemed to be premised on the idea that the British people couldn't be trusted to implement the kind of tough measures required, so better to let those who were going to die do it quickly.

Britain’s sudden reversal wasn’t inspired by a belated attack of morality or a renewed faith in its people. Instead, it was prompted by warnings from the experts the Tories have been saying they’ve had enough of.

Mitigation measures

A report by scientists at the Imperial College in London warned that without mitigation measures, critical care bed capacity would be exceeded by the second week in April. In both Britain and America, it would peak at over 30 times greater than the maximum supply. Introducing some mitigation measures – home isolation of people with symptoms; social distancing of the vulnerable – could reduce demands on the health service by two-thirds, and halve the number of deaths. But, with 30 per cent of those hospitalised needing critical care, even a mitigated epidemic “would still likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems being overwhelmed many times over”.

If you're 30 and otherwise healthy, you might not have to worry about getting pneumonia from Covid-19, but you'd better hope you don't need an ICU bed for anything else

Ireland embarked on more extreme measures earlier. A realisation is dawning here, too, that those measures will not be temporary. Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Cillian de Gascun said they would last "a number of months". The Imperial College report is less ambiguous: social distancing needs to be in force for at least two-thirds of the time until a vaccine becomes available. That's 18 months away.

The risk, during that period, is that resentment will fester. Right now, we are frightened and grateful for strong and stable leadership, but fatigue and irritation will set in. People who are bored and anxious are susceptible to voices offering other, more appealing scenarios and solutions, or those who say there was another way. Down the road, a whole other crisis of democracy is looming.

But there is no other way. If we don’t take these drastic actions, no one will be safe. If you’re 30 and otherwise healthy, you might not have to worry particularly about getting pneumonia from Covid-19, but you’d better hope you don’t need an ICU bed for anything else.

Johnson was loath to take a bet on his own people. Here, all we have is our belief in our ability to pull together. My relative put it baldly: we're trying to back this virus into a corner so it has nowhere to go. We can't do it unless we do it together.