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How the coronavirus affects seniors

Updated: May 20, 2020

The coronavirus or COVID-19 that is sweeping the world is resulting in a severe government crackdown in many countries. Sixty countries have now reported cases of the virus. As well as people self-isolating, working from home and wearing facemasks (which may not work if incorrectly used or worn), gathering in public places or attending community events are restricted.

People are also deciding not to travel abroad, especially by aeroplane. COVID-19 combined with climate change means that the number of people booking plane flights is falling quickly. This is one of the reasons Flybe, a low-cost British airline- is declared bankrupt.

These restrictions also mean there is a moral dilemma. Today I was listening to the “Moral Maze” on BBC’s Radio 4. The economic implications of the imposition of restrictions on movement to ensure people of all ages remain untouched by coronavirus were weighed against the economic impact of these restrictions.

A number of issues were discussed, including whether the restrictions imposed, usually by governments, were in proportion to the risks involved. This point of discussion was hotly debated.

What is the risk of dying of coronavirus? Those who die are predominately “old”- that is, people in their ‘70s,’80s and 90s, and usually have a chronic illness. In an article in Quartz (the online version) it says that close to 10,000 people have contracted the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China— more cases than SARS in 2003. “So far, 213 people have died. The preliminary fatality rate for 2019-nCoV hovers around 3%—which is low, but still concerning because of the number of cases accumulating.

“But that fatality rate is likely to be higher in older adults. Unofficial open-source data from researchers based in the UK and China show that out of 41 deaths, 39 were in people over 50. Bloomberg reports similar figures.”

Of course, death rates also depend on the prognosis and treatment you get and where you live. A group of 80-year-old men in China could have very different risks to men of the same age in Europe or Africa, for example.

The statistics are frightening for those who are over 50, however. But is this risk overexaggerated? A person who dies from COVID-19 usually has a pre-existing medical condition and are in cold weather. The virus doesn’t survive in temperatures above the low-to-mid 20s.

As it stands the number of deaths are low. Researchers think that between five and 40 coronavirus cases in 1,000 will result in death, with a best guess of nine in 1,000 or about 1%, according to the BBC. However, this figure could be much lower, as many cases are not reported. This is certainly the case in Vietnam, where I lived last year. A person I know was badly sick two weeks ago in Hue, Vietnam, and chose not to see a doctor or go the hospital because the cost was too much. Instead, he self-diagnosed with medication from the pharmacy.

There now appears to be two strains. “Scientists believe Covid-19 has mutated into two strains- the older ‘S-type’ appears to be milder and less infectious, while the ‘L-type’ which emerged later, spreads quickly and currently accounts for around 70 per cent of cases. It may also be possible to be infected with both types”, according to an article in The Telegraph dated 4 March 2020.

Compared with other viral outbreaks, the death rates are low, which gives hope of containment. By all accounts, it is less deadly than Ebola, SARS and MERS, which has a fatality rate of around 35 per cent. Even the common flu has a mortality rate of 7% tuberculosis, a mortality rate of 12%, and measles, 15%.

One of the discussion points in the “Moral Maze” was, if there is an outbreak of coronavirus, for which there is as yet no vaccination, and a suspected patient goes to hospital, who should be treated first? The younger or older person?

This is a moral dilemma on which we must ponder. We must also be sure to get

Photo: Carole Railton (copyright) Is the risk of contracting COVID-19 exaggerated?

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