Freedom Day? Living with Covid

Peter Toon is a retired GP and GP academic. His research area is the philosophy and ethics of healthcare. His writing, both medical and non medical is available via his website –

Boris Johnson tells us we have to “learn to live with Covid”. By that he seems to mean accepting that most of us will get ill from time to time, a few will be hospitalised and some will die.

Quite a few more will have to learn to live with fatigue, brain-fog, shortness of breath and palpitations due to “long Covid”. But having learnt to live with Covid, in the name of “freedom” we can scrap all the changes to our way of life which we have made over the last eighteen months.

When I was younger I suffered from low back pain – a common and chronic problem, for which there is no effective cure. People with this condition were often told “you have to learn to live with it”. Many saw this as meaning enduring it stoically.

Fortunately I met some clinicians – mainly physiotherapists – who realised that learning to live with low back was rather more complicated than gritting your teeth and bearing it. It meant learning how to stand and sit correctly, how to pick things up, what sort of chairs to sit in, how to sleep so that you did not put a strain on your back (with a pillow between the knees). It meant making sure that you did enough exercise of the right type to strengthen your back muscles; swimming, weight training, back extension exercises. It meant recognising when your back was dodgy and doing something to stop it getting worse, even when that meant abandoning your plans and lying down with a book for an hour or so.

Learning to live with Covid will … involve changes in how we live.

Learning to live with Covid will similarly involve changes in how we live. It probably means permanently accepting wearing masks and maintaining social distancing when possible, and certainly in high risk environments. Perhaps washing our hands and sanitising surfaces a lot more than we were used to; taking symptoms seriously and self isolating when we think we or someone we have met might have Covid.

The Prime Minister says “we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from Covid and exercise judgment when going about our lives”, but Ministers are hardly setting a good example. One has already said he looks forward to ditching his mask; the Care Minister expects to carry on wearing hers she expects to wear it less, although the inevitable surge when restrictions are lifted would suggest it might be caring to wear it more.

There is much talk of using “common sense” but as Voltaire reminded us this is not all that common. It seems to have bypassed a Prime Minister who thought that people would be ‘pleased to know’ that the virus would not stop him shaking hands with Covid patients in hospital, and who nearly died as a result.

There is much talk of using “common sense” but as Voltaire reminded us this is not all that common.

Living with low back pain was entirely your own responsibility; it you behaved sensibly you mostly avoided pain, and if you did something stupid you suffered.

Because it is infectious Covid is different. My mask mostly protects others, their masks protect me. Self isolation limits my life to benefit others, most of whom I don’t even know.

Over the last forty years self-interest and competition have been promoted as good things. If we are seriously to learn to live with Covid we must remember that “no man is an island, entire of itself”. Are our politicians ready for such a shift in values? Are we?


Featured photo by Matteo Jorjoson on Unsplash

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