One Question Quiz
Covid in all seasons (Image: Tina Tiller)
Covid in all seasons (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONScienceOctober 3, 2023

Gambling with Covid: Repeat infections are damaging us

Covid in all seasons (Image: Tina Tiller)
Covid in all seasons (Image: Tina Tiller)

The science is clear, the effects are profound and the toll of Long Covid and reinfections can’t be ignored, writes Freya Sawbridge.

On August 15, mandates ceased for masks in healthcare settings along with isolation for positive cases. That marked the end of the final two pandemic restrictions. Anyone wanting to now protect their health must bear the responsibility themselves. And of course, why shouldn’t they? We never mandated isolation for colds or flu. Before Covid-19, sickness was seen as a natural part of life, not something requiring such hullabaloo. Britain moved on two years ago; the USA is back to normal. It’s about damn time Aotearoa got the memo, right?

Just two months prior to the mandate’s ending, Unite Against Covid-19’s Twitter page (operated by Te Whatu Ora) tweeted warnings about the risks of reinfection. Dr Natalie Netzler, a virologist, opens the video with, “Every time you catch Covid, your risk of having other severe issues start to rise.”

One in 10 people who catch Covid develop Long Covid and the risk increases with each infection. Covid-19 inflames the brain and decays neural synapses, leading to signs of early-onset dementia. The virus weakens and kills T cells, which are a type of white blood cell vital for fighting disease. This makes us more susceptible to other illnesses. Since the pandemic, heart attacks have surged, with a 30% spike among those aged 25-44 years old. A major study published in Nature found Covid increased the risk of diabetes by 66%. Another study, which involved autopsies of 44 people, found the virus had spread to every major organ, not just the respiratory system, and even entered the spinal cord. Children are affected too, and face a 78% higher chance of new-onset conditions after having Covid.

Long Covid leaves patients with horrendous symptoms for months and years after their acute infection has ended. Many of my friends are entering their fourth year chronically ill and they are still without hope for recovery. There are hundreds of symptoms but some include breathlessness, migraines, dizziness, memory loss, heart palpitations and crippling fatigue.

Dr Leana Wen, a prominent Long Covid denier in the US, spent years gaslighting those with the illness. In 2022, she even encouraged people to go to work “with Covid to prevent staff shortages and to prevent negative implications to the economy.” Last week, she wrote an op-ed saying she is now suffering from a “post-pneumonia” disability and is very unwell. She never explicitly says it’s Long Covid, but she stresses typical Long Covid symptoms such as her persistent shortness of breath and crippling fatigue, which made it “nearly impossible to get through an hour of lecturing to students”. Because of this, she’s done a 180 on minimising Long Covid and calls for better prevention and funding for treatment.

A major misconception is that good health or prior infection protects you from Long Covid. Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, says his Long Covid cohorts are full of young people who only developed the disability on their third, fourth or fifth infection. Almost all of them had no idea it could or would happen to them. Where was the warning? Last month, a Reddit user contemporaneously celebrated his 25th birthday and mourned one year of suffering from Long Covid. He said, “It was my second [infection]. First was December 2020. I was maybe sick for like a day & then all was good.”

Image: Archi Banal

We’re seeing the effects of Long Covid and repeat infections on the workforce and economy already. In Britain, 2.6 million people are now out of work due to long-term sickness. Data from America shows the same trend. Workforce participation is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, with an additional 1.9 million missing from the labour force compared to 2020.

I discussed Covid and the high incidence of Long Covid with a friend the other day. She asked me what she was meant to do, “stay in a self-imposed lockdown?” Of course not. We have to move forward. But we can only do so with adequate public health guidance and clean air policies. That way, we’re moving on from a place of knowledge, not ignorance or hubris. However, public health authorities and governments are not doing this. They have instead facilitated a mass disabling event by spinning the “Omicron is mild” narrative and leading people to believe Covid-19 is no worse than a cold if you’re vaccinated.

Those of us who continue to take Covid precautions are often made to feel wrong and laughable. People gasp and scowl when I pull out a mask for the bus. They believe I’m a doomsayer who’s trapped in the past. But if you know the science, the normalisation of Covid infections is disturbing. Going against the grain is often not a vindicating experience but a lonely and at times desperate place.

The pressure to drop personal precautions is alluring but the idea we can ignore Covid’s continued impact is a delusion. The science is clear, the effects are profound and the toll of Long Covid and reinfections can’t be ignored.

Keep going!