Why my fear of Covid stems from a life changing experience in 2009 - Tony McGuire

All going well, the Scottish Government plans to finally lift face covering rules on 18 April, having already done away with mask restrictions for religious services and ceremonies.

Pedestrians walk past re-opened shops and businesses in Glasgow. Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty
Pedestrians walk past re-opened shops and businesses in Glasgow. Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty

For most, Easter Monday will surely be a watershed moment bringing two years of shared mental, physical and economical strain to an end.

Unmasking certainly feels like the last hurdle, but for 66,000 immunocompromised Scots the daily dodging of Covid-19 is far from over.

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For me, Easter Monday is just another day dodging Covid. Even with the protection of four vaccines, the prospect of infection still feels like a significant threat to life.

Tony McGuire

I was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis when I was eight. It manifests differently in each individual so it’s broadly treated in line with rheumatoid arthritis.

Over the years I’ve taken a deep personal interest in how my disease effects me and despite regularly being told not to let my condition define me, I did the exact opposite and grew stronger for it. It’s a factor in every decision and the foundation of every achievement.

It’s widely perceived that swollen, red and painful joints are the worst of it but in reality you learn to live with it quite quickly and medication can ease joint flares before lasting damage sets in.

In my experience the worst part is actually the inescapable trade-off between pain and immunocompetence.

Rheumatoid arthritis, much like psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease, is an auto-immune disorder where the immune system produces antibodies to attack the healthy body tissues.

Across countless iterations, my treatment regime has always included immunosuppressant drugs and as a result I’m an open goal for every cold and flu circulating through the population.

As we all know too well, Covid isn’t just any other flu.

My own Covid trepidation doesn’t stem from hyperbole, rhetoric or statistical hysteria, but from a life changing experience in 2009.

I thought I had caught a nasty cold while working in Glasgow city centre that Christmas. Like all proper Glaswegians, I figured I’d push through until it burned itself out. The infection had other ideas.

It was relentless and with no immune system it ran amok through my system over a the course of a fortnight.

Cold-like symptoms developed quickly into double pneumonia and eventually I was intubated into an induced coma while doctors battled for weeks against an acute pneumococcal infection drowning me from the inside.

My ticket should have been punched then and there, but needless to say the unabating efforts of the NHS saved another life that winter. Losing 30 per cent of my lung capacity and re-learning how to walk was a small price to pay to be alive.

If the worst ordeal of my life started out as a garden variety cold or flu, the prospect of what damage Covid could do is simply terrifying.

That’s my story and I am just one of tens of thousands of immunocompromised Scots. They’ll all have their own stories and their own reasons for stepping down preventative measures in their own time.

The scientific consensus is that it could be a while before I’m safe to squeeze through a crowd at a concert or travel on a crowded train. Recent findings published near and far support the logic behind my hesitancy.

An OCTAVE study led by Glasgow University concluded that 40 per cent of immunocompromised participants exhibited low or insufficient serological response to the second vaccine, with around 11 per cent showing no signs of antibody generation after four weeks.

In a publication from The Lancet, results show the body’s ability to mount a Covid response after two vaccine doses drop from 99 per cent in immunocompetent individuals to 78 per cent for individuals with ongoing treatment for inflammatory disorders.

Even more concerning to a further drop to 64 per cent for blood cancer patients and 27 per cent for transplant recipients.

The drugs that protect our bodies from an auto-immune response are also responsible for diminishing the efficacy of the vaccines. It’s a catch-22.

I pressed my rheumatologist for the inside track on quadruple vaccine efficacy in the immunodeficient group and she regretfully responded with the irrefutable answer, “there’s not enough data”.

Insufficient data means increased risks and when you’re in a zero-sum game for your life, I can’t think of one situation worth gambling your survival on.

In the early days of lockdown, seeing everyone rigorously follow hygiene guidelines made me feel safer.

That feeling dissipated when people got the first taste of freedom thanks to premature reopening optimism from Westminster.

Public attitudes to Covid hygiene relaxed and subsequent lockdowns divided opinions on a scale not seen since 2014.

Lockdowns were put in place to protect the global population but by being the most at risk, we had the most to gain from the sacrifices made by everyone.

To everyone who complied with Covid guidelines from start to finish, thank you. Your actions contributed to the survival of a small percentage of the population whose odds would have been significantly slashed had the public paid no heed.

Covid is here for the long run and we will certainly encounter more worrisome strains down the line.

It’s been a tough two years all round so if you’re fully-vaccinated and you remain mindful of differing attitudes then now is absolutely the moment to make up for lost time. Dine with friends, drink your fill and warm up those thumbs to start swiping right again.

Because let’s face it, two weeks of the high life and you’ll be back on the sofa, under a blanket and bingeing Stranger Things on Netflix just like old times.

Some of us need a bit more time to test the water, see more data released on the risks and come up with unobtrusive precautions to keep us all safe. That doesn’t mean you can’t go ahead and get the party started without us, it just means you ought to save us a seat.

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