With the meteoric rise in the sale of earbuds, there’s an increasing amount of speculation about what this means for the hearing aid market. Most miss the fundamental difference, which is that earbuds are selling in the hundreds of millions because consumers like them, whereas hearing aids are still seen by many as a product of last resort, because there is a stigma attached to them. That means that most people with hearing loss don’t go for a hearing test until around ten years after they should. If we could get rid of that stigma, and make hearing aids as popular as earbuds, life would be very much better for hundreds of millions of people.
Hearing aids are not the first products to have a stigma. I’m old enough to remember a similar situation with glasses. A child with a sight impairment would do everything they could not to admit it, lest they were labelled “four-eyes” or “speccy” by their classmates. Most children’s books up to the 1960s had a glasses-wearing child as the scapegoat of the story. Then John Lennon came along and all of a sudden, glasses were cool. Nobody could quite explain why, but glasses changed from being something you tried not to wear to being a multi-billion dollar fashion industry, which conveniently managed to restore your sight at the same time. Whilst the arrival of contact lenses threated their existence, glasses resisted the competition and remain immensely popular. You no longer make a spectacle of yourself by wearing them, and nobody would consider them as a “seeing-aid”. So how is that changing for hearing aids?
Now that we’re about to enter a second lockdown in England, we should all be asking what the exit plan is? Last week the Office for National Statistics announced that 568,000 people have had Covid. In one way, that’s good news; if we can keep that infection rate up, we’ll all have had Covid within two years, so we can get back to normal. If it’s an underestimate and more of us caught it in the first wave, we might even manage to get to herd immunity by Christmas 2021. (I’ll come back to the “h” word later on). But nobody else seemed to welcome the news. Such is the level of fear which has been spread in the last year, that the very mention of these big numbers has been taken as evidence that we all need to lock ourselves down again. Epidemiologists are being wheeled out with scary predictions of just how bad it will be. Nobody seems to be giving any serious thought to how we might be able to live with Covid.
England has finally rolled out its Test and Trace app, which we are all being exhorted to load on our smartphones. It’s good to see that the new app takes privacy seriously, using Google and Apple’s framework. But nobody seems to have worked through the implications of what the Test and Trace app can lead to, which is Lockdown by stealth.
There haven’t been a lot of positives about the Covid lockdowns, but one of the few which has been widely reported is that we can hear birdsong again. As traffic volume has diminished and we work at home, the level of noise around us has fallen to a point that most of us can’t remember. It means that we can hear things we haven’t heard for many years. On the flip side, we’re missing the sound of social interaction. As restrictions are relaxed, it’s interesting to consider whether we have learnt anything from this period of unexpected quietness and how it might change our lives going forward.
We regularly read about fraud in sport, whether that’s cricket, football or horse racing, where a player accepts money to affect the result. There are arrests, trials and the culprits either banned or sent to jail. But what happens when a Government Minister takes a bet on a Government policy and then manipulates the data to win it?
It may sound bizarre, but that’s what has happened here in the UK, with Matt Hancock, our Secretary of State for Health. In an interview on LBC with Nick Ferrari, he was asked if he would take a £100 bet on reaching his target of accomplishing 100,000 coronavirus test each day by the end of April. Anyone with a scrap of morality would have answered “I don’t gamble on people’s health”, but not young Matty. Although not an ex-Etonian, like many of this cabinet colleagues, Matty always looks as if he wants to be seen as one of the posh boys who likes a flutter. After a brief hesitation, he accepted the bet on behalf of NHS charities. I’m sure that Nick Ferrari thought he was betting on a certainty, unaware that the result was about to get fixed.
As most of the world starts to ease lockdown, it seems timely to ask the question of “What next?” Many will believe that the new normal is just a stepping stone back to the old normal, but the reality is that Covid-19 has not gone away. Nor are we likely to see a vaccine in the near future, for which read years. As epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse told New Scientist in early April: “I do not think waiting for a vaccine should be dignified with the word ‘strategy’. It’s not a strategy, it’s a hope.” Which raises the question of what the strategy is?
As long as the virus is around, it will continue to infect and kill. Unlike the Spanish Flu pandemic, it seems to be more discriminating, predominantly resulting in the death of those already at risk. It’s almost as if it’s sticking two fingers in the air to the last century of medical advancement, saying that for all of the machines we now have which go “ping”, the medical profession is as helpless as it was back in 1918.
What that means is that the elderly and those with underlying conditions will remain at risk and society will probably try to be over-zealous in protecting them. Without a vaccine, here in the UK, the implication is that we will probably never see the Queen make a public appearance. In the US, Donald Trump, assuming he doesn’t succumb to the virus, will still be promoting quack cures as he steps down at the end of his second term, and anyone with a parent in a care home may never get to hug or kiss them again, which is a strange definition of care.