Let’s face it, the goalposts have been completely moved on the question of lockdown. When it was first introduced, the primary reason was to stop public health services from being overwhelmed. We were all rightly shocked with those horrendous images in Italy, where doctors were forced to play God, and turn critical patients away for lack of ICU beds.
That objective has been achieved. There is no sign that public health systems are being, or are likely to be overrun. Yet lockdown, though being progressively relaxed, is carrying on. The bogey man of a second wave hangs over us. Schools continue to be shut. Restaurants are forced to work at a fraction of their capacity. Hotels are empty and airlines progressively failing.
All this, may or may not be necessary. History will be the judge. What upsets me is the lack of discussion around other possible alternatives. And there are alternatives. The media, politicians, the WHO and some epidemiologists continue to put the fear of God into us. This was done so effectively in the first place that even if the government were to decree the opening of schools tomorrow, it is doubtful that most parents would send their children back to school. I also doubt most restaurants and businesses will return to normality soon. We continue to live in a limbo where you can’t make future plans, you can’t think of what life is going to be like in the next week or next month. In short, we have become prisoners to the decisions of the government.
There has not been enough questioning on the public’s part, whether or not these lockdowns are even epidemiologically sensible. In part, the both mainstream media and social media is to blame, with few exceptions like Observador. Few dissenting voices are given the time of day. The historically unprecedented contraction of economic life, the destruction of people’s livelihoods, the operations and oncological treatments that were put on hold, the emotional and traumatic consequences this lockdown continues to have, are given significantly less importance than Covid-19 itself. Instead the politics-of-fear narrative continues to rule the day. Everyday we continue to be inundated by the numbers of people that died or were infected in the last 24 hours. These are the numbers that stick in people’s minds and guide our every move. But little weight is given to experts who disagree with this policy. Less weight is also given to the economic hardships people are suffering. Our world seems to have become reduced to one theme – Covid-19.
Yet is there only one single truth and have we found it? There is still no definitive science when it comes to Covid 19. The WHO, and all health authorities that take their cues from these experts, have flip flopped on several occasions. In February we were told that Covid-19 could not be transmitted from human to human. At first, masks were not required, now they are indispensable, and any one caught not wearing one will be fined or imprisoned, depending on which country you happen to live in. On the one hand, prisoners were released, on the other more people are imprisoned for supposedly putting the public at risk. Where is the sense in all of this?
Professor Neil Fergusson’s modelling was instrumental in influencing the policies of many governments. Yet he himself was recently caught flouting the social distancing policies that he himself preached. The debate in the media in the UK has become all about how he was caught visiting his lover under general lockdown. I am no prude. To be honest whether he has a lover or not is none of my business and completely beside the point. The hypocrisy of his actions does stand out. But above all what needs to be criticised is the impossible (and dare I say unproven) standards he told us all to uphold. One would have to be pretty naïve to believe that everyone would religiously adhere to general lockdown in the first place. People are able to make sensible judgements. Visiting their parents or companions and doing it sensibly is not equivalent to putting the general public health at risk
What strikes me is that there was little discussion and criticism of this man’s ideas and claims in the first place. His statistics were taken as the one and only possible truth. According to his model, the UK would lose 500 000 lives and the US between 1 and 2 million if nothing was done. The fatalities are currently far from those figures.
One may legitimately argue that something was done so we have no idea what the figures would have beeen. True enough. But we can look at a country that did not follow his scenario of impending doom. Sweden was going to pay for their lack of lockdown with 40 000 deaths. It is around 4500 at the moment. Slightly off. And what about his track record? In 2005 he predicted 200 million people would die of bird flu which in the end killed 282 people worldwide between 2003-9. Not the best of track records.
Ferguson’s predictions, wrong as they were, may have initially saved lives, I’m not disputing that. Our public health authorities were not ready for a worldwide air-borne pandemic which is highly infectious. The pandemic curve needed to be flattened. Whether it had to be done with such draconian measures is another issue. Had we used a more focused approach as opposed to a generalised lockdown that locked up every young, healthy person, perhaps the same result would have been achieved. More resources could have been concentrated protecting those who most needed our protection: people in care homes and people with underlying conditions that made them more at risk to coronavirus.
This was not discussed. We took our cue from China and Italy, and applied the same remedy, seriously damaging our economy in the process and causing havoc and misery with people’s financial, emotional and physical well-being. Have we measured the deaths that could have been avoided had people sought out help instead of staying at home, too afraid to go to the hospitals?
Our societies have become completely risk-averse and there is a real reluctance to use common sense. We no longer consider what are social goods and social necessities. A while back some disturbing images were circulated of French nurseries, where children had squares marked on the ground to which they were to be confined. First, this defeats the whole purpose of a nursery where children learn how to interact socially with one another, Secondly, for anyone who has had any experience in dealing with toddlers, it is near impossible to get children to adhere to these rules. It is difficult enough keeping them in their dinner seats, let alone confined to a square drawn on the ground when play-pals are a few feet away. Finally, this is completely unnatural and quite frankly inhumane. A rule is being imposed upon them when there is still no scientific proof that if you allow children to come within two meters of one another this is going to pose a huge health risk. Right now, evidence suggests that it is less likely that young children will transmit to one another than adults.
There is a growing narrative that Covid-19 will become endemic i.e. a disease that will never completely go away and will become part of the family of diseases with which we have grown accustomed to live with. There was nothing unprecedented about Covid-19. What was unprecedented was our reaction to it and the way we continue to react to it.
The problem now becomes how on earth do we extract ourselves from lockdown? People were scared so successfully that it’s going to be difficult to persuade them it’s safe to go out to work, to go to restaurants, to go on holidays, to go back to school. It’s one thing to open the restaurants; quite another to convince people that they can go out to eat.
These new laws have an indefinite character about them. What exactly are we to wait for? A miraculous cure or vaccine that was rushed through trials? How many would than risk vaccinating their loved ones with a vaccine whose side effects are not sufficiently known? Are we to wait for the disease to simply disappear?
With all this uncertainty, how is it possible to run a successful business? If you have a restaurant in which everyone needs to sit two metres apart, how do you serve enough people to cover your costs? We cannot have a country without an economy. An economy is not just some abstract concept. It permits us to have the life we have. We cannot have life as we know it without a functioning economy. Society would implode and we would all be thrown back to some undesirable time where all we had to count on was ourselves.
Countries are using different measures and policies to come out of lockdown. The science is not settled. Governments make mistakes. They are not infallible. Ideas change. We don’t even have consensus when it comes to epidemiologists and specialists in the field. With all this uncertainty in the air, someone must make decisions. But let these rely as much as possible on science, fact and common sense and not on politics. Allow these decisions to give equal weight to all the dimensions of the problem, not just one. Above all, give equal voice to the dissenters, those who never thought that total lockdown was a good idea in the first place. After all, free speech and the right of political protest was something people gave their lives for.