Fear Itself will be our Undoing in this Crisis | Noah Eastwood
The world is facing the greatest human catastrophe since the world wars of the twentieth century. This threat, despite what is said, does not come from the coronavirus pandemic itself. Instead, it is the grossly disproportionate overreaction, which has seen the near-total suspension of ordinary life, that threatens to cause irreparable damage to our civilisation.
The justification for the ‘lockdown’ response does not stand up to scrutiny. It is thought that closing society and the economy at large will stem the spread of the virus and save lives. Yet this is not a simple lives versus money dilemma. What is at stake here are lives versus livelihoods: the finite number of people who will perish because of this disease versus the infinite number who will face unimaginable ruination as a result of the grave social and economic consequences of the lockdown.
If this continues for much longer future generations will have to pick up the pieces of our great folly. Last Friday data were released showing that the global economy has suffered its worst reversal since the Great Depression. This aspect of the current crisis should be dominating the daily headlines. But instead the news is rife with dubious figures and fanciful talk of ‘flattening the curve’ and ‘reaching a peak’. Meanwhile a far greater, graver picture is going largely unnoticed.
Long term knock-on effects of global lockdown will haunt us for decades to come. Just how many of the thousands of businesses, large and small, who have closed their doors in recent weeks will ever again reopen them? And how many of those millions now filing for furloughs and unemployment benefits will return to comparable levels of employment?
The economic stimulus packages being implemented by governments around the world are being done so on borrowed money. This, in time, will have to be paid for by unprecedented levels of taxation. Everyone, young and old, will have to face working longer for less pay. Contributions to pensions will dwindle to almost nothing. Those lucky enough to have savings will see them shrink as interest rates fall and inflation rises.
The current state of lockdown, which even if lifted will be re-imposed again on a whim, is not a long-term solution to this crisis. Leading economists have concluded that it has already thrown Europe and the US into a depression. Some will argue that they would rather be ‘safe than sorry’ – though what we are doing is far from safe, it is incredibly dangerous.
Governments are too taking a massive risk in depriving society of the facility to work, trade, create, learn, exercise and do all of the other many things that keep us in a sane state of mind. The mental wellbeing of millions of people is at stake. In particular that of the healthy old, of whom a great number were already ill but socially isolated before the crisis and have had their few lifelines to society confiscated from them. Suicide, depression, anxiety, loneliness and a host of other unbearable stresses will plague the minds of many hundreds of thousands who were never even at risk from the virus in the first place.
These lockdown measures are disproportionate in the extreme. But perhaps the worst thing about them is that they have been implemented by governments panicked by overly pessimistic research. The work of Prof. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London is a case in point. His initial prediction that some 250,000 people in the UK could die of the virus were the country to take a ‘herd immunity’ approach caused the government to lose its nerve and impose a lockdown.
But the findings of Imperial College, which make a direct comparison between this pandemic and the Spanish Flu of 1918, are just one of many differing expert opinions on the crisis. Since entering lockdown, Prof. Furgeson has revised his apocalyptic estimate to some 20,000 deaths or less, two thirds of whom, as he himself freely admits, would have died this year anyway. That’s an extraordinary reversal. Can this sort of reduction really be put down to Chinese-style lockdown? – unless one is to take Beijing at its word, there is scant evidence to suppose they work at all.
In Italy and Spain, where the lockdowns have been most severe, daily deaths attributed to coronavirus continue to rise. Even these statistics are questionable. Dr John Lee, retired professor and NHS pathologist, has observed several primary distortions in the way rates of infection and death have been recorded. People are being noted as having died with coronavirus, not necessarily of coronavirus. Therefore, the supposed death rate, he posits, is a huge overestimate, while the figures for those infected barely scratch the surface. Crude figures remain a complete mystery.
Prof. John Ionnidis of Stanford University has called this an ‘evidence fiasco’, the data on the crisis, he argues, is ‘utterly unreliable’. He points to the case of the Diamond Princess, an extremely concentrated grouping of infected elderly cruisers, which yielded a death rate of a mere 1%, as a strong indicator that the virus is nowhere near as deadly as that of 1918.
More illuminating research has come from Prof. Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University. Her team found that between 50-60% of the UK population could have already caught the virus, suggesting that that mortality rates are significantly lower than commonly thought. This must surely vindicate the now jettisoned ‘herd immunity’ approach advocated by chief medical advisor Sir Patrick Vallance.
If we are to consider for a moment the thought of these experts, who have devoted their lives to studying infectious disease, then this virus could well be a phantom menace. While it will doubtless bring about the deaths of thousands, that is what pandemics, unfortunately, do. Global economic depression, however, is something quite different and far worse.
Policy makers have made an unforgivable mistake. They have failed to heed the nuance in research about the danger of COVID-19. Their gross overreaction, which has trashed the economy and more, will prove far more devastating than an underreaction. Statesmen and women, whose sworn duty it is to uphold hard-won ancient liberties, freedoms, and traditions have bent the knee to hysteria. Far reaching emergency powers have been passed through Parliament without proper procedure, while Parliament itself has quietly decamped.
This lockdown policy has come straight from one of the most despotic, totalitarian countries in the world, namely, the People’s Republic of China. It is entirely alien to the Western way of life. Civil society has failed to raise so much as a finger against this draconian intrusion. It is truly frightening the ease with which government-by-decree has been allowed to establish itself in Britain. If we try and fight this virus by creating a command economy, worse still a command society, there can be no guarantee that there will ever be a way back.
Success through lockdown, if it can be achieved at all, will end the moment restrictions are lifted. This approach will have to go on indefinitely until a vaccine is found if it is to ‘work’ at all. That could take up to two years. It is astounding that this is an approach which publics around the world seem to be actually on board with, even fanatically so. They won’t be so sanguine after eighteen months of this madness.
The examples of Sweden, the Netherlands, and Japan should be studied closely. Here government has, as yet, refused to buckle to
pressure and lockdown. People have been informed, warned, and advised to socially distance or isolate. Though life goes on. In Sweden, the same research that caused a frenzied shutdown in the UK was met with equanimity. State epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has said computer simulations are only as good as the data on which they rely, and as we’ve seen, this data is questionable.
In the coming weeks governments will have to make some of the hardest decisions of our time. The lockdown strategy is more dangerous than the disease it supposes to limit. It places our future into serious jeopardy for alleged short-term victory over a virus the deadliness of which, as leading epidemiologists have observed, does not appear great.
‘The only thing we have to fear’ said Franklin Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address. ‘…is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to turn retreat into advance’. Then, as now, the world was facing a colossal crisis. It was level-headed, proportionate policy which eventually won the day.
No two national approaches to this crisis have been the same. We do not yet know which strategy of dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak is the right one, only time will tell. However, this does not mean that we cannot say now which responses are dangerous and wrong.
Photo by Chad Davis on Flickr.