Artillery Row

Covid-19 orthodoxy and awkward looks

While questioning orthodoxies often has great value, it can also present dangers

In their reply to my piece “Why the orthodox Covid-19 narrative is right”, Ian James Kidd and Matthew Ratcliffe question whether the handling of the pandemic by countries like Australia and New Zealand is “a success story”.

They say that unless a vaccine is forthcoming, these countries will “face the painful options of cutting themselves off from the rest of the world indefinitely, having strict lockdowns whenever the virus reappears, or eventually succumbing to the virus, none of which amounts to success”.

Australia and New Zealand are the envy of the world right now

I find this utterly bizarre. Australia, New Zealand, and other countries are the envy of the world right now. They have virtually eradicated the virus, and life has gone back almost to normal. By contrast, the UK and US are still experiencing extremely bad health outcomes from the virus as well as all of the bad effects of interruptions to daily life and the economy. To question whether Australia and NZ have done the right thing is way off the mark. Will these countries have to remain cut off from the rest of the world until vaccine or effective therapeutics are developed? Yes, but this seems a small price to pay in the present context.

Kidd and Ratcliffe next claim that even if Australia and NZ were right to lock down, they “both locked down early”. The UK, they say, is well past the point at which it could achieve similar success.

This is factually incorrect. When Melbourne locked down, the virus had very much taken root. In a relatively short period of time, Melbourne had roughly 20,000 cases, out of a population of 5 million. That is substantial. Melbourne’s lockdown took it from a very bad position where the virus was widespread to a very good position. It was a long and hard route, but the people of Melbourne achieved great success here, and they are now reaping the considerable benefits. Their success is entirely sustainable with continued testing and contact-tracing measures.

There is no reason why a serious four to six-week lockdown in the UK could not achieve similar results. (Things might be different for the US given its political situation, but this is a whole other discussion.)

Ending the lockdowns prematurely does not result in economies surging back

Kidd and Ratcliffe mention the existence of countries that “locked down, but did not suppress the virus”, including the UK, as evidence that lockdowns might not work. But all the evidence is that lockdowns do work if they are strict, sustained, and accompanied by ongoing testing and contact-tracing. Half-hearted, haphazard, or prematurely ended lockdowns do not work. And you’ve got to keep testing and contact-tracing when new cases arise.

The most surprising thing about Kidd and Ratcliffe’s reply is that it doesn’t even address my key point: that when societies fail to properly lockdown, they still face most of the costs of lockdowns, only for longer. They write:

What we do know is that lockdowns are immensely damaging in so many ways. This second UK lockdown will further disrupt the social and emotional development of our children, cause a substantial rise in severe mental health problems, force many elderly people to live out the final weeks and perhaps months of their lives in loneliness and misery, exacerbate and prolong the pain of bereavement by depriving people of interpersonal and social interactions that shape and regulate grief, destroy livelihoods and risk mass unemployment, increase regional social and economic inequalities, reduce the life-opportunities of young people while saddling them with an ever-growing mountain of debt to pay off, suspend much of what gives our lives meaning, deprive people of countless precious, irreplaceable life-moments, and cause deaths due to the numerous resulting impacts on people’s health.

As I pointed out in my original piece, these are all costs of prematurely opening up as well. Why do Kidd and Ratcliffe ignore this point?

Kidd and Ratcliffe point out that our lockdowns can have disastrous consequence for poorer countries, including starvation. This is a very serious worry indeed. But the right solution is not for us to end our lockdowns. As I’ve said, ending the lockdowns prematurely does not result in economies surging back. The right solution is instead for us to lock down properly and at the same time give considerable aid to these poorer countries.

A final point: the recent news that an effective vaccine is imminent might well affect what sort of lockdown in the UK is appropriate right now. In particular, it might mean that a strict lockdown would not be worth it. But it doesn’t follow that no lockdown right now is appropriate. Even if a vaccine is coming soon, some kind of lockdown is vital to reduce deaths between now and then.

While questioning orthodoxies often has great value, it can also present dangers, especially when done in prominent public settings. Questioning this particular orthodoxy (that lockdowns are the right way to go during Covid-19) can lend intellectual respectability to an extremely harmful policy. This is, I think, the reason for, as Kidd and Ratcliffe put it, the “awkward looks” and “expressions of discomfort or disapproval” they have received. There is already enough push back against lockdowns by powerful interests in the business community and among conservatives that we shouldn’t be adding further fuel to their fire right now.

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