December 2020: Letters to the Editor

In praise of lockdown


This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In praise of lockdown
In their piece “Welcome to Covidworld” (November), Ian James Kidd and Matthew Ratcliffe complain that the “orthodox Covid-19 narrative (according to which there is an unprecedented threat, best dealt with via extreme social restrictions)” has become uncritically accepted. We have “slipped into a sort of ‘Covidworld’,” they say, “and moved the flag of truth to that world, via a process that resembles religious conversion more than it does the adoption of new beliefs that remain open to critical scrutiny”.

I couldn’t disagree more. Kidd and Ratcliffe suggest that while Covid-19 is a nasty virus, it isn’t clearly so much nastier than influenza or many other nasty things we tend to tolerate in the normal course of life. But in measuring the nastiness of Covid-19, we need to look not at the illness and death that it has caused, but rather at that which it would have caused had we not locked down. Had we not done so, there would be many millions of deaths in countries like the US and UK, and incalculable long-term health consequences for people of all ages. The science on this is beyond question.

Kidd and Ratcliffe put their worry here as follows: Covid-19 is “really horrible, but things have always been horrible. Shine the light more widely and you will find much more of the same.” In this, they echo Donald Trump (“It is what it is.”). But they are wrong. Covid-19, without lockdowns, is much more horrible than most other horrible things we can control.

Kidd and Ratcliffe emphasise “the enormous and wide-ranging collateral damage caused by lockdowns and other measures: deaths due to other diseases that were left undiagnosed or untreated; widespread mental health problems; the health and well-being costs of unemployment and poverty; massive disruption of education; massive disruption of education …” To be sure, these are real costs. But they are costs, too, of not locking down. 

When the virus is running rampant and causing the sort of illness and death mentioned above, many people will end up isolating voluntarily. They will not go to the doctor for a check-up, shopping at the local mall, or back to school or university (in person). Economies will still falter, and so jobs will still be lost. And there will still be widespread mental health problems.

The difference is that if people are isolating voluntarily (and so in a haphazard or unsystematic way), rather than as part of a well-organised state-imposed lockdown, the virus is unlikely to be brought under control, and so all of these costs of isolation will last for far longer. Lockdowns are indeed hard to endure, but they are clearly our best way of getting to safely resume our normal lives. 

Look at what has happened in countries that have locked down hard and properly. They are more or less back to normal life. Melbourne has just emerged from one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world, after being in a very bad position initially.

The virus has been almost eradicated, and now, with ongoing testing and contact-tracing in place, Melburnians will be able to return to work, school, shops, the doctor, and so on (something that all other Australians and New Zealanders have been able to do for many months already). 

If Melbourne hadn’t locked down in response to its Covid-19 outbreak, thousands more people would be dead and suffering debilitating illnesses today, and most Melburnians would still be suffering serious costs of isolation.

Ben Bramble 


Heart of England
Jonathan Meades’s perceptive and witty commentary on the Midlands (November) unravels the kernel of its truth — that it is an unassuming region of great strength and self-assurance. Its populous diversity is housed in settings urban and rural, which are themselves powerfully industrial and unobtrusively beautiful. For me the Midlands, or as I prefer, Mercia, is, as well as being the geographic heart of England, its modest, amorphous, spiritual core.

I once knew a Tory MP who advocated that his beloved Yorkshire should have its own Whitehall department and secretary of state. He was besotted to distraction and not a little chippy. Periodically I am approached by ambitious Brummie politicos and academics seeking help for a new regional think-tank or similar initiative. 

Such enthusiasms, I argue, are invariably misplaced. To gain unignorable influence politically and culturally one should seek assimilation, not separateness. The Welshman has always understood this better than the Scot.

To this end it does not matter much to us that other regions and cities of our kingdom are noisier, more separate in identity and more easily offended. We Midlanders are confident of remaining the economic powerhouse of the country with a youthful, diverse, culturally vibrant Birmingham at its core.

Johnny Leavesley

Chairman, Midlands Industrial Council, Lichfield

Ancient Universities
In saying “uncomfortably for modern prejudices, the university is specifically European; even more uncomfortably perhaps … goes back … to the high Middle Ages”, David Starkey (October) is either unaware of or chooses to ignore the much older universities of Asia and Africa.

Nalanda University in modern-day Bihar, north India, dates back to around 415 AD with its origins earlier in the Buddhist era (sixth-fifth centuries BC). The Chinese scholar Xuan Zang spent six years there in the seventh century AD, leaving us with an account of the university with its three large libraries, 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students from all over the civilised world of the time. The subjects of study included philosophy, logic, grammar, medicine and Buddhist thought. 

Going even further back in time, we have the school of Ancient Takshashila, in modern-day Pakistan, the confluence of Persian and Indus Valley civilisations. It is associated with the scholar Chanakya, considered a pioneer of political science and classical economics, and Charaka, a leading authority on medicine. It was already well known by the time Alexander the Great arrived in 400 BC.

Then there are the renowned existing institutions of North Africa, Al Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco, dating from the ninth century AD, recognised by Unesco as the oldest surviving university in the world. Al Azhar in Cairo dates back to 975 AD.

 Encylopaedia Britannica accepts that “although universities did not arise in the West until the Middle Ages in Europe, they existed in some parts of Asia and Africa in ancient times”. We can see where the prejudice lies.

Maya De Souza 

Camden, London

Clocking in
Norman Lebrecht (November) reported in error that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s new music director Jader Bignamini “has yet to clock in on the job”. In fact, he opened our digital season with four programmes over two weeks this past September.

This was actually much earlier than he was scheduled to appear in his first season as music director. His original, pre-pandemic debut week was set for 7-11 December, which he will also still be conducting here in Detroit.

Matt Carlson 

Senior Director, Communications & Media, Detroit symphony orchestra

Wrong tough guy
I have recently started reading The Critic and I am enjoying it enormously. Thank you for putting together a publication which is a breath of fresh air in the current British media.

In your October issue, though, I was surprised by a mistake by your television columnist Adam LeBor in his article about La Haine, in which he wrote that the actor Mathieu Kassovitz played the part of Vinz, the tough Jewish guy. Vinz was played by Vincent Cassel. Kassovitz did act in the film (as well as directing it), but his role was a minor one, as a skinhead. 

Felix Sanchez del Rio 

Felsted, Essex

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