Medical staff wearing PPE holding material about to walk into the Flemington Public housing flats on July 05, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why the orthodox Covid-19 narrative is right

In measuring the nastiness of Covid-19, we need to look at what could have happened had we not locked down

In their piece “Welcome to Covidworld”, 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. To begin with, 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.

Covid-19, without lockdowns, is much more horrible than most other horrible things we can control

But in measuring the nastiness of Covid-19, we need to look not at the illness and death that it has in fact caused, but rather at that which it would have caused had we not locked down. The latter is mind-bogglingly great. Had we not locked down, 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.

Second, 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.

If Melbourne hadn’t locked down in response to its Covid-19 outbreak, thousands more Melburnians would be dead

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 today. 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 Melburnians would be dead and suffering debilitating illnesses today, and most Melburnians would still be suffering serious costs of isolation.

Kidd and Ratcliffe complain:

A world that was once a theatre of possibilities is now suffused with an air of dread … a new system of rules, projects, practices and pastimes has taken hold. Fear of the virus is the single fulcrum around which everything now turns, shaping our attention, concerns, conversations, and activities. For many, the world feels altogether different, like the inevitable onset of a winter that must be endured with grim resignation. Over time, Covidworld tightens its grip, eclipsing all other concerns.

They are right that Covid-19 is now culturally dominant in this way. But, ironically, this is precisely because the UK and US did not lock down properly to begin with, something which in turn was due in large part to vocal scepticism from people like Kidd and Ratcliffe.

This leads me to my next point. Kidd and Ratcliffe are clearly wrong that the orthodox narrative hasn’t been subjected to critical scrutiny. It has been hugely scrutinised. States like Sweden have officially rejected it. States like the US have unofficially rejected it (the Trump administration has clearly given up on controlling the virus and is now pursuing a “herd immunity via infection” strategy). Some scientists and researchers have rejected it (see, for example, the Great Barrington Declaration). Prominent philosophers like Peter Singer have publicly questioned it in sophisticated discussions. Big companies have been funding research and media stories to cast doubt on the orthodox narrative, out of a fear that lockdowns will reduce their profits or the viability of their businesses. The anti-lockdown movement has been vocal and sustained, as well as funded by some of the most powerful lobby groups in our society. I am not sure what world Kidd and Ratcliffe are living in.

It seems to me worth considering the possibility that Kidd and Ratcliffe have themselves drifted into an alternative world, one where they have been so personally affected by the deprivations of lockdown that these deprivations now seem to them worse than anything else. They are so mired in the mess that the UK has made of this pandemic that this is interfering with their ability to see what the only alternative to a proper lockdown is: namely, similar deprivations but for a much longer period, plus vastly more illness and death.

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