Sunday, 21 November 2021

COVID-19: We Would Do It All Again

by Thomas Scarborough

'Compound Risks and Complex Emergencies.' PNAS.

Staying in a South African township in the autumn of 2021, once a week an old woman in worn out clothes slipped into the house unannounced, and sat down. She sat quietly for four hours, until lunch was served. She quietly ate her lunch, and left. I was curious to know the reason for her visits.

Her son, she said, had lost his work through the pandemic. He had been supporting her, and she could not now afford to feed herself. She couldn’t keep the lights burning after dark. She couldn’t even pay for candles—let alone the rest. Every day, she would slip quietly into a house like this, she said, and wait for a meal.

This was a direct result of a COVID-19 lockdown. Not that lockdowns are all the same, or have the same effects. The University of Oxford has developed a Stringency Index, which monitors a wide range of measures adopted by governments across the world, in response to the pandemic.

Without weighing up the rationale behind them, it is clear that these various measures have had grievous effects.

It is estimated that more than 200 million jobs were lost worldwide, in 2020 alone. The United Nations’ International Labour Organisation estimates that 8.8 percent of global working hours were lost, which is equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs. This is without considering the knock-on effects—apart from which, such losses are seldom made up in the years which follow.

According to the World Economic Forum, 38 percent of global cancer surgery was postponed or cancelled in the early months of the pandemic. The backlog, they said, would take nearly a year to clear. Of course, one can’t afford to postpone or cancel cancer surgery. Many surgeries were stopped besides—in fact, millions of surgeries per week.

Frustrations and the pressures of life under lockdown brought about huge increases in certain types of crime. Gender-based violence soared. The United Nations General Secretary reported a ‘horrifying global surge’. Scattered statistics confirm it. Many cities reported increases in gender violence of more than 30%. Some reported more than 200%. The effects of such violence never go away.

The lockdowns, in all their complexity and diversity, had negative effects on personal freedoms, supply chains, mental health, inequalities, and any number of things—and since everything is related to everything, almost anything one may think of was skewed.

Of course, not all of the effects of lockdowns were negative. Drug arrests plummeted in various places. Break-ins, not surprisingly, decreased as more people stayed home. In South Africa, a ban on liquor sales quickly emptied out hospital emergency rooms. Most importantly, it is thought that very many lives were saved from COVID-19.

How many lives were saved? This is hard to tell. Imperial College London judged that ‘the death toll would have been huge’—which is, there would have been millions more deaths. Surely this is true. At the same time, they noted that there are ‘the health consequences of lockdowns that may take years to fully uncover’—and paradoxically, the many attempts to stall the pandemic may have prolonged it.

How do we calculate the advantages and disadvantages of a pandemic response? It is, in fact, frightfully difficult. One needs to identify the real issues—or some would say, select them. One needs to weigh all relevant factors—however that might be done. There is a place, too, for the human trauma, whatever its logical status may be, and this is hard to quantify. 

At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to priorities.

An absolute priority during the pandemic was life. No matter how many or how few, lives should be saved. This emphasis is easy to see. Almost any graph which has traced the pandemic shows two lines: the number of cases, and the number of deaths. Other effects of the pandemic are by and large excluded from everyday graphs and charts—which is not to say that they are completely overlooked.

What does one mean, then, by loss of life? One means rapid loss of life, of the kind which overcomes one in the space of a few days from hospital admission to death. Such death, in most published instances, has been an almost complete abstraction—a number attached to COVID-19—signifying the priority of death pure and simple.

At the end of the day, the avoidance of rapid loss of life was the absolute priority in this pandemic. All other priorities were demoted, or put on hold, even repudiated as side-issues. Ought life to have been given absolute priority? Who can say? It has to do with human, cultural, and social values, as we find them, in the early 21st century.

The fact is that life—or the possibility of losing it quickly—was the immutable priority. Therefore, we would do it all again.


docmartincohen said...

I can empathise with the story at the beginning, but this comment looks a bit bland for such a vital debate: "Imperial College London judged that ‘the death toll would have been huge’—which is, there would have been millions more deaths. Surely this is true."

As I understand it, there is no evidence of lockdowns saving lives, only that they are announced during the seasonal peaks and withdrawn with claims of success during the inevitable seasonal downturn. Or we can compare the virus curves of countries with no lockdowns, like Sweden to those with strict ones, like France. The same bell curve with the seasons.

The post is surely right though to point at the very concrete examples of people who lose their jobs because lockdowns have destroyed their work, and surgeries cancelled or never arranged due to the new health "emergency" strategies.

docmartincohen said...

In the early days, an epidemologist (Ioannidis) who I quoted some years ago in my book on Critical Thinking, for his sceptical approach to mainstream science warned that the radical steps to "protect" society from this rather everyday illness might kill many more in the long run. His comments look very prescient today.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Martin.

The seasonal peaks and downturns are perhaps what one would call a correlation?

The big question that my post poses is: Would a holistic approach look different? Also, how would one find such an approach?

Keith said...

‘We would do it all over again’.

One situation that fits under ‘doing it all over again’ is the propagation of conspiracy theories. Precedent was set by the 1918 flu pandemic, when theories thrived, like the virus being used as a ‘terrible new weapon of war’.

One theory was that German submarines were spreading the influenza virus around the world. Another was that the pandemic was linked to tainted aspirin produced in Germany. There were others, of course.

Besides the name ‘Spanish flu’, others jumped into the blame game. Variously calling it the ‘Naples soldier’, the ‘French flu’, the ‘Brazilian flu’, the ‘Bolshevik disease’, the ‘Chinese sickness’, and the ‘American disease’. Monikers derived from origin stories aimed to demonise political opponents.

Fast forwarding to today, we’ve seen the Covid-19 pandemic give rise to its own conspiracy theories. Like radio waves from the 5G network having caused the infection. Or the infection being ‘faked’, serving as cover for governments to control their citizens. And a scheme to use vaccines to implant trackable microchips.

So, yes, when it comes to ‘doing it all over again’, the next pandemic will undoubtedly lead to a whole new panoply of conspiracy theories, inspired by whatever is going on in the world at that future time in history.

It’s human nature, isn’t it?

All the while, millions of people die.

Keith said...

Well, to briefly pick up on recent news, might the new, internationally spreading ‘omicron’ variant of the coronavirus, with unsettlingly thirty mutations in its protein spikes, unfortunately put the ‘We would do it all over again’ hypothesis to the test as the next potentially significant wave crests?

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