The Guardian has been running a series to mark the second anniversary of the first U.K. lockdown called “Rewriting COVID-19”, billed as examining the “narratives and received wisdom of the first two years of the pandemic”. It aims to ask “experts what we’ve got wrong and how to move forward”.
“Rewriting COVID-19” seems an apt title, with one contribution, from anthropologist Devi Sridhar, criticised for literally rewriting the history of the pandemic by claiming she only advocated Zero Covid before the vaccines arrived, when she is on record promoting it subsequently.
Despite the Guardian saying the series is about asking “experts”, it begins with a scurrilous piece by science journalist Debora MacKenzie, proclaiming, “False narratives about Covid left us with millions of deaths.” Criticising lockdown scepticism as “libertarian” (boo, hiss!), MacKenzie argues: “Infectious disease is always profoundly collective, whether or not leaders find that ideologically congenial… The many people whose age or medical condition makes them more likely to die if [infected], or who have suppressed immunity – perhaps only because they need an arthritis drug – cannot take ‘personal responsibility’ for avoiding Covid if they must return to the office, surrounded by maskless people exercising their ‘individual freedom’ to exhale asymptomatic Omicron.” According to Ms. MacKenzie, then, we must all change the way we live forever in case we inadvertently infect others with our asymptomatic bugs. But don’t worry, if we all wear masks then no one will get infected!
One expert who has contributed is Dr. William Hanage, Professor of the Evolution and Epidemiology of Infectious Disease at Harvard University. It’s not a great start, however, when he cites a figure of 160,000 U.K. pandemic deaths, even though the number of excess deaths during the pandemic is more like 133,000 (a figure which includes collateral deaths). He also claims herd immunity has “stubbornly failed to arrive and expel the virus from the population”, despite that being, as he should know, a caricature of what scientists say about herd immunity.
It’s what he says next, however, that puts his dogmatism really on show.
It should be astonishing given these facts, but some stubborn voices have continued to argue that in the autumn of 2020 we should have rushed to remove restrictions on all except those most at risk – who would be somehow saved by untested, implausible means gathered together under the heading of ‘targeted protection’. At that point no vaccines were widely available, and the effective therapies we now have against Covid were pie in the sky. Shockingly, there are now attempts to rehabilitate these ideas in parts of the media. Reaching back to relitigate such already-discredited approaches is nonsense. And worse, it makes reasonable discussions about pandemic management that much harder. Distraction has always been the goal of such revisionism.
It’s a bit rich to criticise focused protection as untested and implausible when the lockdown measures he is promoting are themselves untested – and now that they have been implemented have shown no overall benefit or effectiveness.
Although he implies he wants “reasonable discussions about pandemic management”, he shows no sign himself of pursuing that, as he writes off any scepticism of Covid restrictions as beyond reasonable debate. He implies that relaxing restrictions before vaccines were available was not a “reasonable” position to take as it was “guaranteed to lead to more preventable transmission, more serious illness, more hospitalisations and more deaths”. This is despite it being shown repeatedly that Covid waves rise and fall whether or not restrictions are in place, with Sweden demonstrating this in spring 2020 and Florida – which from autumn 2020 adopted the focused protection approach Professor Hanage rails against – having no worse a winter than those places which locked down hard. Why is a Harvard professor of epidemiology dismissing out of hand the ‘reasonableness’ of the evidence from Florida in the winter of 2020-21?
Professor Hanage states that Omicron BA.2 is mild enough to be “readily handled by the great majority of vaccinated folks” – implying it isn’t readily handled by the great majority of unvaccinated people, which is clearly misleading.
Having found a scientist willing to write meanly and intemperately about those who disagree with him, the series falls back on its science journalists. (To be fair, it also includes a contribution from Professor Danny Altmann of Imperial College London, saying the vaccines are not much cop and seem to cause original antigenic sin – which is surprisingly off-narrative.)
Science journalist Laura Spinney attempts a heroic defence of Zero Covid – though seems to undermine her own argument by conceding that you “need a plan B in case the context changes”. This might seem fatal for the argument, as of course the context always changes (you can’t live in a hermit kingdom forever), but Spinney instead blames the ultimate failure of Zero Covid on “other countries” which “let the virus rip”. If only everyone had done Zero Covid, it would have just gone away.
Reciting the Zero Covid article of faith, “The virus deprives us of liberty; the efforts preserve it,” she insists these “efforts” don’t necessarily mean lockdown, but merely “mass testing plus isolation of the infected, ventilation, masking, distancing” – failing to recognise that such measures, even without stay-at-home orders and business closures, are economically and socially crippling, rendering normal life and many activities unviable or prohibitively unpleasant.
It’s no surprise to find Spinney is no fan of cost-benefit analyses when it comes to pandemics, claiming it is “pointless… to cost elimination, or any other containment strategy”. “How do you measure what it has saved you,” she asks, in a misplaced rhetorical question. “In speculative fiction terms, what’s the counterfactual?” I’d suggest, countries which didn’t do these things, and earlier pandemics where we didn’t panic and overreact, which show clear benefits to keeping calm and carrying on.
At one point she claims that “non-pharmaceutical interventions” “stop transmission completely” – has she been following any of the data or studies these past two years? – and lines up countries which are “abandoning” such restrictions as responsible for the rise of hypothetical “more severe” new variants. Whatever the problem, it’s always the fault of the countries which didn’t impose more severe Zero Covid measures.
Not so much rewriting Covid, then, as rewriting the facts. So much for them being sacred.