by Alexis FitzGerald
I consider myself to be left-wing on virtually every political topic: I am a socially-liberal social democrat who believes in a strong social safety net, high-quality public healthcare for all, robust environmental protections (including shifting to renewable energy sources immediately and protecting half of the globe for nature), restorative justice, legal abortion and reducing inequality and corporate influence over politics. I despise Donald Trump and believe Brexit was a huge mistake. I am firstly presenting my political biases in order to dispel the caricature that has emerged of lockdown sceptics as being all right-wing, Trumpian Brexiteers. I think this labelling has been very unfortunate and misguided, as I too believe that the lockdown policy in response to Covid-19 has been an utter and complete disaster, and that most of the left have gotten this issue completely wrong. I will argue that the position of the lockdown sceptic really should be a more naturally left-wing cause to adopt, and those on the left should not be distracted by the reflexive partisan politics and virtue signalling that has taken over so much of the debate around lockdowns.
The left should be interested in protecting working class and marginalised people and shielding them from economic hardship and exploitation, first and foremost. However, by many reasonable projections, these lockdown policies are delivering us into the worst economic depression in world history, and this will certainly negatively affect working class and marginalised people more than anyone else. Small businesses are being swallowed up by the thousands by large multinational corporations like Amazon (very much like a novel virus, sweeping through our populations and killing off the weakest among us), and automation has now taken on a whole new impetus for these companies. There will be few jobs left to return to for those furloughed by this lockdown, and there will be no resources to invest in worthy left-wing causes such as better public healthcare and vaccines, renewable energy systems, public transport, universal basic income, upskilling of the workforce, etc. We have developed complete tunnel vision on one cause of death, and forgotten or relegated all of the other causes of human death and suffering. We are now casually discussing the possibility of new famines in Africa and India and of economic bailouts three times the size of the 2008 economic crash, after just one month of lockdown. These outcomes are by no means guaranteed by the appearance of Covid-19 itself. This is the shocking result of lockdown policy, and a stark reminder of how disastrous public policy can be in the wrong hands. The economy is not just some toy for the ultra-rich (although aspects of it can be, e.g. stock markets), it is also crucial to the continued prosperity and flourishing of average working families. Therefore, the flippant dismissal of economic concerns by some on the left is a massive mistake, the consequences of which will be suffered for generations, and the weight of which will fall particularly on the shoulders of young people like myself. This has never been about life versus money, it has always been about life versus life.
In our current media climate it is not often mentioned that national and international lockdowns in response to a virus outbreak are completely unprecedented in world history, and that this is for good reason. Not even in war time did Western governments impose such severe restrictions on citizens’ personal liberties (churches and schools largely stayed open in the United Kingdom during World War II). And it is not just our liberty that we are losing, but our livelihoods and our young people’s futures. It will be young people and struggling working-class families who will bear the burden of the economic aftermath of this policy and who will have to pay back these forced Covid-19 subsidy loans that are being thrust upon us after being forced out of work by government fiat, through economic depression and inevitable austerity over many years. Multi-billion dollar socialism for mismanaged corporations and banks will certainly continue unabated, and ordinary people will be made to foot the bill once again, just as we did in 2008. If we continue with varying levels of lockdown until the end of the summer (and perhaps beyond), we are guaranteed to have destroyed generations of human potential. We on the left should have seen this coming months ago, and we should actively be resisting the lockdowns which caused it.
Given that national lockdowns have never before been attempted and are so extreme in nature, the onus falls upon governments implementing them to provide overwhelming and inarguable evidence and data to justify this policy and to prove its efficacy beyond any reasonable doubt. However, it is clear that governments and public health officials have completely failed us in this regard. You just have to take a look at the Worldometers data for Covid-19 that anyone can access in order to make comparisons between different countries to see how our governments and public health officials have failed. However, there are other scientists and scholars presenting this with more sophisticated statistical analyses which I highly recommend reading, such as Wilfred Reilly’s recent articles on the topic. For example, Sweden had 2,763 infections per million, and 343 deaths per million as of 12th May 2020. These statistics are quite similar to my own country, the Republic of Ireland, with a much higher 4,739 infections per million and a similar 303 deaths per million, also as of 12th May; yet Ireland has been in full lockdown for some seven weeks at this point – a fellow European country with a similar population, similarly dense cities, similar age profiles in the population and similar sizes and densities of nursing homes. Sweden never introduced a national lockdown, but rather maintained strong recommended (rather than government-mandated) social distancing measures while attempting to shield the most vulnerable. Sweden kept its economy open and kept its populace as calm and rationally-informed as possible in the face of this crisis, and has recently been praised by the World Health Organisation for their efforts in tackling the crisis in a long-term sustainable fashion. Sweden also has a much lower death rate than Belgium, Spain, Italy, UK, etc. Those who like to point out that other Scandinavian countries have lower deaths per million seem to forget that Sweden is simply further along the infection curve than these neighbouring countries, and thus that they have not saved any lives but rather delayed the death sentences of those vulnerable people in their populations by a mere few weeks or months – a delaying strategy which could be considered to be socially destructive in itself. And all the while, detractors conveniently forget all those European countries that have fared the same or much worse than Sweden according to the numbers.
This is replicated virtually everywhere when you compare countries or US states in lockdown to those non-lockdown, social-distancing countries or US states such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Nebraska, Wyoming, etc. Therefore, social distancing appears to be doing almost all of the work for us in terms of controlling the spread of the virus. These are live experiments that we are witnessing before our eyes which show us that lockdown is not even working well in terms of our public health, and for some bizarre reason governments and their health advisors are completely ignoring them and not learning any lessons from them. Every week of lockdown that goes by is digging us further into a deep hole of economic turmoil which will take us years to get out of. The evidence for the efficacy of lockdowns is simply not forthcoming, and therefore the policy is utterly unjustified – however much we may imagine it to be. Lockdowns were first instituted when we had no hard evidence to hand, only models (which have since turned out to be wildly out of sync with reality), and the policy has not been re-evaluated in any serious scientific way since this time.
For some strange reason, many people (particularly on the left) appear to want the Swedish model to fail, and the bizarrely-negative media coverage they receive should simply be ignored. In normal times, Sweden is held up as a model country on the left for virtually everything from health care to prisons to immigration policies. Suddenly, they are now viewed as the pariah of the world, being run by semi-fascistic leaders who should be (as one Twitter user noted) “carted off to the Hague” – presumably for crimes against humanity. This level of irrational ire could only be caused by those who are frustrated that the Swedes have not panicked and have instead taken a smart, long-term, balanced, middle-ground approach and have thus succeeded by the numbers while respecting their citizens’ basic liberties and livelihoods, which are also essential to living a decent life. And I really think we should be doing the same.
Furthermore, the lockdowns are almost certainly bad for our public health. Covid-19 is not by any means the only thing that kills people. Many people are now too scared to go to hospitals to get important treatments, tests and surgeries that are certainly losing us lives to undiagnosed cancers, heart issues, etc. Where our healthcare systems cannot cope with Covid-19, we should immediately have funded and expanded our capacity (e.g. with temporary hospitals) rather than locking down society. Our mental health problems, stress, addiction and abuse levels are increasing. Furthermore, it is a well-known sociological phenomenon that suicides – particularly amongst men – increase when a recession puts them out of work for extended periods of time. And our immune systems are weakening. We are a social primate, and our immune systems evolved over millennia to be kept strong by continual exposure to microbes via social contact and being outdoors, thus developing in us an immunity from many different diseases. Therefore, being inside our homes for weeks or months, away from other people and dousing every surface with bleach and sanitiser is almost certainly detrimental in the long term for our immune systems. There are guaranteed to be many novel microbes and diseases other than Covid-19 to which we need to develop an immunity as a species through continued social contact. When lockdowns are finally released, we may see a surge of new infections of various kinds due to this weakening of our immune systems. Recently we have seen that 66% of new Covid-19 cases in New York are of people who have been locked down for weeks, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. This indicates that either the virus is much more widespread in New York than was previously thought, and/or that the weeks of lockdown have significantly weakened locked-down New Yorkers’ immune systems, making them much more vulnerable to the virus – and other illnesses.
Furthermore, if the economic collapse continues, we may expect new famines in Africa and India that could threaten many tens to hundreds of thousands of lives, if not more. And this is not to mention the fact that we are losing vast sums of tax money and borrowing power every day by paying large proportions of our national populaces to stay home. This is money that we could be investing in our public health care systems in order to increase capacity, improve treatments and facilities, fund new government vaccines and antibiotic development programmes, etc. So it is very likely that with all these added “lockdown deaths” and the catastrophic loss of public money to spend on health care and vaccines, we are producing a significant net loss of life which will by far outweigh any lives that one might claim to have been saved by the lockdowns (which is a questionable claim at best, as we have seen). Surely it cannot now be the case that Covid-19 deaths are the only deaths that matter any more? Looking at all causes of death and suffering in this world together, an intelligent person should conclude that lockdowns are definitively a net-negative policy for our society and for the globe.
One might think that – at the very least – this lockdown experience would have dramatically improved our sense of national societal solidarity, reflecting the tired and facile comparisons with war time conditions. But even this has been dealt a serious blow by the lockdowns. We are now being primed by our governments, media and public health officials to behave like misanthropic, obsessive-compulsive hypochondriacs who are to regard any other person as a potential viral infestation to be avoided at all costs. Just picture the viral force-field that surrounds people in public health infographics on social distancing. The most basic activities of a social primate like us are now considered to be forms of contagion-ridden, death-spreading evil. I must point out that no such moralising inanity around viruses is entertained when it comes to influenza, which spreads through social contact and kills many tens of thousands worldwide every year. This is because contagion is usually understood to be an inescapable part of life as a social primate and not something one can feasibly control beyond a reasonable degree, such as by staying at home (and/or wearing a mask) when one feels sick, and by maintaining basic hygiene. Things other than life itself are indeed valuable to us – including social contact – and we often take minor risks with our lives for this very reason. Living one’s life is simply inherently risky.
I wish I could say this were hyperbole, but unfortunately I cannot. Barriers that are usually lowered between citizens in times of collective crisis are in fact being raised higher, both physically and emotionally. The invented two-metre distance must be maintained at all times, and in my experience people don’t smile at, or talk to each other lest they are breached by the viral force-field around each human infestation. International solidarity is also waning. We are being told to consider anyone arriving from abroad as a potential disease vector who must lock themselves away for two weeks, despite the obvious logical interjection that you are just as likely to get Covid-19 from your local supermarket (in virtually every major country in the world now) as you are from someone arriving from Brazil or South Africa or Nigeria or India or Turkey – with the possible exceptions of those two global hotspots, New York and northern Italy. A recent protest occurred in late April 2020 at a port in Dingle, Co. Kerry, in the south-west of Ireland, by Irish fishermen who were outraged that a boat originating from Spain would arrive on our shores bringing us our seafood dinner, lest they also bring us their contagion. So to add insult to injury, the lockdown measures have been disconcertingly well designed to accentuate the worst misanthropic aspects of our character, undermining our national and international solidarity and exacerbating base xenophobia.
We have to start thinking much more reasonably, rationally and maturely about the death rate from Covid-19 and the kinds of risk levels that different people and age groups experience. The death rate for the virus is simply far lower than we originally believed it to be at the beginning of the crisis. Randomised serology testing studies carried out in multiple countries in Europe and in the US have shown that from c.4–15% (and even 30% in some cases, depending on the study) of our national populations in Europe and the US either have Covid-19 or have had it recently. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that the virus has been around for quite a bit longer than we previously believed: France recently reported a confirmed case of Covid-19 from December 2019. Any honest analysis of the statistics around this virus (rather than self-serving and scaremongering anecdotes about the tiny number of younger people who have died from this disease) will show that it is an exceptionally ageist one. If you are under 65 and without any major pre-existing conditions (such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.), your chances of dying from Covid-19 are extremely slim; and for people under 30, your chances are infinitesimally so. If nursing homes had been adequately protected from Covid-19 in Ireland, our death rate would be one third of its current rate. Therefore, keeping the entire work-force and all schoolchildren – children are almost entirely immune to this virus – locked up at home is a completely crazy strategy to adopt. As Lord Sumption has pointed out, we are all perfectly capable of assessing our own personal levels of risk based on our age, health, who we live with, etc. and of adjusting the way we live our life accordingly. Some may want to keep working from home or staying isolated or cocooned, while some vulnerable people may want to take a risk with their own lives by ending their isolation because they value things other than life itself, such as being able to spend time with their loved ones. We don’t need an incessantly-intrusive nanny state telling us which friends we can and cannot meet, when and where we can go outside, whether or not we are allowed to exchange goods and services between consenting parties, etc. This sense of fundamental personal liberty – which I had hoped would be strong on the left – appears to be depressingly absent, and in its place there exists a kind of docile supinity and subservience to state power and lab coats. All but forgotten is Benjamin Franklin’s stark warning to us from 260 years ago, that “[t]hose who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. This is more relevant than ever today. Some governments are using this lockdown as an excuse to undermine democratic institutions and norms, and in some countries even to seize full dictatorial-decree powers (such as Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary), while others are using it as an opportunity to loosen environmental protections (such as in Slovenia).
Ultimately, the decision as to whether or not we prolong the lockdown is not a scientific or public health decision. It is a political, public-policy and economic decision. Public health science can – and should – inform these decisions, but they are ultimately political ones, and politicians hiding with cowardice behind public health officials will eventually be seen for what they are. Now more than ever, we need politicians who are willing to show leadership and a steady, rational hand in a crisis – something that has been noticeably absent throughout this period.
Some like to claim that all of these negative outcomes would have happened naturally in any case because of the virus itself, but this could not be further from the truth. Lockdown policy, combined with panic-inducing, clickbait-oriented and scaremongering media coverage, has caused much of the damage we are experiencing. This is a government- and media-induced insult to add to the injury of the virus itself. My biggest fear is that governments and citizens will continue to defend the lockdown policy (operating on a kind of sunk costs fallacy) and will never realise or admit how much damage it has done (ascribing all the damage to the virus rather than to the lockdown policies), and will then repeat this policy ad infinitum every time a new outbreak of Covid-19 or some other contagion occurs. We simply cannot survive as a civilisation in this way. Governments should step forward and admit honestly that the lockdown policy was a mistake, and that they were simply acting as best they could without available evidence at the time – evidence which, increasingly, we have at our finger-tips. These governments should shift immediately to a Swedish or similar model – for instance with a policy of mandatory mask-wearing in public or crowded spaces – and those of us on the left (as well as those in the centre who are still supporting the lockdowns) need to realise this necessity. At the very least, even if we do not have the wisdom and rational forethought at this time to end these lockdowns as soon as is humanly possible, then I sincerely hope that we will regain enough of our collective rational minds in the coming months in order to realise how destructive these lockdown policies have been, and to make certain that we never again repeat this strategy. Three similarly-sized pandemics were experienced by humanity during the 20th century, and we will continue to face this challenge in the future. Lockdowns were never implemented then. They were wise to avoid it, and we would be wise to learn from them.