The growing backlash worldwide against lockdowns to restrict Covid-19 worries me. Especially because, until a vaccine is available, lockdown is the only effective tool to keep people safe from a virus that continues to surprise us with its potential to harm.
I’m a Kiwi where, this week, the Prime Minister – whose leadership during this crisis has been a world model – declared the disease effectively crushed. It’s not surprising. One of the things New Zealand is traditionally good at is biosecurity. It’s been crucial to our prosperity.
So the plan to stop Covid-19 getting more than a foothold, and then ‘stamp it out’ from the human population wasn’t a pipe dream. The government’s strict lock-down worked. This has been clear from a chart produced by the research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland. Check out the two projection lines showing the expected course with and without lockdown. Then look at where the actual case numbers went. Yah – the projections were accurate.
I understand why people want to return to normal. Humans are a social animal; for most of us it’s hard to be isolated. There’s also the fact that if nobody’s working, the flows of money that sustain society won’t happen.
But let’s consider the counter-factual. If Covid-19 is let rip, as initially proposed in the UK, what then? The narrative around the world is either we have a lockdown, OR we have a prosperous economy where a few die but everybody else benefits. Actually, this is wrong. Recent research in the US at Kellogg Insight makes clear that the economic impact of an uncontrolled pandemic and no lockdown is higher, longer-term, than the economic impact of lockdown. Check it out here. In short, the ‘lockdown or prosperity’ choice is a ‘false dilemma’ fallacy. The modelling shows that an economic crash will happen either way – and it’ll likely be worse if there’s no lockdown. And that’s aside from the economic crash that was going to come anyway, because the underlying triggers for the GFC a dozen years ago weren’t fixed. It’s going to be important not to confuse the two issues.
The other justification for ‘back to normal’ is that more people die of the flu, or in car accidents, so why worry? I’ve seen this reduced to polemic, especially on social media. It’s deeply callous – effectively, ‘people die anyway, so who cares about a few more?’ So I hope those promoting this idea don’t lose a loved one to the disease. Or themselves.
The other problem is that Covid-19 is a brand new disease. We’re only at the beginning of the learning curve about it. When the pandemic began, the virus was seen as a throat-and-lung issue that was only serious for the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions. And deaths, by and large, have mostly occurred in these groups. But since then reports have emerged of outcomes that include:
- Otherwise healthy young individuals with Covid-19 suffering massive strokes as a result of blood-clotting. Anticoagulants are ineffective.
- Damage to major organs such as brain, kidneys and heart.
- Kawasaki disease (a vascular problem) and toxic shock syndrome in children.
- ‘Frostbite toes’.
- According to the USNI, the destroyer USS Kidd has had a severe outbreak since 22 April – after thirty days isolated at sea. That’s just over two ‘cycles’ of the 14-day period on which worldwide lockdown timings have been calculated. As yet, nobody knows why the ship suffered the outbreak.
- Nobody yet knows if there are long-term consequences for those who have recovered, including those who had a mild dose.
- There is evidence that the virus exists without symptoms in some people, who spread it (for this to explain the Kidd outbreak implies a sustained chain of symptomless transmission over two cycles – possible, but unlikely.)
- There has been a ‘spike’ of deaths formally given as due to other causes in Covid-19 affected nations, on timing directly correlating with the spread of Covid-19. This reflects a range of factors including the fact that people with other issues couldn’t get help thanks to hospital overloading. But it begs questions. The issue of death being attributed to a proximate cause (usually pneumonia) but actually caused by virus was a problem during the 1918-19 flu pandemic.
- Nobody knows how long immunity lasts.
- There are reports of recursion in recovered patients. Whether that’s due to false-positive tests or other factors isn’t known yet.
Answers will be found, but it’ll take time. Until then, it seems to me, anything other than caution is going to be gambling with lives. And longer-term prosperity.
There’s one other thing. To date, no successful human vaccine has ever been produced for any coronavirus.
All these things, to me, suggest that lockdown is wise. The economic damage will likely be less than if the disease is let rip. What worries me is that, as I write this, people seem eager to break lockdown rules – even in New Zealand. The battle is not won; and if people slack off, it’ll be lost. There will be time to party later.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020