Lockdown backlash – and why it’s not good

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.

Via Te Pūnaha Matatini.

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.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020


22 thoughts on “Lockdown backlash – and why it’s not good

  1. I hear what you say loud and clear, Matthew.
    You make the point (which I have heard made by several scientists), that finding a vaccine is by no means certain. Given this fact, is a periodic series of lockdowns really a sustainable solution?
    I know that drugs (some already in existence) are being tested as possible treatments for COVID-19. Perhaps this, combined with rigorous testing (as happened in South Korea), where, incidentally they avoided a lockdown, is the answer at least in the short-term.
    I don’t see a periodic series of lockdowns as being the answer. The damage done by the virus should not be taken lightly. However, the social implications of lockdowns also need to be researched.
    Sadly, in the UK, lockdown has seen a spike in domestic violence and suicides.
    Whilst on balance, I support (albeit reluctantly) the present lockdown, the impact (socially and economically) of a series of periodic lockdowns does not, in my view bare thinking about. Rigorous testing and (hopefully a vaccine) are, surely the answer.
    As someone who has diabetes I am well aware of the dangers of the virus, but my liberty is extremely important to me. This is another reason why, despite the dangers, I am extremely wary of lockdowns. Although I do (as I say above) reluctantly accept the reasons for the current one.
    Kevin

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    1. There’s no question that lengthy or repeated lockdowns is are ultimately very damaging both to society and to an economy. Our PM, here in NZ, has pointed out that dropping back to a full lockdown will undo progress made during the first one and repeat the economic damage. On the other hand, simply letting the virus rip – as, in effect, is what has happened in the US, simply provokes catastrophic damage. Why have other places had different experiences with partial lock-downs? There is, I think, a cultural aspect to the Covid-19 pandemic in the sense that a society which typically has a lot more interaction will also experience more spread than a society that has less. I suspect this explains some of the differences between the styles of lockdown we’ve seen. There have also been a couple of experiments, I am not convinced the Swedish one is actually working. As of yesterday they had 21,520 confirmed cases, with 1,515 needing intensive care, and 2,653 deaths. Here in NZ there have been 1,132 cases and 19 deaths. The Prime Minister has been notified of each death as it happens. (The government will update numbers in a couple of hours as I write this). NZ is lucky in that we can shut off access fairly easily, and there is an excellent background of biosecurity experience now being applied – the way the Covid-19 outbreak has been dealt with is identical to the way outbreaks of disease in the farm animal population here have been successfully dealt with.

      The problem, I think, is that at this stage governments are between a rock and a hard place in terms of dealing with the issue. Drug treatments are, I think, certainly more likely in the short term than a vaccine, but one of the issues will be finding out exactly what this disease does and how it progresses. That’ll take time yet.

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  2. Our modern western culture encourages people to be selfish, and lockdown is a group action. I’m shocked and horrified by what is happening in the USA, but thier soceity appears fundamentally selfish to me anyway……

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    1. Yes, that aura of selfishness has been cultivated across many western societies in the last couple of generations worldwide. It’s true in most of the western developed nations, I think, and it’s been getting worse of late. I keep thinking one of the immediate causes is a combination of reduced government service coupled with the rise of very large corporates in the past couple of generations. I gather that if a ‘corporation’ was considered a ‘person’ – which is legally the case in the US – their conduct would be diagnosed as psychotic. Here’s the link to an article on it: https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201103/why-corporations-are-psychotic

      Of course these observations – reflecting impressions of societies as a whole – don’t apply to individuals within them. That’s true for all human societies, a dissonance that anthropologists wrestle with (I did an undergrad degree in that field, way back when – interesting stuff). I have friends from the US, in person and who have developed online over the years (‘penfriends’, to use the old-style term), who are kind, generous, smart, thoughtful, warm-hearted and all-round excellent people.

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  3. I know exactly what you mean. The situation is so scary, yet somehow problem are not understanding its magnanimity. All we can hope for is cure that is decided soon, before half the population is wiped off from the face of the Earth. I hope you are safe!

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  4. Couldn’t agree more, Matthew. I’ve had to curtail my time on Twitter because the callous disregard for those who experience the serious disease is…disgusting. I’ve even come across people advocating for the modern day equivalent of putting the elderly on ice flows and waving goodbye. I’d like to put some of /them/ on ice flows…

    Ahem, and the long term problems are exactly as you’ve described. Easing restrictions when the rate of spread in the community is not known, strikes me as simply stupid. Asymptomatic spreaders are out there. Ditto pre-symptomatic spreaders, but no one really knows how many there are, or how infectious they are, or how long they remain infectious because to date, most countries are still only testing those with symptoms. The blind leading the blind. And this is not even factoring in the effects of a /second/ wave. Wasn’t the second wave of the 1918 pandemic much worse than the first?

    Sorry, my respect for humanity is at an all time low.

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  5. I agree!! I see people claiming they want their freedom back – are they too stupid to realize that that freedom just might kill them or ones they love? It’s very frustrating!!

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    1. It always surprises me how human societies as a whole behave in ways that are usually self-destructive and stupid – this despite the responsible conduct of many, the intelligence of many, and so on. I guess it’s to do with the way people emotionally respond to events. Right now, that’s a worry. The virus and the way it works isn’t something that can be reasoned with.

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  6. I think there are three primary factors at work here, but they apply mostly if not wholly to us Yanks. First and foremost, I’m pretty sure the last time there was a real pandemic scare here in the States that really affected people on a visceral level was polio back in the late 50s to early 60s. Thanks specifically to organizations like WHO and the CDC, outbreaks since then have by vigilance and expertise been limited in their effects to almost, in seeming, like no apparent danger existed. This leads directly to the second factor: here in the States there’s always been a “cult of ignorance” based on a truly faulty interpretation of the “democratic” notion that one person is as good as another, that interpretation being the opinion of Joe Average is the equal of any expert’s on any given subject. (The notion of course refers to the idea of each citizen being equal under the law, which is quite a different thing.) The third factor: here in the States for the last half-century there’s been a deliberate attempt to undermine the principles of professionalism and expertise that feeds on the second factor. There might be a fourth factor, actually: the increasing tendency of parents and schools over the last generation or two to promote the idea among children that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. This fourth factor operates on the other three to convert the idea of public safety and health into “the government is interfering with MY RIGHTS.”

    Heavy sigh. My people, my people.

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    1. Hi Tom – I hope all’s OK for you over in the US. I suspect what we’re seeing is a human thing generally; it’s given particular ‘character’ in different nations by specific national sub-cultures around the world. I suspect it’s been given basic shape by the fact that we’re broadly in ‘end-game’ phase for the neo-liberal ideology that came out of the end of the Cold War 35-40 years ago, long enough for people today to know no different. Mix into that, as you point out, the idea of ‘Joe Average’ being as expert on any subject as the experts – and given a voice with social media – and it’s a recipe for spreading misinformation faster than you can say ‘village gossip’.

      One thing that’s come out of this for me has been the astonishing stupidity of human society, en masse. Individual people, even groups, can be erudite, literate, well-read, etc – and yet, somehow, the majority ‘feel’ of a society as a whole presents as self-destructive and stupid. I am not sure why other than to suppose that people, indvidually, react emotionally to any event and will believe whatever validates their need for security, safety and so forth – particularly if they feel they have no control over their destiny. Right now Covid-19 is pretty frightening, and that’ll fuel the hopeful assertions that I keep seeing online of it not being severe (somehow), of governments deceiving people, of the pandemic not being real, and so forth.

      Incidentally NZ has its share of deniers too. The big one just now is ‘well, nobody much got sick so why did we have lockdown?’ Yeah, I know… The method our government used is IDENTICAL to the one it uses to squash disease outbreaks in livestock or plant populations – and it works if can be properly applied. Animals and plants conform (well, they don’t get a choice…) – but based on the way everybody’s been partying here the past week or so since lockdown was (slightly) relaxed, humans have chosen otherwise. The swarm of people mobbing fast-food joints as soon as they reopened drew official ire. If the disease reoccurs – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it did – that’ll simply compound the economic cost. The government, I think, wanted just one hit instead of a series of them, but the way people are now behaving, we’ll get the latter. As we say in NZ… ‘bugger’.

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  7. I’m in the USA. We don’t have a virus. What we have is political propaganda to be used for winning an election. We have an endless stream of opportunists profiting off pain and suffering. We have a united slogan of “Me, me, me,” which is to say, we have no “we” at all. A once great nation (but far from perfect) is racing towards breathing its last and the greed and selfishness is so acute many people don’t even see what’s happening. Ignorance? Did I mention ignorance? Oh, we have plenty of that, too, and it’s been consciously honed for decades by those undermining education so as to have a stupid, but easily led, populous. Now, when we need people to be smart there aren’t enough of them to contain the spread of the virus we don’t have. We can’t have a virus. After all, if we had a virus there’d be a reason to remain at home. Magic, also known as the dollar, has made it go away. So, yes, by all means, let’s open the country while deaths climb. I have to wonder, though, how many purchases do dead people make?

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    1. Hi Christina, I hope all’s OK for you. I’ve been enjoying your blog posts (especially your map discussions!) – I am still having trouble getting connex to ‘like’ and comment but I think that’s at my end. On matters virus – I lament the apparent fate of the US. A place with so many wonderful people, diverse, culturally rich, exciting. And now – looking in from outside – reduced to bitter, violent fragmentation in which emotion and hate seem to be the new watch-words. I think the virus is merely a trigger for longer-standing issues. It’s true for all nations, really; the past 30-40 years of neo-liberalism have served to create deep divisions within society through the way it’s funnelled so much wealth to the rich. Each, I think, will express those strains differently depending on their own social frameworks. New Zealand has its deniers too – as I remarked to Tom, the fact that we’ve functionally stamped it out with a hard lockdown has led people to insist that there was no need for a lockdown. And now they’re partying. I expect that will serve only to provoke another outbreak.

      What the future holds is unclear, but I guess one can but hope for the best while, alas, preparing for the worst.

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      1. How nice, WP didn’t let me know you responded…

        Thanks for the kind comments about my posts. Yes, it would seem the problem is on your end since this is now a regular WP site. I do note your likes on FB, though. Thank you!

        I agree with your US assessment 100%. For me, living here, it’s a strange mix of knowing these selfish, hateful issues were here all along and ignored, and not recognizing the country I thought I was growing-up in. I fear it’s a downward spiral given the policies being implemented and the economy that’s about to implode. This is my country, but it isn’t the country I believed in.

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        1. I’m working on the connex thing! Have had some funny WP things going on for a while. I can, at least, use FB to contact you. I think I need to set aside half a day to tackle all the niggly glitches that plague my computing setup.

          I don’t know what has happened to the US. It definitely seems on a downward spiral, and that is so sad. It is such an amazing place with so many wonderful people, and the ideals on which Messrs Jefferson, Franklin etc set it up have stood the test of time.

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  8. Matthew, I have to say that I think we are beaten. $130 trillion is thought to be parked offshore and none of it is mobilised to stop the virus. You see the stock exchanges going up, gold at $1700. Useless. Yet protestors turn up with guns to fight for their right to go back to work (and risk infection) to create someone else’s wealth. I think it’s over and we’re seeing the begining of panic. I don’t think of that as gloomy, there’s been so much to like about lock-down for the planet. A bright future that ticks all the eco-boxes perhaps… the paradigm shift people talk about. Maybe the protestors should head for the Cayman Islands?

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    1. I agree. I think the current paradigm reached its ‘use by’ date 10-13 years ago when the Global Financial Crisis kicked up just how hollow the de-regulated economy and the ‘wealth’ it produced actually was. It limped on because there was nothing to replace it – showing how successful the effort to embed it had been. And as you say, those who benefited managed to get those who voted for them – and who they were dispossessing – to support it. The Covid-19 issue is a trigger, not a cause, amplifying all that has been building up. It worries me. Situations where the ‘haves’ persist with the system that enriches them even after it’s failed for everybody else are common enough in history. These moments never end well.

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  9. Great conversation you’ve started, Matthew. I have the feeling we could solve the problem of lockdown-versus-economy if only we are willing to think outside the box and change the economy. Why insist people have jobs before they can participate in the economy and sustain their very existence? A universal basic income could go a long way to keep things going while covid-19 rampages around.

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    1. Thanks – yes, it’s been good to get a discussion going from so many viewpoints – and from around the world. It’s a unique time in human history that so many people around the globe are having the same experience, and can talk about it together.

      On matters of economy – I think it’s definitely time for some out-of-the-box thinking. The neo-liberal version of capitalism (and it IS a version) seems to have reached its use-by date. When the system that’s meant to prosper all of us ends up funnelling most of the planet’s wealth into the hands of less than one percent of the people, leaving even the middle classes struggling to make ends meet, it’s clearly failed.

      A new paradigm is needed – similar in dimension, I suspect, to the way a new paradigm was used to pull the world out of the Great Depression eighty years ago and create the version of capitalism that worked fairly well from then into the late 1970s. It is, I guess, a sign of the extent to which neo-liberalism has been embedded by its architects that no credible new paradigm has been able to gain much traction so far. I think a universal basic income is a start. How that would be paid for is another matter. However, there is growing evidence that the 1980s notion that the money supply doesn’t exceed output, lest inflation break out, isn’t true any more. And for now, there is a need for such a universal income – certainly in the short term, and perhaps longer. I suspect Covid-19 and its effects will be around for a couple of years, at least.

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