COVID-19: Time Capsule from October 2020

I’m writing this primarily because I want a marker in the ground that I can look back on in the coming years. I want to have written something public in the moment.

I wrote a letter to my MP on Friday. She is a Liberal Democrat, which seems a delicious irony for a politician supporting policies that are neither Liberal nor Democratic. I told her that I thought our politicians should trust the citizens of this country to manage their own personal risk, as they have been doing every day of their lives, instead of implementing scattershot, reactive, and arbitrary rules. I told her that I thought that the Government instructing us how and in what situations we can mourn our dead or welcome the birth of our children is disgusting.

Today, unfortunately, it was announced that we’ll head into a second national lockdown. The first, in March, closed all non-essential shops, workplaces, schools, and basically inhibited all forms of social interaction with people outside your household. This second will look a little lighter: they want to keep schools open and some semblance of the economy going.

I think the lockdown is stupid. I thought the first one was stupid, and I think the second one is probably more so. I think they are illiberal, heavy-handed policies, implemented by an increasingly authoritarian government aided and abetted by a public which has little respect for our liberty and core freedoms.

That’s the saddest thing about the whole affair, to me: the ease at which most people seem to toss away any conception of their own inherent rights as human beings. Twitter intellectuals and tenured academics alike pontificate on how we could do a better job of containing the virus if we were just a little more stringent with our rules. The British public, doing what they do best, tut at crowds of other people (it’s always other people) and write servile articles about how we bring it on ourselves. If only we listened to the rules and weren’t such naughty schoolchildren, we’d probably have beaten the virus by now and we could be allowed to go back to normal life.

I could write far too much, but Jonathan Sumption lays out the argument against lockdowns more eloquently and much more clearly than I can. You can find plenty of videos of him talking about coronavirus on Youtube. I like this one.

At its core, his argument is that wholescale lockdowns are immoral. People should be free to make up their own minds and manage their own personal risk. Sumption notes that “the problem about law as an instrument… is that individual circumstances are incredibly varied”.

A 22-year old who wants to go and see her ill relative in their house should be allowed to make that choice. A 75-year old who thinks it better to stay indoors, given his risk profile, should also be welcome to. Your risk from the virus is highly variable depending on your personal circumstances: mostly age and health status. But – and this is what is often forgotten – so are your costs from a lockdown. I am not being selfish here. I can sit inside, not lay eyes on another human for 12 weeks and be completely content. But we are already seeing the enormous damage to mental health in people less antisocial than me. All of these diffuse costs are ignored and sacrificed on the altar of getting the rate of coronavirus infections down.

I don’t want to turn this into a treatise, because I am not adequately equipped with the facts. Wherever I look on the internet I see cherry-picked data, often with subtly different definitions. Usually, the interpretation of that data either strongly supports or strongly opposes current policy. I could copy and paste some charts to support my point of view, but I would be lying to my future self when I read this back.

The hard truth is that I have to go on gut. I have to synthesise scattered bits of biased information and try to form my own view. No-one is giving me anything like a balanced picture. Not a single journalist at the press conference asked Boris Johnson any question which was remotely sceptical of lockdowns; all were, instead, wondering why they did not do it sooner. The estimates of fatality rates are so wide you could drive a truck through them. Evidence on the persistence of antibodies and immunity morph into discussions about t-cells and other forms of immunological response, and I don’t pretend to be a biologist or armchair epidemiologist. Fundamental differences in countries, populations, and responses seem to make any reasoned analysis incredibly difficult.

So the only chart I will include in this piece is the following from the ONS:

The red line is my addition. The median age of people in the UK is 40.5, meaning more than half of the UK population is below that red line, which as a whole has recorded ~500 deaths. Every death from COVID is a personal tragedy; much like every death from a road traffic accident, a malicious illness, or even a perfectly peaceful farewell. We have all experienced death, and we all want to avoid it as much as possible. The question is the price we think it appropriate to pay for that avoidance, and who should bear that cost. The current situation seems a little to me like forcing everyone in the population to have a prostate exam.

My sense is that the hysteria about COVID hits all sorts of human psychological biases. People perfectly willing to accept the risk of driving at 70mph in a tiny metal box are terrified by the unseen bogeyman, bigged up by the media. Deaths from delayed cancer treatment and suicide seem to be isolated and somehow unconnected; inherently less scary than a contagious disease.

I was going to finish this post with predictions. People making a stand for something should make predictions and point out where they differ from the consensus. Those predictions should be falsifiable, and they should give you grounds to either cheer at your prescience or admit defeat if you got it wrong. The problem is that I cannot even find a consensus. A few weeks ago Vallance and Whitty (chief science and medical officers respectively) told us that we could see 200,000 COVID cases a day by now, but they stressed it wasn’t a prediction, just a projection, as if that makes it better to publish doom-mongering charts to the entire population of a country.

We’re currently at 24,405 cases a day, so a cool 8 times less than their ‘projection’. Apparently, though, even that current level is meaningfully worse than the Government’s ‘worst-case scenario’. Confused? I am.

How can I set out a stall and make predictions against that sort of intellectual dishonesty?

So I have to content myself with writing this post and putting something broad on paper. In short:

  • I’m not convinced lockdowns work when dealing with an infectious disease that travels the globe. Are we reducing infections, or simply moving them around?
  • Even if they did work, I think there is no moral basis to lock down the population of a country.
  • I am sad that the public seems to still disagree with me and marginally seems to support lockdowns. I think that is a bad sign for our democracy and our fundamental rights.

If, in five years’ time, there is a good long-term study that proves more stringent lockdowns reduced all-cause mortality, I will cede that argument. We could then say that lockdown saved lives. Whether it will have been worth the erosion of our liberties and the hardship imposed on people will be the unanswerable question. But I wonder whether I will even have to consider that trade-off.