Thursday 1 October 2020 8:13 PM UTC
By Jeevan Vipinachandran
Empty trains. Deserted town centres. Robust government advise to stay at home. Sounds like something out of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie. Yet we lived through it for several months in 2020.
Now the question is, do we need to re-impose lockdown type measures again? Is it worth considering that the novel Covid-19, with a mortality rate of approximately between 1% and 11% depending on the country, perhaps is not as lethal as first feared? Factors like diet, fitness and demographics –population, age and ethnicity- are important factors in mortality.
The economic cost of the lockdowns imposed to combat coronavirus globally has been devastating. Most of the world’s largest economies have lost massive chunks of GDP due to shutting nearly
everything down. In the UK there is talk of the highest level of unemployment since the 1980s, if not worse. All of this to deal with a virus that has taken, at the time of writing, just over 41,000 lives from a population of over 60 million.
This is not to sound callous or dismissive. Every human life is precious, and there are some real tragedies for the families of victims behind those grim statistics. However, it is important to keep some sense of perspective. The number of total mortalities from the virus globally has just exceeded 1 million. By contrast, the great Spanish Flu of 1918-20 – the most deadly viral event of modern times – killed close to 50 million people over two years. In terms of mortality the coronavirus is much less dangerous than some extant diseases today, such as Ebola which has over 50% mortality rate.
Besides the extremely high economic cost of lockdowns, there is an important secondary cost to mental health and other social factors. For the many who enjoy the idea of working from home, the first stages of lockdown may not have been so bad. However eventually drawbacks such as the lack of a fixed office routine and the rigidity of being stuck at home may begin to bite. Many people who enjoyed social and health activities from sport to yoga to games now also find the time for their favourite hobbies curtailed.
Meetings via Zoom are not for everyone, and may not be a great working experience for some. On the other hand, however, it could be argued that lockdown is a very functional way to help
healthcare systems get up to speed with such a major public health challenge. Quite importantly, it buys time to acquire resources, staff and equipment in readiness to deal with a large series of hospitalisations. This helps ensure that healthcare systems are not overwhelmed by the sheer number of people coming in with more severe forms of the virus. The number of people hospitalised with Covid-19 is slowly rising. NHS staff I spoke to are broadly supportive of tighter measures to control the virus.
One NHS employee commented “How many deaths are acceptable compared to the impact on economy and liberty? Does it matter that there is a higher mortality rate amongst the older population, Black, Asian and ethnic minority groups or healthcare professionals? I would argue that the current mortality rate (particularly amongst these groups) are not acceptable.
There are proven benefits seen globally with the first lockdown and we should not undermine a public health message validated by experts globally”. She further suggested that while lockdown would impact people economically and socially, the overriding concern had to be preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed in a winter second wave. The large numbers of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people dying from the virus surely should be a major concern going forward.
An NHS therapist I spoke to mentioned ‘Long Covid’ as a possible factor influencing the British government to tighten public restrictions. This affects the kidneys, blood and liver among other organs over a long period. She wondered if the government ‘worried more about long Covid than the death rate’, and its impact on the NHS, welfare and social care services financially.
The fear that Long Covid will cause lasting disabilities to ordinary people, costing many billions a year for decades to come may be the real reason for the strict government reaction recently as the number of positives increased.
Other members of the public are not so sure about lockdown. An IT support worker lamented the loss of normality which came with the new school year. “Ramping up lockdown measures under such short notice periods, as well as ramping down, is causing havoc domestically”, he said. While public support for robust measures to control Covid-19 remains strong, this support may fray if it means another full lockdown.
This has been evident in the recent protests in Trafalgar Square. Is the sacrifice worth the economic impact on the majority, in order to protect the minority from a disease with a mortality rate significantly lower than that for most previous pandemics in history? The politicians have the unenviable task of grappling with both sides of the strong arguments. Perhaps there is no right or wrong answer, and no way to win!
Jeevan Vipinachandran is a writer and political analyst. He studied Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics, specialising in political violence and counter-terrorism. Follow him on Twitter @jeevanvc and www.jeevanvc.com.
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