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‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Most of us have heard that statement before, Isaac Newton’s third law of motion as it is. It has, of course, significance in our daily lives. That is to say, every decision we take has additional consequences, with these often being quite removed from the focus of the original action.
In the aftermath of the rather panicked, dithering response (eh, thanks China and WHO for properly forewarning us, not) from many countries to our current pandemic, it is now quite clear that those making the decisions did so, ultimately, with just one goal in mind: ‘Stop coronavirus at all costs.’ Scant consideration appears to have been given to the knock-on effects of the extraordinary measures introduced.
Once the mantra flipped from ‘it’s just like the common flu’ to ‘this is a dangerous and deadly pandemic’ (the flu is deadly as well, of course), all efforts were put into defeating it — for the most part at least.
The early projections of a shocking global death toll — in the millions — convinced governments of the unquestionable necessity of widespread lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
‘As long as a majority believes that coronavirus must be stopped “at all costs” we will persist with measures that are deadlier than the very “agent of destruction” they’re meant to defeat.’
Dissenting voices as to the efficacy of such measures and their unintended consequences were, indeed continue to be, largely discarded. Leaders were looking at those mortality projections if a light approach was taken and no doubt saw in them figures that would also kill their careers.
Be that as it may, while modelling and projections are helpful at the start, they are at root theoretical. They don’t reflect the reality on the ground and they tend to treat society as a homogeneous unit. You can’t beat real data and we now have a fair amount about coronavirus.
All lives matter
These data, as Dr Scott Atlas — Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and a member of the institution’s Working Group on Health Care Policy — and a number of other equally qualified experts point out, show how shockingly (the word some commentators like to use hysterically in reference to the coronavirus death toll and cases) wrong those projections were.
Moreover, again highlighted by Dr Atlas, the lockdown measures, so data suggest, are responsible for a far greater loss of ‘life years’ than Covid-19. That is to say, government-imposed restrictions are leading/will lead to more deaths than those linked to the virus. The damage has already been done.
As Atlas explains in the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledge interview, the numbers show a significant loss of said life years due to unemployment and a general lack of economic activity, together with delayed or foregone healthcare. That’s just a synopsis of the issues at play, in the interview he goes into much greater detail.
I touched on this in previous posts, more from the perspective of what I imagined to be the unintended consequences of lockdown measures. Atlas’s analysis spells it out more alarmingly.
Of course, talking about lives that will be lost in the future due to our actions today versus lives being lost right now, the latter will always dominate our attention. It must be said there are other preventable-for-a-time deaths occurring simultaneously to those linked to Covid-19, but it’s the newness of coronavirus that ensures it dominates the discourse.
It’s similar to the outpouring of emotion and willingness to help when people die due to a natural disaster or plane crash compared to a general lack of interest in the millions who die each year from a slow burner such as starvation.
What’s more, it is understandable and somewhat forgivable that politicians, when shown worse-case scenarios relayed to a frightened public via sensationalised media reporting, want to show that they’re doing all they can to ensure no untimely deaths happen on their watch. (Advisers and the media have a lot to answer for here.)
‘The coronavirus-containment strategies that many countries have adopted are the complete opposite of utilitarianism.’
The thing is, as already highlighted, this is tunnel vision in the extreme. However, as long as the vast majority of the public believes that coronavirus must be stopped “at all costs” we will persist with measures that are indeed deadlier than the very “agent of destruction” they’re meant to defeat.
The coronavirus-containment strategies that many countries have adopted are pretty much the opposite of utilitarianism. We’re inflicting greater harm on a greater number. It’s one reason why the eminent historian Niall Ferguson sarcastically suggested that future historians will view Covid-19 as a mental illness rather than a virus-transmitted infection.
As Ferguson et al. have pointed out on umpteen occasions, there are smarter ways to tackle this pandemic. From a Colombian perspective, I don’t buy it that the country can’t implement them.
Yet the many who appear to believe that coronavirus is the worst thing in the world, ever, tend to view those of us who suggest otherwise as, at best, heartless, selfish individuals, at worst some sort of neo-Nazis. (I’m curious to see the reaction of such types when we’re faced with a virus that kills indiscriminately and in huge numbers. I take it mass suicides will be the suggestion.)
Time to broaden that range of vision, folks. Think about the fallout from the actions you blindly endorse and wipe that blood from your own hands before you start pointing accusatory fingers.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.