Is your Covid-19 sacrifice in vain? Probably, the way things are going

Still from Dr Strangelove movie with coronavirus renderings

IF YOU’VE LOST your job, or had to close your business or, stopped getting freelance work because of coronavirus, it’s some consolation to think that you are helping save lives.

Is it fair to say, “many thousands of lives”? I think so. I hope so. Because extraordinary sacrifices demand extraordinary outcomes.

We’re told that, by losing our jobs and customers and by relinquishing our freedom to socialise no matter how carefully, we could save 500,000 lives in the UK alone.

That’s certainly an extraordinary number. But is it credible? I don’t believe so. Well, not beyond it being a figure at the bottom of a column on a spreadsheet labelled “absolutely the worst, worst, worst case scenario apart from Mars attacking us.”

If you think I’m exaggerating, remember that the government’s response to coronavirus is strongly influenced by mathematical modelling done at Imperial College London.

Imperials’ head mathematical biologist, Prof. Neil Ferguson, has been all over the media for weeks telling journalists that deaths from Covid-19 will be 200,000, 500,000 or possibly 20,000, depending on how many stakes we drive through the heart of the economy.

Yes I know, even 20,000 excess deaths among frail, already-ill elderly people is hard to contemplate. But we run that risk every flu season without resorting to nuking the economy.

Shouldn’t we demand that our extraordinary sacrifices save far more of our loved ones than that?

“But they will,” says the government. “See, Prof. Ferguson’s model says the almost total shutdown of everything will prevent a couple of hundred thousand deaths at least.”

Holes in the logic

There are two yawning holes in the logic there.

First, you can’t prove a negative. When it’s all over, the only number we’ll know is how many excess deaths did occur among people infected with the virus. The number that didn’t die will remain a conjectural figure taken from an electronic mathematical biological model.

Second, if we only try one response – i.e. the total lockdown approach that Dr Ferguson and others recommend – we’ll never know whether a different strategy might be equally (or even more) successful at far less cost to society as a whole.

Generals fighting the last war

In one way, the timing of the 2020 crisis is apposite, since it comes just over a century since the carnage on the Western Front in WWI got people talking about generals fighting the current war with the previous war’s tactics.

At least the government seems to have belatedly recognised, with its plan to target protection and support directly to 1.5 million known, vulnerable, people with life-threatening existing conditions, that mass, enforced quarantine is by no means the only tool in its box.

Talking of 1918, one very big reason to question the death projections endlessly repeated by media outlets like the BBC is Britain’s experience of the Spanish Flu.

The 1918 epidemic is estimated to have killed 280,000 Britons. A horrifying figure on the face of it but one that bears no relation to today’s situation.

When it began, the country was still at war. People were weakened by stress, hunger and overwork. Life expectancy was much shorter than today. Health much less robust. Air quality in cities was atrocious. Basic hygiene was poorly understood and hard to practise, especially if you were poor. Viruses hadn’t been discovered; neither had antibiotics for treating secondary infections caused by the flu.

The countermeasures taken – quarantining ships, isolating anyone with the virus and banning mass gatherings – undoubtedly saved many lives. At the time they were the only proven measures available.

We’re not in 1918 any more

In 2020, Britain is not a country on its knees health wise. We have medical knowledge, treatments and equipment unimaginable 100 years ago. We know who’s vulnerable and we have 1,001 ways to support and keep them safe as the virus works its way through the other 90% of the population to whom it poses almost no risk at all.

We should all be washing our hands, watching out for any symptoms or for news that we’ve been in close contact with someone who is showing symptoms. If so, we should self-isolate for 14 days.

And of course we should be treating our vulnerable elderly with the utmost respect by ensuring their physical separation from the rest of the world for the coming weeks is as tolerable, or even enjoyable as possible.

But losing livelihoods and giving up long-held liberties and standards as well?

Total lockdown will prolong the crisis

One message the government is not really getting across – and you can guess why – is that lockdown not only destroys livelihoods but it will also only prolong the pandemic. That’s because the virus will keep spreading until 50% of people have been through the illness and thus become immune. All flu pandemics finally end this way.

If the 2020 coronavirus was as lethal to young adults as the second wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu, then truly extraordinary measures would be justified.

But it isn’t. It can’t be repeated enough that, for almost all working-age people, Covid-19 symptoms range from no worse than ordinary flu to completely unnoticeable.

Logically, the fastest and least-societally-costly way to make the world safe for the minority of people for whom coronavirus is a life-threatening risk would be to allow it to pass around the rest of us as quickly.

As I write this on 23 March, many hospitals still have no cases to treat. Wards set aside for the Covid-19 patients who will undoubtedly arrive in the coming weeks still stand empty. Despite the media criticism of the government’s original herd immunity strategy, the UK is less hard hit than most European countries in cases-per-million although the trend spells worse to come.

When it arrives, the crisis will be very hard on NHS staff and home carers. But it could – could – be largely over in a couple of months if we get it right.

The government knows full well that its policy of trying to isolate everyone from each other, rather than focussing directly on isolating the vulnerable from danger, risks extending the crisis for as long as two years because the virus won’t die out due to acquired immunity.

Elderly and ill people will remain isolated and vulnerable for month after month. Lockdown of daily life will go on and on. Millions of jobs will be lost and livelihoods will be upended, never to be put fully right again.

Is that what you want to achieve through the sacrifices you’re already making? If not write your councillor, MP, MSP or Welsh, NI, or London Assembly Member here.