In Britain, there are now insistent calls for the government to lay out its strategy for exiting the Covid-19 lockdown. Treat the public as adults, goes the cry; tell us the truth.
Well, the truth which ministers are not telling is pretty unpalatable. For as in other countries, the government faces two brutal and appalling alternatives: destroying the economy or ending people’s lives.
Yes, the lockdown is doing terrible damage to the economy and if it goes on for much longer some of that damage at least may well be irreparable. But any exit out of lockdown, particularly in the absence of mass testing, tracing and isolation – a strategy of which there is still zero sign, unless the farcical “Dad’s Army” proposal for thousands of volunteers to trace virus carriers is taken as anything other than a sign of utter desperation – will mean that more people will die from the virus or become seriously ill.
The only reason the rate of new cases and deaths seems to have reached a plateau is that the lockdown has stopped people from giving the virus to to others. One of Britain’s problems is that, even in the best scenario, it will take time for the number of deaths that will inevitably ensue as a result of relaxing the lockdown to come down to a level that can be tolerated. That’s because the government’s delay in taking such measures has resulted in (at time of writing) more than 18,700 deaths in a population of 60 million, one of the highest reported death rates in the world.
In Israel, where I am, the government’s early actions against the virus – banning flights from China and other hotspots, locking down the population and using information harvested from mobile phone data to track and isolate virus carriers or police those supposed to be in quarantine – has resulted in one of the lowest proportions of virus deaths. At time of writing, there have been 193 deaths in Israel out of a population of just under 9 million.
There are ominous signs, though, that Israel’s prime minster Benjamin Netanyahu may be about to squander this advantage. As the government takes small but increasing steps out of lockdown, it still hasn’t established anything near the kind of mass-testing regimen that all countries need to establish just who is safe to move more freely.
And much of that failure is down to Israel’s chronically dysfunctional politics, with the disastrously inept health ministry leading the anti-virus strategy – and with Netanyahu refusing to give the lead instead to the competent defence ministry because the defence minister is his arch-rival, Naftali Bennett.
Nevertheless, Israel, Britain and all countries face the hideous choice between saving the economy and saving life. Many, if not most among the British public understand this dilemma perfectly well. However, a significant number in Britain do not.
Over the past several decades, I have often noted a noxious symmetry between the left and some of those on what is called “the right”. Despite the fact that they each start from opposite sides of the political spectrum, both end up putting the “I” before the “we” and trample rationality and common decency in the process.
So it has proved in this coronavirus emergency. From the left issue dire predictions of “incipient fascism” or a “police state” over the restrictions on liberty being imposed to cope with the pandemic. From the right issue dire predictions of an incipient “socialist hell” over the restrictions on liberty being imposed to cope with the pandemic.
On a number of occasions, the police have indeed been idiotically heavy-handed in enforcing social distancing. But what’s so striking is the imputation of bad faith from both left and right. Both brush aside the obvious fact that these restrictions are being imposed for the sole purpose of saving lives.
The left, which hopes that the crisis will destroy the free market, claim nevertheless that Boris Johnson’s government is itching to clamp down on personal freedom. The right claim that Boris Johnson’s government is itching to impose state control over every aspect of people’s lives. The ultra-liberal BoJo is thus both a fascist and a communist. Truly fantastic, no?
This symmetry of suspicion isn’t confined to restrictions on liberty.
As was predictable, the left is seizing upon the crisis to attack Boris Johnson as useless, whatever he does or doesn’t do. The same thing is happening in the US.
At the end of January, President Trump was attacked as a racist when he responded to the virus at an early stage by stopping entry to the US of anyone who had visited China. He was then attacked as useless for having allegedly done nothing to combat the virus. He is now being attacked as a racist for having imposed a one month suspension of green cards for foreign workers in order to help combat the unemployment in America caused by the virus lockdown.
Neither rationality nor decency can be expected from the left, where evidence is routinely trashed in order to service ideology. The real eye-opener in the crisis, however, has been the same pathology breaking out on the libertarian, free-market-obsessive right.
Some of them have been using tactics familiar from the left. They make a statement that is demonstrably inaccurate, tendentious, illogical or absurd; when this is pointed out, they duck and make instead a further spurious claim.
These people, whom we might label ‘economy-firsters”, say the lockdown is doing terrible damage to the economy and must end because the economy mustn’t be destroyed.
It’s undeniable that the lockdown is taking a terrible toll on the economy. But the decision to lock down was taken because the number of deaths that would result from the virus would be unacceptable.
Ah, say the economy-firsters, it’s not true that so many would die because the numbers who are infected are probably much higher than thought; which means the death rate is probably much lower than was originally feared! So no real problem!
But no-one knows how many are infected. All these statistics, including the death rates which may be simultaneously being over-counted and under-counted, are currently unreliable.
Ah, say the economy-firsters, and so therefore it’s madness to shut down the economy on the basis of information we don’t know!
But although the statistics and forecasts are unreliable, we do know two facts for sure: that this virus is extraordinarily infectious, and that in an unknown number of people it causes not just death but serious and maybe lasting damage to many internal organs.
Ah, say the economy-firsters, but many more than this will die from untreated diseases because of the priority given to virus victims, or suicides if the economy is shut down!
But how can they possibly know how many would die in those circumstances? We do know for sure, however, because we have seen the horrible evidence, that wherever crowds gather a spike in virus infection and death follows.
It is of course appalling if people are dying from illnesses that are untreated because of the pressure on health provision from the virus. But many more would die of those diseases if the virus was allowed to overwhelm health provision. The point of the lockdown, after all, was to prevent the health service from being overwhelmed.
Ah, say the economy-firsters, but it hasn’t been overwhelmed! So the virus wasn’t so bad after all! And anyway, now there is spare capacity in the hospitals there’s no reason to continue the lockdown!
But –duh– the reason the health service hasn’t been overwhelmed is that people have been locked down. If restrictions are lifted, the danger of it being overwhelmed returns.
Ah, say the economy-firsters triumphantly, not so: look at Sweden which didn’t lock down and they’re ok and they say they’ve plateaued and protected their economy.
But this rosy picture of Sweden, which is being swallowed by a lot of people, is propaganda. The truth, as you can read here, is that Sweden’s death rate from the virus, more than 2000 out of a population of around ten million, is far worse than in other Scandinavian countries.
Its epidemiological establishment has been in a state of denial about the virus from the start; and with the death rate starting to accelerate, only began to introduce catch-up restrictions from the middle of last month. The inconvenient truth about Sweden is that it has been prepared to see thousands die in order to save its economy (if indeed it has saved it).
Many of those who have died in Sweden have been residents in homes for the elderly. We know that elderly people are most vulnerable to the virus. And here we have the most bizarre objection of all from the economy-firsters: that the official suggestion that older people will be the last people to exit from lockdown amounts to intolerable age discrimination, by imposing a kind of prison sentence upon elderly people while everyone else gets on with resuming normal life. What?! The point of keeping older people at home is simply to save their lives.
So we now have a ghastly mirror image of lethal group-think. The libertarian left has turned disadvantaging or doing harm to others into a human right. The economy-firsters are turning the human right of protection from harm into a disadvantage.
Those Pollyannas who speculate that this virus crisis will end our ideological culture wars should take note of what it has actually revealed.