by Dr. Jeffrey Fynn-Paul
I am very aware that COVID has caused half a million deaths at the time of writing. The following piece does not in any way belittle that. But any good policy must start by separating the personal from the general. My purpose in writing this piece is to help us create better policy next time around.
Its goals are to:
- Minimize human suffering.
- Recognize that Total Suffering = Virus + Response to Virus. The virus and our reaction to it are two totally separate things, but our leaders are actively downplaying this point. (I.e., the virus did not cause an economic crisis. The lockdowns did.)
- Ensure that if this happens again, our society has a more rational response ready, which will result in less death and suffering next time.
I. The Looming Tsunami
With those caveats in mind, I believe that society’s response to the COVID-19 virus has been deeply flawed. It was based on panic, and an inability of the majority of educated people to read simple charts, ask critical questions, and assess data with a critical eye. (Which is why we need more BAIS graduates in the world. And why BAIS needs more chart- and graph-reading as part of the curriculum.)
Our leaders should have aimed for a response which did two things equally: A) minimize casualties from the virus, and B) minimize the economic impact of the shutdowns. From the get-go, it is clear that policy was highly skewed towards A, while virtually ignoring B.
The standard arguments in favour of this policy—variations of “Well, I am not willing to sacrifice my grandma to save the economy (unlike you, you heartless dog)” and “Economies recover, people do not” are incredibly naive, as we shall see presently. Our policy response is forecast by global authorities like the UN, World Bank, and OECD to kill far more people than the virus has. And once again, the poor will bear the brunt. According to the World Bank, an estimated 60,000,000 people will be thrown back into extreme poverty globally as a result of this downturn, erasing 20 years of unprecedented gains. Let that sink in: for every one person who has died from COVID, our response will throw 120 people into desperate poverty. In addition to this being a tragedy per se, this will increase global child deaths from poverty by some 3-4% per year, which will result in 240,000 children dying from poverty this year alone. (According to UNICEF, 20,000 children die from poverty per day, globally.) This death toll will be silent, and not filtered into our ‘First World’ calculations. But it’s a direct result of our flawed ‘full stop’ policy. In addition, up to 150,000 ‘deaths of despair’ have been predicted from the lockdowns in the US alone. This is more than the 115,000 deaths in the US attributed to COVID.
We have now set in motion an economic tidal wave which, inevitably, is going to hit, and hit hard. As of June 2020, we’re sitting in the eerie calm when the waters are pulling back from the beach. For late 2020 and 2021, the OECD is forecasting the sharpest economic contraction since the Great Depression. In terms of unemployment, this is already worse than the 1970s. Our only hope is that our policy tools are better than they were in the era of Stagflation; and they are. But there are real limits to what we can expect our economic toolkit to mitigate, and we’re coming up against them.
In retrospect, the best policy would have been to isolate the highly vulnerable, while striving to keep as many businesses and schools open as possible. This was apparent by the end of March or mid-April, as reliable data started to accumulate. I believe that total lockdowns should have been lifted in most places by end-April at the latest, as it became clear that the virus was disproportionately hitting very old and/or very sick people, and leaving healthy working-age people (under-65s) largely unscathed. Yes, under-65s might have experienced a slight increase in their chances of dying due to COVID, but in absolute terms, even a doubling of this chance keeps them extremely slight. For a healthy under-65 in the US, your odds of dying of COVID were much less than 1 in 15,000.* With such a tiny increased chance of death, it was not worth propagating the economic tidal wave that is currently in motion.
II. The Roots of Our Flawed Policy
Why did society react the way it did? I will point to five factors.
1) People refused to pick up on early signs of the limited impact of this disease on healthy working-age people. Many people believed their children were vulnerable well into April after it was clear that next to no people under 20 die of COVID. (Normal flu kills many more children each year.)
2) Secondly, our policies were based on the advice of medical statisticians, who focused on a very narrow metric of ‘existing ER bed capacity.’ (Thus the rallying cry ‘flatten the curve’ which was promptly abandoned after the curve was flattened.) These statisticians viewed the economic and social impacts of lockdowns as ‘mere externalities.’ But doctors in isolation are bad policymakers. For good policy, politicians must consult not only with doctors, but with psychologists, economists, sociologists, social workers, etc. Our policy must take a spectrum of expert views into account. Sadly, our intelligentsia in many fields worship the mathematical model, but don’t have the training to recognize the limitations of such models. This is where Humanities Education with statistical components are exceedingly important at the highest levels, even in highly technical fields. We are now paying the price, and these mere externalities are about to rise up and bite us in the collective arse.
3) Thirdly, the media ran with this story, as 24/7 clickbait. As Dr. Carlo Caduff of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine of King’s College London has put it, the focus on absolute cases and death numbers, while it sounds alarming on CNN, is virtual nonsense, since this gives very little sense of just how rare COVID deaths remain. Every year the seasonal flu kills up to 500,000 people. COVID has still not killed that many, and many other treatable, infectious diseases kill even more. And yet the media does not play up each death from these diseases as though they were harbingers of the apocalypse. We just carry on. Social media then amplified this fear, and fear became delusion. I have lost count of how many people on my social media claimed to have lost half a dozen immediate relatives to COVID. When you ask them for details, they usually hem and haw. While individual tragedies will of course occur, the odds of this happening to any one person, especially outside of a few geographically limited hotspots, are virtually nil.
4) Fourth, our leaders also panicked. The Prime Minister of Norway is one of the few leaders mature enough to admit that she likely overreacted “based on the terrible pictures coming out of Italy.” Many politicians simply caved to public opinion. They realized which way the political winds were blowing (pro-lockdown), and rather than attempting to assuage public fear with appeals to the actual danger (the aged and sick should be isolated), they were pushed into a policy of total lockdown.
5) Fifth, social tribalism has fuelled extended lockdowns. Sadly yet predictably, given our current social media climate, the response to Coronavirus became politicized. In recent weeks, (white) American liberals have equated lockdowns and facemasks with supporting Black Lives Matter, simply because a few gun-toting nutcases were filmed waving rifles in support of anti-lockdown protests. Also, because minorities have emerged as more likely to succumb to the virus (due to higher levels of poverty, as Fauci himself stated), American liberals have taken it into their heads that anti-lockdown people are anti-BLM. This makes little sense, since black Americans are harder hit by lockdowns than the average white household. For example, the riots against the shocking murder of George Floyd were fuelled by the fear and desperation created by the lockdowns, and the irresponsibility of the media and our politicians’ amplification of the danger of the disease.
III. Reflections from a Professor of Global Medical Policy
As I was finishing this piece, I came across Prof. Caduff’s article in the Medical Anthropology Quarterly. It’s called ‘What Went Wrong: Corona and the World After the Full Stop.’ Let us take a minute to appreciate the perspective of the anthropologist, who is trained to see the big picture, and see symbolism and mass psychology as they manifest in social rituals. OECD elites like to think that while primitive people and rednecks engage in ritualistic behaviour, they themselves know better. This in itself is ‘First Worldist’. Dr. Caduff’s piece is peer-reviewed and already has 25,000 views on academia.edu a few days after it was posted, and I link to it below. Dr. Caduff gives a case similar to the one I am making here, but with the authority of a medical expert, and the luxury of 30 pages of text to work with.
Some takeaways from Caduff’s piece are as follows:
1) This virus is nowhere near as lethal as the initial projections; Caduff rejects as patently absurd the idea that this is as contagious as the 1918 pandemic. As he states, we’re really afraid of COVID deaths, but somehow flu deaths, many other treatable contagious deaths, go unremarked.
2) The lockdowns maintain an ‘illusion of control.’ Citing Hannah Arendt, he basically says that your facemasks are a joke. He views them as a more or less purely symbolic reaction of a rich society obsessed with avoiding death. And the luxury of a pampered global elite.
3) We can no longer model (with little to no evidence) these total lockdowns and assume that the gigantic social/political/economic ramifications of these unprecedented steps are mere ‘externalities’ that don’t matter. He says, they plainly do matter, and the models were tragically misguided.
4) Fourth, and this is the biggest one for me: Caduff says that these lockdowns are particularly difficult on the global poor. I would go further and argue that they are both racist and classist—the response of wealthy, mostly white OECD middle-class people protecting themselves from a very small increased chance of death, while throwing millions of the world’s poorest (mostly non-white) people under the bus. So rather than some convoluted logic suggesting that criticism of the lockdowns is anti-BLM, it is arguable that the lockdowns themselves are the more right-wing the two policy options.
In his conclusion, Caduff puts it like this:
“For those with permanent jobs, a comfortable couch, and no daycare duties, this unforeseen interruption may feel like a gift, a welcome relief from the non-stop world of global capitalism. Yet for millions of people living in less privileged parts of the planet, the pause button spells unemployment and hunger, not break time and downtime. Without income, food, and access to basic healthcare people are not making the most of the confinement outside in the garden; they are desperate and dying.”
Citing this, my friend Craig also added the following:
‘’It seems to me it has been the people who are in the most comfortable situations who are doing the most social media shaming and raging against people who dared to go for a hike with a friend, play frisbee in a park, ride a bike without a mask, and worst of all, question any aspect of the lockdowns. Sequestered on their couches with their Netflix and take-out, addicted to COVID-19-death media updates on their phones, they are losing their humanity.’’
I myself have been thinking along similar lines, and have put it like this:
“I find it deeply ironic that any criticism of lockdowns, or even attempts to assuage people’s irrational fears of the virus, has become associated with being right-wing. This is simple laziness on the part of social media users who overlook plain facts so they can wallow in their fears—or avoid reckoning with the fact that they overreacted, badly. As a Sanders-supporting, Hillary and Obama-voting lefty, I argue on the contrary that the total lockdowns are a first-world, white, pampered middle-class response to a slightly increased chance of death. They are effectively throwing millions of poor people, the majority of them non-white, under the economic bus. Suicide, drug use, entrapment in close quarters with abusers, children going without school meals, the list of collateral damage is staggering. Meanwhile, our pious friends get to huddle safely with their families in their spacious suburban homes, surrounded by stockpiles of flour and toilet paper purchased with credit cards online. I would argue that this fear-based response is not only scientifically unsound, but it is literally sacrificing the global poor to the interests of the OECD middle class. They listen to indie folk and the latest Covid-19 updates on their iPhones, while all around them, the city burns.”
On the coming economic Tsunami: http://www.oecd.org/economic-outlook/
The World Bank on Poverty: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/20/economy/world-bank-poverty-coronavirus-intl-hnk-scli/index.html
On Deaths of Despair: https://www.forbes.com/sites/marlamilling/2020/05/09/a-projected-75000-deaths-of-despair-could-result-from-coronavirus-pandemic-impact/#6194c5e86472
Caduff’s Piece for Medical Anthropology Quarterly: https://www.academia.edu/42829792/What_Went_Wrong_Corona_and_the_World_after_the_Full_Stop?email_work_card=abstract-read-more&fbclid=IwAR0GYldPYi6-pz_eJSoMA4Xn8oPy54bTyy_l2fraz2Jk_Kz-1C2b3KQowkU
*The odds of dying of COVID-19 in the US as of 15 June are about 1 in 3,000. 80 percent of these are over 65, leaving only 20% under 65. (According to Caduff, 86% of German victims were over 70.) In the US, that puts your odds of dying as a working-age person at 1 in 15,000. But over 90 percent of those under 65 deaths had co-morbidities. That leaves 10% of your sample of 20%, which is 2%. So that means that only about 2% of US deaths are under-65s without obvious comorbidities. The odds of a healthy under-65 of dying of COVID in the US, which has one of the highest global COVID-19 death rates, are therefore probably closer to 1 in 150,000 than the 1 in 15,000 we state above, but we are being generous. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries
Dr. Jeffrey Fynn-Paul is a lecturer at Leiden University, who has taught various courses surrounding the subjects of economic and social history, urban studies, state formation, and slavery.
Within the BA of International Studies, he has instructed the courses of “Introduction to Economics”, “Economics: Europe”, “Economics: North-America”, “Global Political Economy, among further electives.
*DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of BAISmag or BASIS.*
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I wonder if looking at at the looming economic policy issues that you mention, and critiquing some of the lockdown policies, should not also be contextualised by some other failures of the global system. This would be in relation to the way the state gives out assistance, the way food supply chains are run etc. The point about the worse affected is so important though, and not just looking in a paternalistic way towards the global south. It seems that in western Europe, in the UK, Switzerland, Germany, we are finally unable to look away from the invisible poverty, with lines at food banks, and other shelters.