Lockdown or countdown?

We stand at a rather interesting crossroads in our response to the coronavirus outbreak. On the one hand, most scientific opinion suggests that coronavirus will be with us from here on in some form or another. On the other hand, our political representatives are, not surprisingly, painting a less bleak picture, hinting that we may have passed the peak and, shortly, be thinking in terms of alleviation of social distancing measures.

You can see the reasoning – they are under pressure from economists fully aware that a lockdown extending beyond the summer will inevitably see the permanent closure of those businesses that are currently surviving by hibernating or rethinking their business models. Politicians feel the need to offer hope. That after all is their stock in trade. And politicians, especially Tory politicians if we are honest, have never done much more than pay lip service to scientific minds. Who can forget Michael Gove’s off-the-cuff “well I think we’ve had enough of experts”. What an utterly fatuous remark.

I don’t envy the politicians. Most of the political nous, obtained on the hustings, has to do with trivia. And let’s face it, in the context of coronavirus everything is trivial. Whereas normally I might have been outraged at the closure of a local library or the restriction of transgender counselling services, these issues barely raise their heads above the parapet of my consciousness. Sorry chaps, but I really can’t get worked up about this at the moment.

Like I said, the politicians are having to balance the public’s patience against the scientific data. To appease the public, the lockdown must end soon. To keep the scientists engaged, the lockdown will be in place until the end of the year.

High streets will never be the same again either way. Some shops are gone for good already. And if I’m honest, it will not be the greatest tragedy in the world for me to see the back of Starbucks. Or any of the coffee shops. Do we really need double espressos at £4 per thimbleful or whatever it is. And would a world without Pizza Hut or Dominoes really be that bad. And as for those designer sandwich shops, don’t get me started.

That last paragraph probably came out harsher than I intended but you get my point. And these are the kind of decisions our political representatives are weighing every day. Do we save businesses or save lives? It really comes down to that. And on the one hand we have the scientists (Chris Whitty in the UK and Anthony Fauci in the USA), peddling harsh statistics and uncomfortable truths. On the other hand, we have Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, pragmatists masquerading as idealists, each with a penchant for political spin over persuasive science.

I imagine that you, like me, felt a shiver down your spine just now reading that. But the choice ultimately is as stark as that. If we take the scientists line completely, we will not open up again until 2021 at the earliest. By then there would be no business left to revive. Seriously. Nothing. Already the spectre of unemployment and isolation is meting out terrible consequences to the mental health of the isolated, to say nothing of the mortality induced by hospitals ‘clearing the decks’ of cancer patients and others to make room for the ongoing influx.

On the other hand, opening up for business again in May will potentially revive businesses (briefly) but at the expense of a second infection tsunami that will make the first look like a ripple in a bird bath. The truth is that we are going to have to live with coronavirus for a long time – years not weeks. We are going to have to find a way to keep isolated but at same time to keep business alive.

In the end, we cannot protect everybody. It is a simple biological fact that the older are more vulnerable. Their immune systems are lethargic, their circulation impaired. Naturally the deaths will be disproportionately distributed to all the elderly. And our current restrictive measures are seen by some to favour the elderly who are naturally used to isolation at the expense of the more gregarious young.

Already there are mutterings and murmurings of unrest. Some, especially the young, are asking whether the socio-economic price is worth paying to preserve granny and grandad. I have even seen one protest reported with individuals carrying placards of “Sacrifice the Old”, as though it were a simple trade-off and we could appease the gods by sacrificing the elderly. This is wrong thinking of the most egregious kind. This is the kind of thinking popular in the beginning of the First World War where bottles of Moselle were publicly poured down drains and where dachshunds were stoned in the streets. Really, this happened. I don’t want to see the country where we demonise the elderly, holding them responsible for wider ills. We need the elderly and their wisdom more now than ever.

But above all, and whichever position one espouses, whether pro-survival or pro-economy, we need to think about this. We are going to have to make a choice at some point and the sooner we start to have a frank and open discussion about this the better.