Nobody Likes Lockdown — But They Save Lives

Tom Stevenson by Sergi Brylev on Unsplash

Wherever you are in the world, you’ve almost certainly been under a lockdown at some during the past year.

The Coronavirus has swept the globe with few countries untouched. What seemed like a curiosity in China in early 2020, quickly became a global health emergency.

I remember watching the news in the early days when the virus broke out in Wuhan. I stared in disbelief at the millions of people stuck in their apartments in order to stop the spread of the virus. Back then, I was certain this would never happen in the West.

I was wrong. As you probably know, lockdowns have become an integral tool to fight the pandemic. Covid thrives on close interactions, which means it’s essential we keep our distance from one another. Left to our own devices, we’d mingle and risk spreading the virus at an exponential rate.

This is why we’ve seen lockdowns all around the world. They break the chains of transmission and allow governments to get the virus under control. Unsurprisingly, living under lockdown hasn’t been universally popular.

Legitimate concerns have been raised about civil liberties being infringed, the danger to people’s mental health, and the effect on the economy. All of which are valid points. Lockdown is a blunt tool, but it’s an effective one.

The use of lockdowns to control the virus raises important ethical questions. Questions we’ve had to grapple with over the course of the year. All of us would like to see the back of lockdowns, but while the vaccines are being rolled out, and the threat of a variant mutating to escape the protection of a vaccine persists, lockdowns are a vital part of our arsenal to fight the virus.

You may not like living under lockdown, the novelty has worn off for me. But the alternative, let the virus run amok, is unconscionable and raises uncomfortable questions. Lockdowns are tough, they’re arduous, but they also work.

Why Lockdown?

The answer to this question is simple. Lockdowns reduce the spread of Coronavirus. After a year of data, this is now beyond doubt. A look at what happened in the UK since December is a case in point.

At the start of the month, the focus in the media was on saving Christmas. With the country under restrictions, a certain number of people were allowed to gather inside at any one time. This made large Christmas gatherings impossible.

The government proposed a period of a few days where restrictions would be loosened to allow for ‘Christmas to be saved’ in the words of one newspaper. Except it didn’t come to that. In the days before the relaxation was due to take place, a new strain of the virus was discovered.

One more virulent than the original strain which had arrived earlier in the year. With case rises increasing exponentially, the decision was made to go into a third lockdown. On November 11, the UK’s death toll passed 50,000. As of writing, the UK has a death toll of over 124,000.

It’s important to remember this is the figure after three lockdowns. Had there been no lockdowns as was the case in Sweden, the death toll would be much higher. This is a scary thought and one which brings philosophical questions about lockdowns to the fore.

The arguments against lockdown are numerous. Lockdown impinges on civil liberties, disrupts the economy, and detrimental to people’s mental health. All of these are true. Civil liberties have been restricted, the economy has tanked and I’m certain the mental health of many of us has taken a battering.

When presented like this, the case against lockdowns looks cut and dry. Why persist with a blanket policy if it’s so damaging? Well, the answer is more nuanced than this. I’ll take the points one by one.

Civil Liberties

The civil liberties argument is a powerful one. We’ve all had to give up some individual freedoms during the past year. Here in the UK, going to the pub, a time-honored ritual, has been curtailed. This is due to the virus spreading easily upon close contact.

Leave the pubs open and they become a breeding ground for the virus. The limits on our freedom have been put in place to protect us all. The argument around allowing people to exercise their common sense is attractive at first sight, but it ignores an important point.

What is common sense? How common is it? This point could easily apply to various other aspects of life. Take driving for example. Why wear a seat belt? Surely the individual can decide whether it’s necessary or not? And what about speed limits? Why put them in place when we can rely on the common sense of individual drivers?

Simple. These measures save lives. The data is clear on this. Empirical evidence showed that if speed limits on the autobahn, a network of roads in Germany famous for having no limits, were introduced, they would save lives. Left to our own devices we can succumb to our worst impulses and neglect others. What’s risky for one person, might be a jolly jaunt for someone else.

The Economy

The pandemic has been terrible for economies around the globe. New Zealand, a country lauded for its effective response to the virus, saw its economy shrink 12.2% between April and June 2020.

Faced with statistics such as these it appears lockdowns are a poor strategy. Again, this argument lacks nuance. A healthy economy is a wealthy economy. The two factors are tied together. If you lock down earlier and get the virus under control, you’re able to open the economy sooner.

Delaying lockdown means a longer lockdown and a longer recovery. The UK has learned this the hard way. Had the lessons of the first lockdown been learned, the subsequent two may have been avoided and as a result, so would further economic damage.

That failed to happen. Now the UK not only has the highest death toll in Europe but the worst economic recession of any major economy. This recession is also the worst in 300 years.

Even in Sweden, a country that didn’t lockdown, the economy shrank by 8.6% between April and June last year. This wasn’t as severe as other European countries, but it still represents a sizeable drop. Sweden also has a per capita death rate of 1,261.68 per 1,000,000, one of the highest in the world, which suggests their laissez-faire strategy hasn’t had the intended result. As exemplified by the adoption of new measures to halt the spread of the virus in recent weeks.

The assumption that countries face a trade-off between health and economy is disproved when you look at the countries whose economies have performed best during the pandemic. Lithuania, South Korea and Taiwan all experienced small hits to their economy while keeping their death toll low.

The Our World in Data report where this information is clear about why:

“But among countries with available GDP data, we do not see any evidence of a trade-off between protecting people’s health and protecting the economy. Rather the relationship we see between the health and economic impacts of the pandemic goes in the opposite direction. As well as saving lives, countries controlling the outbreak effectively may have adopted the best economic strategy too.”

Mental Health

The mental health aspect of the pandemic is too often forgotten. Lockdown will have contributed to this, there’s no doubt. A study in the UK found suicidal thoughts increased from 8 to 10% during the first lockdown.

If you’re living alone, or in a household with a vulnerable person it will have been especially tough. The need to stay apart has impacted our ability to socialize and interact with one another.

As much as lockdown affects mental health, would it have been any better if we kept everything open? Would we still act the same, when we know we could come into contact with someone who has the virus?

What about the health workers on the frontline? They have been overwhelmed in many countries fighting the virus up close and personal for a whole year. No restrictions would mean more cases, more people in hospital, more deaths, and the risk of health services collapsing.

How would such a scenario affect not just their mental health but ours? Would you feel comfortable knowing hospital treatment might not be possible if you caught the virus due to the sheer number of people already there?

These scenarios aren’t fanciful. Healthcare has been overwhelmed with lockdowns. Had there been none, the situation would have been much worse. Is it ethical to put increased strain on health workers so the rest of us can about our daily business?

These are the ethical questions that need to be considered when any criticism of lockdown measures is brought up.

The Ethics of Lockdown

Imagine if governments around the world had tackled Coronavirus in a different way. Instead of locking down their people, they let them roam free and make their own decisions as to what’s risky and what’s not.

This took place in Sweden to an extent, but what if it had been replicated across the globe? Almost a year on from the first lockdowns in the western world, would we be hailing this policy as a success or a failure?

Considering the death tolls have been accrued with mitigation in place, it’s hard to see how they would be viewed in a favorable light. Despite this, the clamor for lockdowns to stop is deafening.

The proponents of no lockdown protest that supporters of lockdown would institute it on a whim. Condemning us to lockdown for as long as the virus remains in circulation. This is an exaggeration of the position. After the experiences of the past year, we’re all eager to get back out into the world.

The problem is, if we reopen with abandon, cases and deaths will rise once again. It’s a not question of just getting on with it, it’s a question of morals. We’re supposed to look after the most vulnerable in society, to protect them from harm.

Abandoning lockdown risks the health of these people and everyone else. The long-term health implications of Covid are unclear. We’re still learning a lot about the virus. The Long Covid phenomenon is a reminder of the dangers of foolhardiness in the face of a disease we’re still learning about.

A large number of people are still suffering the effects of Covid long after they were first infected. Without lockdown, the risk of more people acquiring Long Covid increases. This places more pressure on the health service in the long run and potentially condemns people to suffer long-term health issues which they otherwise would not have had.

The Libertarian idea that we can all contemplate the risk to ourselves and to everyone else is false. The case of a woman in South Korea who refused to be tested for coronavirus and then spread the disease around her community shows how irrational we can be.

It’s incumbent of governments to reduce suffering as much as possible. The lockdowns have been hard. It’s tough not to see your family and friends. It’s tough to watch businesses collapse and the economy to suffer, but the alternative would not be better. It would be worse.

The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius stated:

“You can commit an injustice by doing nothing.”

If we did not act to minimize the impact of the virus, we’d be committing an injustice. Condemning tens of thousands of people to die needlessly. The moral implications of this are profound. Are we happy to live in a society based on social Darwinism where the strong survive and the weak suffer?

I don’t think we are. Lockdowns aren’t ridiculous. In lieu of a vaccine, they’re the best tool we have to fight the spread of a virus. This pandemic is the worst since the Spanish flu one hundred years ago. Without lockdowns, it would have been much worse.

This is the crux of the matter. A pandemic that has been awful for all of us could have been much worse if we didn’t lockdown. It’s a thought I find uncomfortable and alarming. The startling statistics in this BBC article highlight this:

“The researchers used disease modelling to predict how many deaths there would have been if lockdown had not happened. And the work comes from the same group that guided the UK’s decision to go into lockdown. They estimated 3.2 million people would have died by 4 May if not for measures such as closing businesses and telling people to stay at home. That meant lockdown saved around 3.1 million lives, including 470,000 in the UK, 690,000 in France and 630,000 in Italy”

This level of death is unthinkable. It would have been a tragedy on a scale none of us had witnessed before, or likely to witness again. What would it say about our humanity if we let this happen?

Nobody likes lockdown, but the simple fact is they save lives. Had we not acted to save those lives, what would it say about us as a species?

Are we willing to condemn thousands of people to death and long-term health problems so some of us can go back to ‘normal’? Thankfully, this hasn’t come to pass. But the fact it’s being suggested should make us pause and consider whether we’ve misplaced our humanity during the pandemic.

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