I posted the below essay on r/CoronavirusUK to try to spark some debate:
If you could go back to December 31st 2019 and speak to yourself, you would probably have a very hard job trying to explain the utter turmoil that has unfolded during 2020. People are unquestionably more divided than ever, continuing the increasing (social media fuelled) trend towards extreme partisanship on political and social issues. Yet, here we are: even further entrenched regarding a brand new topic — Pandemic Management.
Pre 2020, the average person would have given pandemics very little thought, other than vaguely considering one, in a Hollywood sense, as being one of the ways humanity might end – perhaps less dramatic than Deep Impact or 2012, but still chilling.
Yet, this juggernaut of an issue now appears to have sucked all the political oxygen out of the room. Here in The United Kingdom, had Covid-19 not appeared, the endless slog of Brexit would probably still be occupying most of the political space, yet it seems that even Brexit (which previously had divided friends, families and colleagues) has been sidelined as unimportant.
Within a matter of weeks of Coronavirus making headlines around early February, people believed that they had suddenly become very well informed on the topic, having imbibed an intentionally fear-inducing campaign of Government and media messaging. During this period, UK Mainstream Media was under strict Ofcom regulations to not question the official Government information, and Social Media was heavily clamping down on “dis-information”. Whilst the panic was mounting, I can personally attest that expressing my default level of skepticism / doubt towards the proposed measures, felt like an extremely lonely and isolated place to be.
Therefore, amongst the majority of the population, the newly forming “Pro-Lockdown side” had a huge running start. The “Flatten the Curve” messaging made coherent sense even to those who had doubts, and skeptics bit their tongue because they were out-flanked, out-numbered and simply unprepared to argue against what was already being described as “The Science”. Wartime language and references to The Blitz Spirit were invoked, and anyone who did raise even minor doubts, were shouted down by their own friends and family as being subversive elements against the coming battle.
Speaking for myself, I do not respond well to shunning or ostracism – predictably, I was only emboldened to start to research for myself. I simply could not believe that there was 100% scientific consensus, because I know enough of scientific debate to understand that that never happens. Moreover, it was obvious that the proposed “lockdowns” (a word normally associated with prison management) had only been attempted in China, followed by Italy, and had always been heavily recommended against by Public Health bodies. Therefore, I reasoned, they should be seen as a huge gambles, with potentially severe unknown consequences.
It took weeks to find eloquent dissenting voices, running against the tide – Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan, Jay Bhatacharya, Ivor Cummins were all names I had never heard before, and yet they were able to calmly and reasonably articulate a very different understanding of the present situation. Now, the “Lockdown Skeptic” side was doing some catching up. It was only much later that pockets of the media were willing to “change sides”, appealing to a weary public that was resentful of the sacrifices that were being demanded of them.
This now entrenched debate cannot be described as a simple academic disagreement about policy. Instead it has become an inherently moral + ethical argument, with very real personal harms being endured due to policy decisions, which adds heat but not necessarily light to proceedings.
Both sides have made dire predictions about the future – if you believed the initial Imperial College Modelling, Britain was about have The NHS overwhelmed and lose 550,000 people. Against this, when the overall consequences of Lockdowns were estimated (deaths due to untreated acute illness, deaths due to undiagnosed chronic illness, deaths due to loneliness, increased suicide and mental health crises, malnutrition due to food insecurity, economic collapse), a very frightening and coherent counter-narrative can be invoked. Unfortunately, this causes the argument to descend into accusing “the other side” of actively wanting either of those terrible outcomes, which is clearly unwarranted and unfair.
My personal belief is that the real world risks of Covid-19 were originally dramatically overstated – as research has progressed, the initial fears of very high IFR and zero prior population immunity have been downgraded again and again. Without these key pillars, the worst case scenarios are made far more unlikely. However, I believe that this new, less hyperbolic, information has not filtered through; even now, there are many whose understanding of the dangers is still largely based around the fear from March. Therefore, I am supportive of The Focused Protection approach, outlined in The Great Barrington declaration.
But with the above said, I am constantly challenging myself to ensure that I have not been influenced by focussing on the wrong data, and asking myself “what if I’m wrong?”. I do not want to be advocating for a policy that will lead to 100,000s of extra deaths, even if I sincerely believe that the evidence points against this. Humility, self-doubt and reasonable skepticism are all crucial tools to prevent one from becoming too certain of one’s own position.
I would like to see the same level of self-doubt being reciprocated on the Pro Lockdown side – if we skeptics are correct, and the Doomsday scenarios were in reality never going to happen, are you willing to contemplate the possibility that you have advocated for a policy that has caused overall extraordinary harm?