President Donald J. Trump and I have never seen eye-to-eye—a fact that distresses neither of us. This should not surprise readers of this blog. But that certainty shattered when he declared the Covid19 pandemic.
“…should last weeks, not months; the cure must not be made worse than the disease.”
For once, he may be right. Almost all other G20 governments disagree, largely on the advice of their highest medical authorities. In Britain, we have been bombarded by a mantra based on the simplistic “Get Brexit done” that won BoJo the December election:
- Stay home
- Protect the NHS
- Save lives
The whole purpose of this “Slow” approach is to avoid a rapid rise in those infected and needing hospitalisation that might swamp limited NHS Intensive Care Units. The G20 nations that drive the world’s economy are taking draconian steps, similar to Britain, which prohibits movement, the lives of citizens and the economy on which prosperity rests,
The strategy of shutdown and isolation is presented as “squishing the sombrero”. i.e. making the graph of infections over time have less of a sharp peak. It is presented as our only chance.
But is it? It may slow the rate of infection but, without an antidote, the same number of people will be infected, only more slowly: the sombrero may get lower, but it gets squished wider by the same point. Are we—to be brutal—by being a bunch of softies actually creating hardship and misery for our global future?
Were this the 23rd century, with tedious production done by robots, we could each return to our 4-D hologram floatarium knowing our needs would be met and prosperity glide seamlessly onward. But we are all still living in the fiendishly interdependent 21st century, whose global economy underpins the affluence of 3 billion and is the aspiration of the other 5 billion.
Our parents and grandparents who lived through the first half of the 20th century learned to be tough, self-reliant and endure hardships of many kinds. They suffered two world wars, a stock market crash, the Depression, the flu epidemic of 1918, scant medical care, risible pensions and no social safety net to catch those who stumbled.
In contrast, those living through the last 70 years have, in the 1957 words of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan “never had it so good”. Longevity, affluence, education, health and quality of life have all shown steady rises. Instead of bicycling through the rain to long shifts in factories or down mines, we drive in cars to offices with swivel chairs and espresso machines. Instead of holidaying in Ayr or Arbroath by train, we fly to vacation in Tenerife or Tampa.
Comfort has become widespread, equality, wealth and service standards have risen, fostering expectation of further rights and entitlement. All this would astonish our frugal, modest, class-ridden forebears of a century ago. Instead of former deference to doctors, a significant number now seem to treat docties as garage mechanics for their bodies; We expect miracles. Modern media focuses on “human interest” stories as news. Politicians respond to such opportunities to present themselves as champions of such causes, while avoiding anything that smacks of unpopularity. Modern life may not be “nasty, brutal and short”, but few seem to appreciate just how fragile the complex modern society that fulfils our many expectations has become.
As long as the great majority prosper, such a culture is stable. But, with little folk memory of personal resilience in the face of hardship (often referred to as “The Dunkirk Spirit”), what happens when the rigours of 1918 or 1929 or 1940 suddenly shock us all?
Such as now.
The Covid19 virus threatens the civilisation we enjoy much more than anything else since WW2. The Cold War, the 1970s slump, Black Monday, the 2008 bank crisis—all are trivial compared to this. By responding to squeamish sensitivities of modern society, have the UK and other governments made this shock worse than the “” approach of letting it run its course and get it over with?
We are not used to losing “loved ones”, except by natural causes. The NHS is our bulwark to prevent this. Our lockdown strategy is on the highest medical advice, given by doctors who have sworn a Hippocratic Oath to preserve life. Politicians wish to be seen to support this. But does this “Slow” strategy of compassion actually preserve lives in the long run?
Trump’s point is: if the cure is to lock down everyone, this may “squish the sombrero”, slowing the spread of those infected. Covid19’s fatality rate is 1%, highly concentrated among the elderly, those with respiratory disease or a weakened immune system. In Britain, that describes about 1,700,000 people. Of deaths recorded so far, roughly 2/3rds were expected to die within the next year from other causes, most being from those vulnerable categories.
Nobody wants to lose family or friends. With no vaccine against Covid19, nor any likely within a year, fatalities among the vulnerable will be severe, whether hospitalised or not.. Even with global travel curtailed and most people staying at home, the virus will spread most places within a year anyway, Essential services, food shopping and people ignoring isolation is still enough to spread infection among the population within a year. Based on statistics from Italy that the vulnerable who catch a severe case seldom recover because all hospitals can do is keep them breathing, lockdown simply delays the point at which hospitals are overwhelmed. The same number of people will die, just later. Once roughly 2/3rds of the population have caught it and survived, the immunity this confers will end the spread by so-called “herd immunity”.
At that point, 1.2m (2/3rds of the vulnerable 1.7m) will have caught the virus, with 80% recovering without hospitalisation and 240,000 requiring hospitalisation. As many as 200,000 of those will die. But 2/3rds of those would have died within a year from their vulnerabilities, leaving 66,000 extra deaths from the virus itself. Assuming 42m (2/3reds of 63,) will be exposed to reach herd immunity, and taking the German 0.4% fatality rate for non-vulnerable gives 168,000 Covid19-related deaths in the rest of the population. Tragic and severe as 243,000 additional deaths appear, this is one third of the 595,000 people who die from all causes in Britain each year—or about 1 in 300 people.
In other words, deaths will rise by a third for one year to 1.2% of the population, rather than 0.9%. All that lockdown will do is make this happen more slowly.
But the ‘Fast” and ‘Slow’ strategies do not result in equivalent outcomes. The fast approach lets the virus run rampant. 44m could get sick, 12m seriously, of which 0.6m would die within weeks. Bit it would soon be over. Though our economy would go into recession as people were sick and purchase less, by summer, the herd effect would have taken over and recovery both physically and economically would follow by autumn. This is the strategy chosen by South Korea, Singapore and Sweden, of which our media tells us little.
But we have chosen the ‘Slow’ approach. Hospitals in London are already close to overwhelmed, production is down by 13%. Airlines, catering, hospitality, retail, tradesmen, etc. are all shut down. Our £50bn car industry is at a standstill. The stock market has dropped 28%. The £ sterling is worth $1.15. This, after one month, with most of a year to go.
It doesn’t matter how profligate the Chancellor is to keep the economy afloat. People were already financially stretched. HMRC was already understaffed and will not move fast enough to stop businesses and families going under. Shell-shocked consumers will run scared for some time. Any recovery will be long and slow.
Worse than that, those hit hardest will be those on the margins, in service industries, on zero-hours contracts. The rescue package deferred mortgage, rent, VAT, etc. payment; it did not cancel them. So, we are likely to see a lot more poor, a bigger income gap, and more social isolation, unrest, or even deaths. And such will not be over by this time next year.
Such internal distress in Britain will absorb us just at a time when an international outlook will be most needed. For, if Britain stumbles into such a trap of economic self-harm, the Third World will run in full tilt.
If the NHS is unable to cope with even a flattened sombrero, what will it be like when health systems scarcely exist and people living on top of one another cannot isolate? Brazil’s 210m, India’s 1,349m, Nigeria’s 204m, Indonesia’s 263m all include unsanitary slums surrounding their cities where virus can spread like wildfire and medical help does not exist. Once Covid19 takes a hold there, the travails of our 600,000 extra British losses will be swamped by an epidemic surpassing the Spanish Flu.
Our media has forgotten about Idlib province, about the war in Yemen, about mass drowning of refugees in the Aegean while they recite fatalities that will seem trivial when frustration breaks into rioting in the favelas of Sao Paulo or Dharavi in Mumbai.
Is the UK Government hiding behind medical excuses to pander to public sensitivities that we can’t afford? Not only is a recession now inevitable, but a full-scale depression (GDP falling by more than 10% is now on the cards. Dropping interest rates or giving people money had little effect when people can’t spend it. And if, as seems likely, the lockdown lasts most of this year, so many businesses will go to the wall that the much-touted ‘V’ shaped recession is unlikely and recovery slow and painful under the burden of massive government debt from their giveaways.
Many will die in developing countries because we are in no position to help, as we will have to support massive unemployment, poverty and social unrest among our own citizens.
Which a Fast strategy might have avoided.