Are lockdowns more harmful than helpful in fighting COVID19? Here are some thoughts:
To start, let’s be clear about the morbidity rate of this virus. At the time of writing (22/8/2020) there have been 22.6 million diagnosed cases worldwide, resulting in 792,000 deaths. That’s a morbidity rate of 3.5%. As a bare statistic, that sounds a little troubling. But we need to contextualise this data.
Firstly, the 22.6 million refers to DIAGNOSED cases of COVID19. There may be many more cases that go undiagnosed. This is because:
(A) In some countries the ability to be tested is extremely limited, due to economic and social issues.
(B) Many cases of COVID19 are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed, so those people aren’t motivated to be tested.
This means that MANY more people worldwide almost certainly have the virus than have been diagnosed. In fact, the actual infection stats may be greater by a factor of 10 or even 100: we simply don’t know. The ACTUAL death rate, as a percentage of EVERYONE who has the virus, may be as insignificant as 0.03% or even less. It certainly isn’t anywhere near the current 3.5% that the figures currently suggest.
But let’s be conservative and say that the actual death rate is 0.3%. That means that about 1 person in every 330 who contracts COVID19 will die.
The second thing to consider, is that the COVID19 death rate refers to everyone who will die WITH COVID19, not FROM it. The current stats indicate that an extremely high percentage of those who die with COVID19 are also suffering concurrently from OTHER debilitating diseases such as obesity, various immune deficiencies, lung and airway diseases, heart disease, etc. These people sadly pass away from a COMBINATION of COVID19 and their particular disease. This does not diminish the tragedy of their deaths, but the fact is that it is extremely rare for a person with no underlying health issues to die from COVID19.
This places COVID19 in a VERY different category to deadly pandemics of the past. For example, the Black Death – the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century – killed about half of the population throughout Europe. If you were a healthy adult living at that time with no pre-existing illnesses and you contracted this deadly disease, you had about a 60% chance of dying (or a 40% chance of survival). Compared to that, best estimates are that today’s COVID19 pandemic presents healthy, disease-free adults with something like a 99.9% chance of survival.
COVID19 is arguably the most benign pandemic in human history. Compared to the Bubonic Plague, where 5 or 6 out of every 10 people who contracted the disease died, with COVID19, it may be somewhere in the vicinity of 1 in every 330. Even if it is 1 in 100, this is nothing like pandemics of the past.
Of course, if you are an infirmed or elderly person, your chances of survival are not so great, as the vast majority of deaths are occurring among those groups. Thus, it is these people whom we as a society ought to be protecting through targeted initiatives.
𝗔 𝗠𝗘𝗔𝗦𝗨𝗥𝗘𝗗 𝗥𝗘𝗦𝗣𝗢𝗡𝗦𝗘
Given all these facts, what should be our measured response to the current virus? There is a strong argument that widespread, community lockdowns, curfews and restrictions are a massive over-reaction, and one that is going to have far-reaching costs that we will pay for over many years to come. If the primary risk is to the elderly and infirmed, surely it is to those demographics that protective restrictions ought to be applied, rather than to the whole of society.
Of the 449 deaths in Australia currently attributed to COVID19 (at the date of writing), only 13 are people under the age of 60, and only 36 are under the age of 70. Of those 36, almost all of them had known debilitating health issues.
If this is the case, why are we imposing such harsh restrictions on the whole of society? In some states of Australia, we are closing borders, closing shops, imposing curfews, closing churches, limiting guests at weddings and funerals, insisting on masks being worn in public, telling people not to leave their suburbs, and a variety of other measures. These extreme restrictions are not being specifically targeted to the aged care sector and those at risk, but are being imposed across the whole of society, severely impacting millions of healthy individuals who are extremely unlikely to die from COVID19, but whose lives are now being devasted by those restrictions.
The cost to society of these restrictions is beyond anyone’s ability to effectively measure. Businesses sent bankrupt, hundreds of thousands unemployed (perhaps millions eventually), the nation now billions of dollars in debt due to government handouts. And then there’s the emotional toll of depression, isolation, loneliness, stress, the fracturing of families, the increase of mental illness, suicides, and increases in deaths from other diseases because people aren’t venturing out of their homes to be diagnosed. Make no mistake about it, these severe restrictions are having a devastating effect on the whole of society, and it may be the case that the cure is far worse than the disease.
There is a strong argument for specific targeting of measures to the aged sector only, with additional warnings and guidelines for people with debilitating, serious health issues to wear masks and isolate as much as possible. We care about these people and don’t want them to get sick. But forcing the rest of society into draconian restrictions and curfews, as if COVID19 is the Black Death, is causing a great deal of unnecessary suffering for many people and creating an economic and mental-health hole that may take us years to crawl out of as a society.
Furthermore, the media’s continual coverage of the current outbreak is fuelling fear and hysteria that is out of all proportion to the situation. I once worked in the aged care industry, and I remember a particularly bad couple of winters where, in our facility of about 180 residents, 70 of them died of the flu in an 18-month period. That was in just one facility. But there was no media coverage of that. No TV cameras. No reports on the 6 o’clock news. Because the elderly have always been more susceptible to viruses, and they tend to die of the flu and other viruses regularly and in large numbers.
The fact that 413 people over the age of 70 have died of COVID19 complications in Australia since January is very sad and tragic, but I guarantee that many more elderly died of the flu in Australia last year – probably many thousands. Where were the TV cameras and doomsday reporters then? Where were the severe restrictions and curfews? Last year’s worldwide deaths from the flu of nearly 500 million caused barely a yawn from the world’s media.
So, what am I saying? Don’t I care about the people who are dying of COVID19 complications? Of course I do! So let’s do everything we can to protect those who are most vulnerable. By all means, impose lock-downs on nursing homes and implement rigorous disease control measures in those facilities. It may mean that in order to protect our dearly-loved elderly citizens that visits to them may need to be severely curtailed or even cancelled until a vaccine is produced. And while we’re at it, let’s also issue detailed guidelines for all those with current debilitating diseases. Provide them with free masks and offer special, tightly regulated access to health care for all their ongoing health needs. Let’s do everything we can to protect these vulnerable people, because we care for them.
But we must also care for the other 27 million Australians who are not likely to die from COVID19. Because currently, they are suffering terribly and unnecessarily.
Sweden has not instigated mandatory lockdowns or restrictions, but instead, has left it up to each individual to determine their own protective measures. The result is that there have been about 6,000 COVID19-related deaths out of a population of about 10 million. That’s a death rate of 0.06%, or 1 death in 1,666 people. On the other side of the ledger, their economy is strong, employment is high, mental health issues haven’t escalated, people are not suffering from isolation, and death rates from other untreated or undiagnosed health issues haven’t soared. The Swedish government has decided to favour one side of the ledger over the other. Are they right? It’s a difficult decision, and I’m glad I’m not making it!
I don’t want to degenerate into a transactional analysis of the value of an individual human life, but surely the question has to be asked, at what cost are we saving the very few healthy individuals who might die from COVID19? And at what cost are we saving a larger group who would survive the illness but might suffer longer term effects of the disease? At what economic cost ? – a cost that we will be paying for decades in terms of national debt, long-term unemployed and deep recession. At what mental health cost? – with the well-documented alarming rise in depression, loneliness etc that we are currently seeing. At what social cost? – with the fragmentation and isolation of friendships and families and the diminishment of quality of life for millions of people. At what cost of human lives? – as demonstrated by the already alarming rise in suicides as well as potentially many more people dying from undiagnosed and untreated illnesses due to people’s reticence to visit health professionals because of fear and restrictive lockdowns. In fact, various medical associations have already voiced serious concerns that the loss of life due to untreated or undiagnosed illnesses during lockdown restrictions may even eclipse the lives we save by our current severe policies.
Our current severe restrictions and panicked coverage of the COVID19 virus may well rate as one of the great over-reactions of history. Just this morning, I heard a radio interview with medical expert, Dr. Nick Coatsworth, who said, “Eventually we will have a partially effective vaccine for Coronavirus and it will become just another seasonal flu-like respiratory disease.”
Finally, what ought to be our Christian perspective regarding this viral outbreak? I think two things should characterise our thinking: compassion and lack of fear. The love of God should fill us with compassion and move us to help and protect those who are vulnerable. And, secondly, the promises of God should fill us with confidence so that we are unafraid to face whatever the future holds. The most common exhortation in the Bible is “Do not be afraid” (365 occurrences – one for every day of the year!). Even the certain eventuality of death itself has lost its sting, for we have the sure promises of God that not only is he with us as we face this life’s worst challenges, but beyond the thin veil of death lies an eternity of joy that we cannot begin to imagine.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me …. and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23)
So, do not be afraid.