A few thoughts about the anti-lockdown case

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last few days, as a result of recognising the sense in which the anti-lockdown case is sometimes dismissed as a matter of liberal common sense without a real engagement with the arguments. This is an initial attempt to seriously engage with the anti-lockdown views I’ve encountered on Twitter, intended to clarify my own thinking rather than as an invitation for a long polemical argument with a stranger on the internet:

  • It’s widely argued that the death rates from Covid-19 don’t justify the extent of the actions taken against it. However the deaths rate from Covid reflect the success of interventions against it, as opposed to being a justification for those events not being necessary. The burden is on the person arguing these interventions were unnecessary to explain how they could have made little to no contribution to the outcomes from the disease. In the absence of such an explanation, the reason death rates are ‘only’ at a rate they’re at (for example compared to seasonal flu) is because of the impact of these interventions. Furthermore, the entirety of the scientific apparatus has pivoted towards research into a Covid-19 so it’s pretty unsurprising we have become better at treating it over the course of 2020. This is an aspect of ‘flattening the curve’ which receives too little attention.
  • It’s widely argued that the unintended consequences of lockdown measures outweigh the lives saved through lockdown measures. However the much cited need to ‘flatten the curve’ illustrates how a failure to take these measures could have precipitated a collapse in the functioning of the medical system which would have (a) vastly increased the potential death rate from Covid-19 due to shortage of crucial equipment and inability to sustain treatment (b) imperilled anyone who had the misfortune to require emergency treatment during this period. Therefore the counterfactual failure to flatten the curve needs to figure into any weighing up of health outcomes. Furthermore, elective surgery carries significant risks under normal conditions, as well as those encountered during the pandemic.
  • It’s widely argued that the death rate from Covid-19 suggests it’s not a particularly dangerous disease. However the death rate of a pandemic doesn’t reflect how dangerous it is, as lower death rates lead to much wider spread through the population. It’s the transmissibility of SARS-2 which makes it so dangerous because it spreads widely and easily, with a significant asymptomatic window which makes it difficult to interrupt transmission.
  • It’s widely argued that Covid-19 ‘only’ kills the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. However pandemic often kill the old disproportionally and this isn’t some unique fact about its putative innocuousness. Furthermore, a great deal of the population has pre-existing conditions

A further issue is the blanket nature of these measures. As Nicholas Christakis puts it on pg 116 of Apollo’s Arrow, “Without testing, public health officials were obliged to target the whole population for restrictions in social interactions rather than just those who were sick or exposed”. The economic burdens of lockdown follow from this governmental failure to build capacity for more focused interventions. There are obviously huge challenges involved in doing this but the economic impact of lockdown measures mean their necessity can’t be seen as anything other a (necessary) failure, even if some lockdown measures might have proved unavoidable.

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About Mark