A wise retired surgeon said on a radio phone-in yesterday that, just a few years ago, we wouldn’t even have known about COVID-19 until the pandemic was past its peak, and we would probably have concluded that it was just a particularly bad winter for elderly deaths from respiratory disease. Maybe ignorance is bliss.
I think he’s right. I don’t even remember the last significant pandemic, Hong Kong flu in 1968-9, except by name, though I lived through it, and I do remember revising for A-levels, looking forward to the moon landings, getting my first guitar and liking Jethro Tull. My parents and elderly grandparents were not affected, and nor were my future wife’s. Although 80,000 excess deaths occurred in the UK that winter, life went on for most as normal.
That figure of 80,000 is to some extent comparable to the possible maximum of 400,000 suggested in the current pandemic:
Professor Neil Ferguson, of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London…insisted he was not predicting 400,000 deaths, but was warning that the figure ‘is possible’. He said he would ‘prefer to be accused of overreacting than under reacting’. (Daily Mail)
But unlike Coronavirus Hong Kong flu also killed many infants, rather than only those approaching the end of life anyway. Individual tragedies all, but it didn’t even make a blip on economic growth or corporate profits.
I’m in the at-risk age group for this one, but have known for years that I might die at any time from a coronary event or some form of cancer: dying’s what you do as you get old. Most octogenarians I know feel they’re on borrowed time anyway. A 1% death rate, and 80% prevalence, means around 3 deaths in my small village. We have that many some winters anyway.
I think, however, that there’s some utopian thinking going on in the present “shut the world” management plan, apparently based on the illusion in our liberal democracies that stable societies exist by default, and economies are just there to provide unnecessary luxuries. Actually economies are there to keep mass-starvation at bay, and without fully-functioning societies there are no functioning humans.
Yet our government, like most others in the world, is determined to reduce, or at least slow down, the deaths by pressing the off-switch not only on the economy, but on society itself. This is an unprecedented global experiment, and I’m not at all sure it can be done successfully, or at least without a far greater cost than simply letting Coronavirus run its natural course. As is so often the case nowadays, Prof Ferguson’s precautionary principle may well be overreacting, at the cost of creating worldwide societal collapse.
For even while most of us know nobody with the disease, already whole industries have been abruptly curtailed, creating financial crises not only in travel, hospitality, entertainment, retail, child-care and many others, but for all the individual employers and employees who will have to put themselves in quarantine. Or who must stay home to look after children ordered to miss school until, perhaps, the end of summer, and forbidden from playing with their friends or stay with granny. After the 2008 crash, many jobs were threatened, but this time all my children’s families, not to mention every working person I’ve met, has been seriously threatened either with redundancy or the folding of their companies.
Government has announced £330bn of mitigation, over and above a generous budget, but this of course simply means borrowing against tomorrow’s burden of taxation. Austerity from the 2008 recession had already created a crisis in social care, particularly for the elderly. It is ironic to consider that the cost of trying to save them now might be far more deaths, over a much longer period, because of the inability to pay for their future social care. Even now, many elderly are wondering whether open-ended solitary confinement may not be far worse than the risk of a quick death after living fruitfully and convivially.
If governments’ responses to this pandemic do, as I fear, bring about a massive recession, then that in itself will bring many deaths, and those among the most indispensible members of society. Look at these quotes:
Financial crisis caused 500,000 extra cancer deaths, according to Lancet study
The global financial crisis may have caused an additional 500,000 cancer deaths from 2008 to 2010, according to a new study, with patients locked out of treatment because of unemployment and healthcare cuts.
The figures were extrapolated from an observed rise in cancer deaths for every percentage increase in unemployment, and every drop in public healthcare spending. (Telegraph)
Suicides associated with the 2008-10 economic recession in England: time trend analysis.
These findings suggest that about two fifths of the recent increase in suicides among men (increase of 329 suicides, 126 to 532) during the 2008-10 recession can be attributed to rising unemployment.(BMJ)
“Economic growth is the single most important factor relating to length of life,” said principal investigator M. Harvey Brenner, visiting professor in the Global Health Division of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine. Brenner is also professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University and senior professor of epidemiology at Berlin University of Technology.
“Employment is the essential element of social status and it establishes a person as a contributing member of society and also has very important implications for self-esteem,” said Brenner. “When that is taken away, people become susceptible to depression, cardiovascular disease, AIDS and many other illnesses that increase mortality.” (Yale News 2002)
We should add to that, of course, the effects on families scared of illness and desperately worried about their jobs cooped up with bored children for the next few months. Expect a few “Loving Father Shoots Family and then Himself” headlines down the road.
Magical thinking seems to pervade some of the comment on the prospective societal changes forced by the crisis, too. Twice on the news today, once from a lady bishop talking more about trees than about Jesus, it was suggested that the enforced removal of the evils of the industrial society would return us to the simple and pure pleasures of life, family, community, working fewer hours and having more time to reflect. Earlier my friend had rejoiced that all the nasty carbon-producing planes are on the runway (though oddly enough he flies regularly and I don’t!).
What planet are these people on? If the planes are on the runway, then all the aircrew, ground-crew, baggage handlers, administrators, travel agents, manufacturers, hoteliers and fuel-producers will not be enjoying the simple life and watching the stars – they will be economically desperate, working all hours at any job they can find to pay the rent and eat whilst stress fragments their families. Or else (since all the jobs are going belly-up) they will be lying on the sofa at home feeling increasingly worthless and depressed, and surviving on increasingly stingy welfare payments, since the new simple society will no longer be able to afford complicated benefits systems.
For better or worse, this may be a dry-run for the carbon-free society they were all hustling for before Coronavirus emerged: it will either plunge us all back into mediaeval living a few decades early, or shock us so much that we abandon the renewable caper and count the blessings of a society that is economically prosperous, and socially liberated from the draconian state controls (though, like Egypt after Joseph’s famine, government may find totalitarianism too valuable to give away now they have it).
One more extraneous thought on the British situation. A year ago, all the millennials were cursing the elderly for ruining their future by voting for Brexit. The economy did not collapse, after all. But what if some of them come to the realisation that the boomers are genuinely destroying the prosperity of the world in order to save their wrinkly skins for a year or two more? Our desperate attempts to control the forces of nature and deny our mortality may well be destroying the future for everyone, and no doubt old white males will get the blame.