The False Choice

24 June 2020. Updated 25 June 2020.

by Guy de la Bédoyère

I had two important things before me; the one was the carrying on of my Business and Shop; which was considerable, and in which was embark’d all my Effects in the World; and the other was the Preservation of my Life in so dismal a Calamity, as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole City; and which however great it was, my Fears perhaps as well as other People’s, represented to be much greater than it could be.

Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year

Defoe’s celebrated work was a form of historical fiction. Written in the manner of first-hand experience of the Plague of 1665, it first appeared in 1722. Nonetheless, it has long been recognized as an extraordinarily powerful account of life in London when the bacterium yersinia pestis wrought havoc. To put that terrible year into perspective, London’s deaths from the Plague at its height in September 1665 were in excess of 6,000 per week. Pro rata that would be the equivalent today of around 130,000 deaths in London in just seven days, and around half a million in a month.

This passage focused on the dilemma Defoe’s character faced. How was he supposed to flee for safety, while at the same time prevent his business in London going under? Crucially he recognized that his fears about the disease, and everyone else’s, were almost certainly exaggerated. And let’s not forget that he was talking about a ‘Calamity’ that makes our pandemic look like a minor inconvenience: as many as 30 percent or more of London’s population died from Plague that year, and it hit people of all ages.

Back on 23 March 2020 a BBC article quoted Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, saying: “We do have a big problem in what the exit strategy is and how we get out of this.” That was an incredible three months ago. Not only had he laid out precisely the problem with a lockdown that the governments of the four UK nations are struggling with, but it was also apparent that he – like so many others – had no idea what the solution would be.

Let me make it clear from the beginning that I am no COVID-19 denier. This new disease is highly contagious and to the significant minority that are most susceptible it is either lethal or causes life-changing damage to the body, especially the lungs. We are confronted with an enormous challenge, but from the outset a false dichotomy has been presented to the public, largely by an overgrown, competitive and narrow-minded scientific community. Desperate to continue driving the agenda and to be conspicuous in doing so they have now resorted to modifying their false dichotomy to one between relaxing the lockdown or risking a ‘second wave’.

The Government adviser Professor Chris Whitty warned on June 23rd that we are in it for the long term and that lockdown could come back. Professor Sir David King is just one of a litany of scientific advisers and health officials now blithering on about how dangerous relaxing the lockdown will be. “It’s extraordinarily risky,” he wailed on Sky News on June 24th, complaining that if only the public could be more patient then we could be “rid” of the virus in the United Kingdom. The previous day on the BBC 1pm news on June 23rd he said, “the level of viral infection in the air could well be quite high”. He cited no evidence for this, and nor even if true did he explain how that would make things different in general from any time in history because presumably the environment is permanently full of viruses and bacteria. Incidentally, on the same programme Professor Calum Semple of the University of Liverpool at least had the wit to point that out that whatever the theoretical risk, if the specific virus isn’t present where you are then you can’t catch it, regardless of how close you are to anyone else.

David King’s central argument and that of others of his ilk seems to be that the lockdown, if only given half a chance and not compromised by the shamelessly ‘political’ decision to throttle back on restrictions, would literally exterminate the virus in the UK. Without lockdown we risk the fabled ‘second wave’. It was and is a monstrous fiction that lockdowns get rid of anything. Lockdowns do not exterminate viruses or indeed anything else. They are like shutting the window during a hailstorm. The hail is still there. Lockdowns are a pseudo-science, more akin to rain dances and other pagan rituals that provide false security and an illusion of control over the natural world and give their protagonists power and status.

The reason David King and other ‘experts’ are so desperate to keep the lockdown in place is that, even if they don’t realize it, they don’t want the truth to be exposed which is quite simply that far from ridding the country of the virus the lockdown has merely prolonged our exposure to the risk. Although he extolled the advantages of a little more patience it’s inconceivable, on the basis of his argument, that the lockdown could ever be suspended or relaxed because the only way a lockdown ‘works’ is to go into permanent hiding while destroying everything else in our society. Some of the controversies over excessive reliance on scientific advice were discussed in the FT over two months ago. You can read that here.

Nor also, I suspect, do such people want to become overnight irrelevances. No-one should ever underestimate the beguiling attractions of notoriety and fame, especially bolstered by the possession of perceived special powers of prophecy. How thrilling it must be for the phone to go all day to be summoned to their laptops and preach to the populace as infallible seers. For all their qualifications scientists are ordinary people too and they are just as susceptible as anyone else to the chance to blaze their way across the firmament.

And so the great fear of the ‘second wave’ has been wheeled out as their winning argument, waved like an ugly killjoy spectre from the pulpit, a demon that will come and get us if we don’t follow the precepts of the scientific priesthood. The real truth is that there is no such thing as a ‘second wave’. A resurgence of the disease, and I don’t doubt the possibility, will simply come about because the lockdown never brought the first wave under control, either by providing a treatment or a method of destroying the disease. A ‘second wave’ is thus just a continuation of the first.

If you have ever watched the motion picture Alien you might have noticed that it’s not until the very last moment that the source of all the terror, the eponymous alien, is seen in complete form and even then only very briefly. Throughout the movie up till that point all you ever got to see was part of the beast, or the after-effects of its destruction of a human being. It’s one of the oldest tricks in narrative fiction. In Homer’s Odyssey you’ll no doubt have a very clear idea of what Polyphemus, the Cyclops, looked like with his terrifying one eye in the middle of his forehead. In fact, Homer never fully describes the Cyclops – he left it to his readers to dream up their own picture of the monster.

As the last few weeks have rolled (or should I say dragged?) by I have been fascinated by observing the same phenomenon. In the minds of many people, including Government ministers, the virus has taken on the identity of a villainous sentient being with superpowers and of unsurpassed ruthlessness.

“The virus doesn’t discriminate”, is a popular claim, as if this malevolent monster has a single conscious presence, bent on world domination and destruction of the human race. This is in spite of the clear evidence that like most bacteria or viruses its chemical nature means that it is more dangerous to some people than others, and now we have a far better idea of who those people are.

The more nebulous the fear is, the greater the hold fear has. It expands to fill the void of ignorance. Those who use fear as a mechanism of control have enhanced their power and profiles in ways that could hardly have been imagined a few weeks ago. The use of fear was central to promoting the idea that the lockdown superseded any other consideration, including not only the economy but also even using the NHS. The threat from the virus was magnified, not only to make it seem more risky than any other threat we face but that – and this is the most preposterous claim of the crisis – that it outweighed the sum of all other risks. This at least is the only way to explain why the lockdown has been enforced, together with all its cataclysmic consequences.

A harsh fact about life is that we live in a meteor storm of risks, bombarding us night and day. Being intelligent and capable of foreseeing our own deaths we do everything we can to mitigate or avoid those risks. But for the most part we blithely accept those risks because if we didn’t we’d never do anything at all except cower in our bedrooms, forgetting of course that even walking downstairs is a hazard in its own right. With COVID-19 we’ve behaved as if we’ve spotted one new meteorite and raced about like lunatics trying to dodge it while ignoring the fact that as a result we are running into the paths of many more. It amounts to a collective form of mental illness in which a hag-ridden population devotes itself to evading one angry dragon by tearing down an entire civilization

This is what lies behind the Government’s decision to move away from scientific advisers. The fear the latter peddled, and continue to peddle, has paralyzed large numbers of people’s ability to function normally. Boris Johnson and his colleagues know this has to change. Sadly some of the scientists, very few of whom have ever had to earn a living in a normal commercial environment, have yet to catch up with reality.

The underlying argument expounded by those opposed to ending the lockdown is invariably the prioritization of public health. This is what Professor Peter Openshaw of Imperial College argued on Andrew Marr on May 31st, and it’s also what Professor John Edmunds of SAGE suggested on the same programme on June 7th. In Britain, which is rapidly turning into a state defined only by its NHS cult, this has resulted in a bizarre paradox. Public health in those terms means only protection from COVID-19, and hence the promotion of a false choice.

The effect of this sort of approach is to create the monstrous lie that somehow lockdown is the path to a zero-risk world where death and disease are banished by us all hiding in our homes, and observing a bizarre set of arbitrary apotropaic rituals that have turned out to be a stranglehold on any attempts to return to some degree of normality. When did we forget that both death and disease are part and parcel of our entire life experiences? We have made brilliant advances in the mitigation of disease and giving most people a far better chance of reaching an old age. But never before have we tried to achieve that by destroying everything else that makes us what we are.

Jacinda Arden, prime minister of New Zealand, has been trumpeting her lockdown triumph by celebrating its lifting. Really? New Zealand is now a single, amalgamated self-isolating household. The nation has become a pair of prison islands. No-one in or out apart from a few exceptions – and now those very exceptions have demonstrated that it doesn’t work, because there have been a small number of new cases including the two British women given permission to travel there and visit a dying relative. Now New Zealand’s border restrictions have been tightened yet further. It is impossible at the moment now to see how New Zealand can ever emerge from its isolation.

Now we have our Government and many others all having to engage in a tortuous rewriting of the last few months. Suddenly the magical rules designed to save us can be changed into new ones. Apparently the Government is no longer ‘following’ the science. Instead it’s being ‘guided’ by the science. Thank goodness. The penny has finally dropped that we are now teetering on the brink of a wider health and economic crisis entirely of our own making. The litany of undiagnosed and untreated health problems scarcely bears thinking about – even if we take into account that a lot of the NHS’s time is, or was, taken up by people who really didn’t need to be there. Only recently the news has emerged that the NHS may end up with as many as 10 million people on its waiting lists by Christmas.

The health consequences of economic destitution will affect people of all ages and ethnicity, whether or not they had any underlying conditions to start with. There will be emotive cries of ‘you’re prioritising the economy over lives’.

It’s an easy, lazy and foolish headline-grabbing argument which completely fails to acknowledge the inextricable links between health and economic well-being, or rather the dependence of the former on the latter. Defoe recognized that. His character announces, “I resolv’d that I would stay in the Town”, accepting whatever happened to him, but with a studied respect for the Plague and its potency.

We live in a very different era but the truth, however unpalatable it may be to people who have come to believe that health and immortality are free and God-given rights, is that the only reason any of us makes our way through life at all is because we live in economic systems that allow us to earn our daily bread, buy our homes, educate our children and fund our healthcare.

The reality is that if we tell ourselves to prevent the so-called second wave at all costs, by extending the destructive effects of the lockdown further and for longer, then the health and economic crisis that will follow and echo down for generations, not just here but across the world, will be one we will be far less able to do anything about. Most people in Britain seem to have forgotten that the NHS only exists because we have, or had, one of the largest economies in the world. Without a thriving economy the future can only be one of unemployment, destitution, deprivation and want. And we all know what catastrophic health consequences of all those would be.

That economy has enabled us not only to spare huge numbers of productive young people to work in that health service, rather than in making or generating wealth, but also to appropriate or entice others from around the world to work here with them. The result is that around 1.5 million people work in the NHS which is around three percent of the working population. To those we can add many more involved in healthcare. They spend much of their time dealing with an economically unproductive part of the population, primarily the elderly and vulnerable. Being able to do so and living in a society which values that is part of being civilized.

The same applies to education. Since 1944 there has been universal state education available in this country. It’s far from perfect but it means the vast majority of children emerge from school literate and able to take part in the social, cultural and economic life of this country. Yet, as a result of the disastrously blinkered scientific advice that has driven this crisis we have apparently been prepared to condemn a whole generation of children to compromised education and all the social, health and economic risks we know that will entail. No wonder then that in the Mirror of June 24th Polly Hudson wrote about the shameful betrayal of a generation.

Like mass education, the NHS is a fabulous luxury, a superb and enviable benefit of living in an economically powerful nation. It’s also a privilege. We are extremely fortunate to have it. But the price is massive and it means there is no point in ‘protecting the NHS’ if the result is that we end up being unable to afford it thanks to the economic Armageddon of lockdown. In the end the only way any disease is controlled is through herd immunity, gained either by letting the disease run its course or by developing a vaccine.

The choice we face is not a simplistic one between ‘health’ on one hand and ‘the economy’ on the other. By believing that it was or still is, the result has been to take this country and many others to the point where the very health crisis the lockdown was supposed to prevent is now facing us on a far larger scale. It’s time to get real and stop playing games.

Without the mechanisms of movement and exchange being restored there is no chance of us funding either health care or education, yet we will need both more than ever before. Without restoring normality we may even face disorder, as Professor Clifford Stott has warned, with unemployment and other problems mounting.

What do we do then? We do what the Government is finally starting to do. We throw resources at protecting the vulnerable. We test and trace. We introduce more of the sort of solutions to disease that have been gradually introduced into society since the earliest days of epidemiology. We are perfectly capable of absorbing these into everyday life. But what we mustn’t do is fall prey to some of the scientific soothsayers convinced we are about to destroy ourselves and who tell us to hide in our bunkers for longer. It’s a drum they’ve beaten for far too long in their desperate attempts to hide the fact that they had, and have, no real solution to the virus at all.

The real shock to come, if we’re not careful, will be an economic catastrophe, not a health one, warned Rafael Behr in the Guardian on June 23rd.

Defoe recounted how being confronted with an intractable disease began eventually to provoke among the Londoners of 1665, who had locked themselves down for weeks, a complete ‘Despair of their ever being able to escape the infection’. But then he noted this very phenomenon provoked another which was that they gave up worrying about the plague ‘and went anywhere and everywhere and began to converse’ and met in public places. In short, they undid their own self-imposed lockdown because it had become psychologically and practicably impossible to sustain it.

In truth here never was a choice between lockdown or a public health disaster, but it’s remarkable how many of the scientists still seem unable to understand that. This is no anti-science rant. Science has transformed our lives and we need everything science can provide us in an arsenal of weaponry against this disease and every other, to say nothing about all the environmental challenges we face. But lockdown is the path to a public health, social and economic disaster, and it is also the best possible way of creating the circumstances for a resurgence of the disease it never resolved in the first place.

When Defoe’s character reopened his shop at least he was able to make his own decision by weighing up risk against realism. Had there been any scientists on hand to stick their oars in we can be sure they’d have told him to stay closed at all costs and condemn himself to ruin and all that that would have entailed.

The time has come, if it hadn’t already right from the start of this crisis, for some of the scientific community to show a little humility and get on with helping us and the Government through the next stage of our return to a measured, controlled and conditional normality with constructive advice, not carping from the side-lines, undermining unavoidable and essential political decisions which they are by definition incapable of making. And it’s time for the rest of us to realize that and for the media to give them less of an opportunity to do so.

As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action arise, human science is at a loss.

Noam Chomsky (1928– )
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