The Iceberg Cometh

8 January 2021. Updated 9 January 2021.

by Guy de la Bédoyère

There’s been a lot of soul-searching on Lockdown Sceptics recently. Despite our collective best efforts to provide a way of exploring alternatives to the terrible consequences of lockdown and find a route through the mesmerising complexity of data, we’ve had little or no wider impact except to be blithely dismissed by some as reckless lunatics. In an age of almost religious mania we have become the heretics.

Yet I know plenty of normal and good people in despair at the way their lives and those of others are being systematically sacrificed in pursuit of one goal that has been allowed to eclipse all others, and debate stifled.

It’s intensely frustrating. I’ve spent hours, days, wading through the figures so many politicians, journalists, and even apparently some scientists, cannot be bothered to, or simply don’t understand. And on this website, I am far from alone in having done so. It hasn’t been an exercise in denial. Not a bit of it. I just want to know the truth or get as close as I can to it.

All I have ever wanted to do is understand properly the choices we face and how best we can inform ourselves. I accept without reservation that Covid presents a unique and dangerous challenge. But I have come to terms with the fact that there is nothing I can do about where we are now and nor can anyone else who is dismayed by what we have become and done to ourselves.

The combination of poor decisions in the past, the new virus variant, the policy decisions that have emptied out hospitals of many of their staff and caused other mayhem, and the prospect of the vaccine has resulted in the latest lockdown probably being the only initiative available until the vaccine rollout has made headway. In any case, there is no point in wailing about it, because we are stuck with Lockdown 3.

I think there is something else much more important for us to focus on now.

I’m only going to cite a few figures in this essay. The death rate is 100%. No ifs or buts. That’s what happens. It’s defined by one elementary fact: there is a finite limit to human existence. Although that varies a little, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to live beyond 110 and it would be simpler to say that somewhere between 85 and 105 is the natural limit of human existence. Life expectancy has improved dramatically in the last two centuries, and especially the last 40 years, but all that means is that the chance of getting to those final 20 years has increased.

But the language and cult of improving life expectancy ignores the finite limit to human life. Everything is built round continually increasing life expectancy and the expectation that it will do so. That’s in spite of the fact it ought to be obvious even to someone hopelessly innumerate that all our efforts are going to suffer from diminishing returns. What we have done therefore is move an ever-larger proportion of our population into that 85-105 bandwidth during which, with a handful of exceptions who eke out a few more years, every one of them will die.

The finite limit to human life hasn’t changed much across history. Yes, I know you will say people died much younger in the past. It would be more correct to say that a higher proportion of people died much younger in the past. The difference was that there was far less opportunity to reach the limit of human life because more risks existed and there were fewer treatments or other precautions available. Believe it or not, there were centenarians in the Roman world. Julius Valens was a centurion at Caerleon in Wales who turned the ton and was commemorated accordingly on his tombstone. He was rare, but he wasn’t alone.

Life is a little like being on the Titanic, but one without lifeboats and in a perpetual state of sinking. We do everything individually and collectively we can to maximize our chances of surviving for as long as possible by metaphorically clambering towards the stern, the last part to sink beneath the waves. And why wouldn’t we? But sink beneath the waves we will.

From a cultural and social point of view that is what we are all about. Human ingenuity is so powerful a force and the drive to improve our survival rates is such an integral part of what we are that they define our whole existence. The NHS is a manifestation of that aspiration because it has made healthcare available to all in this country. It is a defining aspect of our civilization. It is a force for fundamental good and an expression of compassion. But it comes at a price, and not just a financial one.

Unfortunately, what we seem ever more unable to reconcile is our enthusiasm to prolong life with the knowledge that it must end. By doing everything we can to extend life within what is possible for human beings we necessarily fill that 85-105 year-old group with ever more people who have underlying health conditions. That is the contract we have made in our society. The state provides that service, we support that service, we pay for that service, and we expect that service.

The automatic consequence of course is that more and more people in that age group, especially those saved from diseases or conditions that half a century ago would have killed them (like my father, incidentally), present to doctors or hospitals with any one or more of a litany of ongoing medical issues. In a statistical sense, and I am not going to bother you with figures, it means that year on year both the rate and the absolute number of people dying in that category is steadily increasing, something that is officially ignored or at least conveniently set to one side.

I’m not criticising this way of life, by the way. It is simply an observation. Up till Covid came along, although the direction of travel has always been to keep more elderly and vulnerable people alive for longer, there was a contract with the whole of society. It was a balance. We could have prevented old people from getting flu or respiratory conditions for decades if we had only thought to lock down society from October to March every year, isolate them in their homes, close schools and businesses, keep them away from children, and ban free movement.

We didn’t because society has to operate, the economy has to function to pay for everything, children have to be educated – and so on. It’s an invidious choice but that is the price of being human beings on this planet.

Covid has completely upset that contract and destabilised the choice. You can see why. It’s a great deal worse in isolation than any other individual threat to vulnerable people, though not of course compared to the collective risks they face from all other conditions. With all the terror that has been generated and disseminated, I think you can forgive many people for engaging in a bout of obsessively trying to eradicate that single risk while blinding themselves both to all other risks and to the fallout for society.

What bothers me now is whether that imbalance will remain, even once the vaccines have done what everyone hopes they will. Could we be on the cusp of institutionalising lockdown-style measures on a permanent basis in the hope that respiratory conditions as a cause of death can be wiped out?

We are led by a Prime Minister who struggles to make decisions or choices of his own. He has allowed himself to be led by those who are not in a position or capable by their natures of making judgements founded on a three-dimensional understanding of the balances in society. The debate has thus become very one-sided.

Professor Chris Whitty’s warnings that restrictive measures might have to be restored next winter is an ominous portent of how some forces in our country will seek to use that pretext to turn our society into one forever under enhanced levels of restraint, or the threat of such restraints. And since the goal will never be achieved, there will always be an excuse to introduce more restrictions, invariably wheeled out with emotive moral blackmail, and with more of the economic, social, and health consequences we have already seen.

The freedom of the individual set against the needs of the many has always been at the heart of a liberal democratic society. It’s a rocky path to tread.

If we do find that we end up being led down a route towards an imaginary utopia where death has been banished, then the result will only be more and more vulnerable people suffering terminal decrepitude, Alzheimer’s, and being confined to hospital beds until they finally expire. That’s an extremely long way off and undoubtedly impossible. The damage will be done by the journey to get there, which is always the case with utopian visions.

But, crucially, if that is collectively what we want as a society then that is our prerogative – to choose, nature permitting. But I think we need to understand what that choice is.

It’s time for Lockdown Sceptics to move on and confront the prospect of the post-Covid landscape. That’s where we must do our best to help everyone see the options we face at the moment. That should be the mission now because the dangers of what happens after Covid are hoving into view on the horizon and we need to be prepared. Unlike the past and present, we can do something about that.

What matters in life most of all is not what goes right, but what goes wrong and how you deal with it. For a combination of reasons things have gone terribly wrong, but we cannot change the last ghastly 10 months. How we emerge from this is going to be far more important than what has happened up to this point.

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