OPINION: Is it time to reconsider the lockdown?
What a strange world we now live in, stalked by death, plagued by uncertainty. Information is coming at us from all angles. Who and what to believe, where to place our trust, has never been so difficult to decide.
The first reported case of COVID-19 in this country was on February 29; the Taoiseach subsequently announced the lockdown restrictions during his visit to Washington on March 12.
Most citizens, myself included, were strongly supportive at the time. Based on the information available, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) referencing a 3.4% mortality rate, the government had no option but to impose severe restrictions, the prime motivating factor for which was to ensure that the health service was not swamped with cases (we all remember those horrific scenes in Italy).
As time went on, however, it became clear, thankfully, that for the vast majority of the population, this virus is not as dangerous as we feared. For one thing, it is believed that over half of those infected will show no symptoms.
A recent survey in America’s worst-hit state, New York, where antibody testing was conducted on a sample of 15,000 people, predicted that 1.7 million people in the state, which equates to 20% of the population, have already been infected.
In his March 12 speech, Varadkar made an almost throwaway comment. “Our economy will suffer,” he said. “It will bounce back.”
That was interesting and could be misleading in the sense that it was an understatement, which may have contributed to a general lack of awareness as to what this lockdown would mean for the economy.
I had this debate with a friend last week, a very smart cookie. He was annoyed at the sentiments I expressed, questioning why it was such a big ask of people to “pause their lives” in order to protect the old and the vulnerable.
That strawman argument has been common in recent weeks. It does not hold up to scrutiny. A pause is defined as a hiatus, a recess. It suggests that we can unpause whenever we want and that things will go back to 'normal'.
The cold, hard truth is, the longer the lockdown goes on, the less chance there is of that happening. A publican with a few decades’ experience in the trade told me at the weekend that he believes most small pubs may not open again after the lockdown ends.
The same could be said for many small businesses, particularly in rural Ireland where the squeeze was on anyway.
The authorities in this country did the best they could based on the information at hand at the start of this crisis. Did they make mistakes? Of course, grave ones in some instances, particularly in relation to nursing homes.
But they were in a difficult position. If it seems they are making it up as they go along, that’s because they are – and that’s not a criticism. They had no choice. This situation was unprecedented. Governments were forced to make huge decisions based on modelling. It was guesswork – informed to a certain degree but guesswork all the same.
However, the lockdown has had a strange effect on how we view our government. Varadkar’s administration had taken a pummeling in the election but quickly soared in the polls as the nation got behind its leaders, as countries do at a time of national crisis. A case could be made that this crisis has saved the careers of more than one politician.
The general wave of support, fanned by the tone of the Taoiseach’s speeches (“we are a great nation” etc) led to a dangerous unwillingness to question any decision they took and a lionisation of our ministers and health officials, exemplified just last week by a mural, which appeared in Dublin, depicting the chief medical officer as Superman.
One national newspaper even suggested in an editorial that questioning of the government approach should be saved until the crisis is over, which I found staggering. Now, more than ever, the powers-that-be must be scrutinised as closely as possible and questions must be asked.
Here’s one: Is it time to radically ease restrictions?
It has become clear that the medical experts are now making the key decisions. But doctors, by their nature, have a different outlook than government leaders. Their job is to protect life, solely.
I understand the point of view that says, if one life is saved, all of these restrictions are worth it. But, cold and callous as it sounds, I cannot agree. We don’t ban all vehicles off the road in order to eliminate deaths in car accidents. It is not as black and white as that; things rarely are.
And the logic that saving one life out-weighs all other concerns also ignores the lives which will surely be lost as a result of crippling the economy. Poverty has an adverse effect on life expectancy, as does stress; one study found that male suicide increased by 57% in this country during the last recession.
Thankfully, the health service has not been overwhelmed. I spoke to a man who works in a hospital in Limerick a fortnight ago. Ordinarily, he told me, there could be 70 patients on trollies. The day we spoke, there were none. Our hospitals are coping and there is space in our intensive care units.
But people are still struggling. A tradesman I know has been out of work for two months, picking up the so-called COVID dole of €350 per week. He was contacted about a small job, a couple of days’ work, on a standalone, unoccupied house, 15 minutes from his own home, which he has rarely left for 10 weeks.
Unfortunately, to take on the job would have meant breaking the law, so he had to pass it up. I would say this is the first time the State has outlawed some private individuals going to work. That’s the world we live in now; we are all afraid.
The government has published its roadmap for the easing of restrictions – the tradesman I mentioned returned to work on Monday - and is seeking to find a way out of this situation. Many of the restrictions are so arbitrary, though, as to be confusing.
Golfers can play a round now but only if they live within 5km of their golf club. Is that 5km from the nearest point, from the clubhouse or from the first tee? Is it as the crow flies or via the road?
Horseracing will resume, behind closed doors, on June 8. Greyhound racing, however, is still banned for three weeks after that. Why is one safe and not the other?
The most telling statement, for me, was Varadkar’s admission that the virus may have been present in this country as far back as December. Asked about it, Dr Tony Holohan stated that, if it was, the cases would have been “sporadic”.
That, I could not comprehend. This thing is highly contagious; healthy people, isolated from the vulnerable, walk the streets in the open air in face masks. It seems counter-intuitive to think that a virus – which by its very nature, goes viral – was present a couple of months before it first came to light and, with no lockdown or restrictions of any kind in place, did not have any discernible effect.
Because contagious viruses spread and mutate like a rumour or, in this case, a Chinese whisper. Once they’re out, there is no stopping them.
We know that lockdown is not sustainable and this disease will not be eradicated until there is a vaccine, which could take years. The only way it can be managed is through that horrible phrase, herd immunity, which likens us to animals.
The things we have been denied - employment, education, sport, relationships, family, travel and new experiences – these are what it is to be alive, to be human. Living under house arrest is not living at all, it is merely surviving.
Where are we now? In February and March, there was a real fear that our hospitals would be swamped. We closed the schools and locked down to flatten the curve, to give our hospitals time to prepare and to develop our testing and tracing capacity. That has been achieved, and is a credit to the public for how they have observed the stringent imposition on their way of life.
The virus is in retreat and we have the testing capacity to root out where it lingers, to break the chains of transmission.
Many tens of thousands of people have survived the illness, some may not even realise they had it. Life now must surely resume.
“Above all,” stated the Taoiseach in that March 12 address, “we all need to look out for each other.”
It’s time we re-considered what that means. This disease is Jekyll and Hyde, potentially deadly to the old and vulnerable, harmless to the vast majority. Hard as it sounds, those in danger must stay cocooned in the medium term but, for now, surely the onus is on the rest of us to go about our lives, kickstart the economy, develop a level of resistance and speed up the day when they can re-emerge safely.
Maybe I am wrong. But in a quickly-changing situation, this is a conversation we should be having.