WHAT drove the response of the western-style democracies to the pandemic and what was behind their almost universal lockdown policies?
First, we need to look at what we mean by a lockdown and understand the scale, stringency and objective of this measure, in steps:
1. In the strictest sense of the word, all citizens would remain in their homes for the required time without stepping outside their threshold for any reason whatsoever.
2. However, if it is deemed necessary to enforce home confinement this would mean the deployment of a large number of troops and police, who would then be at risk of spreading the virus amongst their own ranks and also their families unless they were confined to barracks. It is unlikely that sufficient troops in hazmat suits could be deployed.
3. If we introduce basic humanitarian exceptions to allow shopping for food and seeking medical assistance, this brings millions of people from the food distribution and medical sectors into the open as well as the shoppers and patients.
4. Further exceptions may allow outside exercise, walking the dog, workers in key industries, delivery of supplies and shopping for hardware. Clearly at this point we are a long way short of a complete lockdown.
It is evident that only the first scenario would have any chance of eliminating viral spread because it would stop person-to-person transmission. However, it would require citizens possibly to starve and die in their homes voluntarily; who would keep the lights on and water in the taps?
So our first conclusion is that anything short of an absolute lockdown will not stop the progress of a pandemic.
However, most governments used variations of incomplete lockdowns to try to impede the progress of the virus. The usefulness of such measures is very much influenced by a number of criteria that are factored in for each region at the start:
1. Population demographic in terms of old age and health, including the success of suppressing recent influenza epidemics; a lot of old people had dodged the previous bullet of seasonal flu and were therefore sitting targets.
2. The size and distribution of population centres; large conurbations favour the virus.
3. The mobility of the population between population centres; commuting favours the virus.
4. The scale of international travel links, together with the presence of large historical immigrant communities; foreign travel must inevitably favour the virus.
5. The practicality of containing, micro-managing and prescribing the actions of an entire population in a functioning democracy; the rules can’t possibly apply to me, can they?
6. Areas with a culture of multi-generational households; these are more likely to spread the disease within themselves, especially if locked down.
One thing we do know is that the diluted lockdown measures enabled middle-class people to hide in their homes whilst working-class people brought them things; the delicious irony is that most of the proponents of an idealistic policy come from the middle class, safe in their government or service industry jobs.
The majority of western-style democracies employed lockdown measures allegedly to protect the hospital services and save lives, justified by claims that they were following the science.
However, these are not the only driving forces of lockdowns; the key but unmentioned pressure on the policy of governments comes from the National Conscience.
The National Conscience is very real, and has a dramatic impact on the present situation. It is a result of the tension between pragmatic and idealistic views in society, not necessarily Left and Right politics.
The idealistic approach is that we must try to save everybody and deal with people equally. This position is more socially painless for individuals to adopt since it does not require any sense of proportionality, no matter how unrealistic. Conversely, the pragmatic view is more difficult for public figures to enunciate because it means bringing to light the susceptibility and inequality of society.
The National Conscience has a disproportionate influence on the response of governments, even though we don’t actually know the split in the population between pragmatic and idealistic. It is also clear that scientific advice has been anything but definitive, particularly at the early stages.
Western democratic society has become extremely risk averse to the extent that the health services need to protect us from ourselves with endless pronouncements on what is bad for us. Equally, society has an expectation that the health services can always fix us. As a result the imperative on national governments to save us becomes the overriding driver of policy, even if it does not necessarily make sense.
The irrationality of a ‘save every one’ policy plays out in public through the mainstream media, particularly in the UK: The suspicion that Dominic Cummings had discussed herd immunity with the cabinet caused a journalistic outcry; rationally, one way or another herd immunity is the only way out of a pandemic.
The National Conscience is zealously guarded by the mainstream media who express their righteous outrage at every opportunity. The journalistic editing process clearly favours commentators and experts who give doom-laden predictions, this makes for sensational headlines as opposed to a ‘nothing to see here’ commentary. You can always find experts to support your view either way.
Ultimately, the noise from the idealistic ‘save everyone’ side of society, supported by the media, overwhelms the pragmatic majority who need to get on with their lives.