We seem to be doing very well compared with the rest of the world. And that’s great. Perhaps we’ve really done the right thing with lockdowns, although I rather think the natural border and the border restrictions could be the more obvious factors keeping us out of trouble. But we’re all asking: How long can that continue?
Although it could be argued that we’ve only had a taste of restrictions compared with other places, something to be aware of is that it is quite possible to get accustomed to anything if it is foisted on us often enough. And that’s the concern. True, most of us usually do find something constructive to do in the extra time we have in a lockdown. I get to play a bit more guitar for example, and I’m not complaining about that. But do these lockdowns have sound precedence or justification? Of course, quarantines do have, and though impractical now, curfews have also had their place in the past. I did notice though that a UK Green politician, Baroness Jenny Jones’s last week put forward the daft idea of a “curfew” for all men after 6pm to help reduce family violence! At first, I thought it may have been fake news or a practical joke, but she was serious. She forgot or was ignorant of the fact that lockdowns have increased that problem worldwide for both genders so a curfew on anyone would be counterproductive. Predictably, any criticism of Jones’s idea, if it came from men, only confirmed her idea. The world is in a serious pickle indeed with ideas like this being proposed.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his 1941 State of the Union address (also called the Four Freedoms Speech) proposed four freedoms which he considered everyone in the world should be able to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear (the artist Norman Rockwell famously illustrating each one). The first two freedoms were taken from the US Constitution. All were naturally set into contexts and relevance for that time. “Freedom from fear” for example became particularly associated with the nuclear threat. Though some saw them as extra pretexts for the USA to get involved in WWII, the intention was more likely for them to be far-reaching. After Roosevelt died in 1945, Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to a commission on which she worked diligently with various leaders to help set up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, mentioning it as possibly becoming “the international magna carta of all men everywhere”. Inspiration was drawn from the Four Freedoms Speech, in which FDR had stated, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Have we been giving up essential liberties for “a little temporary safety”? And what are those “essential liberties” in 2021? At least one, the right to freedom from fear, has been egregiously violated by the Covid-19 virus (or by the Covid-19 responses – either or both whichever you see as more of a threat.) In our recent Auckland lockdown, the psychological impact was felt from day one for many. Most do get over it, but some understandably don’t find it so easy, especially as lockdowns create an environment of fear heightened by the potential for massive degrees of superfluous government control.
And of course they violate another basic human right – the right to freedom of movement.
New information is emerging which highlights the cost benefit ratio of lockdowns. Canadian paediatric diseases specialist and clinical professor at the University of Alberta Ari Joffe is one who has radically changed his mind on lockdowns, not least due to the “collateral damage” (see his comprehensive report here).
So, limited quarantines of various types have some history—I heard recently about a whole village which self-quarantined itself for the sake of neighbouring villages in England during the plague; concerned about their neighbours they probably did the right thing – the thoughtful thing, and at their own cost—but country-wide, mass lockdowns have little to no historical precedent on the scale we have been seeing over the past year Anything even approximating them in the past was on a limited scale during times of war or occasional natural disasters. The concept in its current form as a strategy for control initially came from the January 2020 lockdown in Hubei, China. And while the UN has concerns about human rights, on this matter they ended up supporting China’s move. In fact, the WHO had first stated that it was not their recommendation (“The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history, so it is certainly not a recommendation the WHO has made,”) and that the idea of a city lockdown was new to science, but then almost in the next breath commended China[i] for its actions. Lending weight was the reportedly unreliable computer modelling from UK Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who was an advisor to the WHO. One paper headline in May 2020 stated that Ferguson’s modelling “could be the most devasting software mistake of all time”. Either way, most countries in 2020 thought that there was no time to wait and about sixty-five countries jumped on the bandwagon.
The WHO more sensibly said last October that lockdowns should not be the primary response, with Europe’s regional director saying that they should be a “very, very last resort”.
But the real questions on everyone’s minds, apart from the matter of the lack of precedence, are the obvious: Are lockdowns worth it? Are they going to continue with no end in sight? What if there was another health threat of some kind in another year’s time? Or five or ten years? Is anyone seriously considering continuing with the same strategy ad infinitum? And will we see new health threats considered from all angles by those with a say, with balanced scientific investigation plus reasoned opinions from more than one perspective?
The PM has expressed optimism that “we are nearly there”, and it would be great to all share that view, especially if it means lockdowns are going to become fewer as we “get a grip on the virus”.
Or do we just need more events like the America’s Cup to enable us to live normal lives?
Guy Steward is a teacher, musician, and writer.
[i] ‘“The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak, despite the severe social and economic impact those measures are having on the Chinese people,”. . . Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in January, a week after the lockdown was implemented’. https://time.com/5796425/china-coronavirus-lockdown/