Two interesting articles on the Coronavirus issue, one in the Lancet by the epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, and then an interview with him in the American Institute of American research. He’s worked for the WHO, been chief scientist for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and been an advisor to the Swedish government during the present crisis.
It’s well reading both articles, which comment on the approach Sweden pursued avoiding a lockdown (and which the UK was pursuing until the report from Imperial University) compared to those that have. Sweden does have a higher mortality than surrounding Norway, Finland and Denmark… but less than the UK, Spain and Belgium.
There could be a variety of factors for that, of course. He points out that a lockdown can slow spread (and thus reduce pressure and give time for health care to gear up), but ultimately does not stop the spread, and suggests that “[t]here is very little we can do to prevent this spread: a lockdown might delay severe cases for a while, but once restrictions are eased, cases will reappear. I expect that when we count the number of deaths from COVID-19 in each country in 1 year from now, the figures will be similar, regardless of measures taken.”
I think that last point speaks to something that is very unappreciated in a lot of the debates around responses to the Coronavirus. We seem to assume – perhaps based on living in a fairly comfortable and controlled environment compared to most of human history – that things should be under control. We especially tend to place a lot of faith in the power of government and human agencies to control things, and when things don’t go according to “plan”, we look for someone to blame. But a lot of things – and this episode should be a reminder of that – are not under our control, or anybody’s.
The “looking for blame” approach is particularly corrosive when there’s simply so much that we don’t – and those making the decisions – didn’t know. When the Imperial report was released, the (UK) Government had the choice of sticking to previous policy (based on what other experts were saying), or reversing course and going for the lock-down. They chose the latter. In retrospect, there appears to be some flaws with the model Imperial used, and perhaps Prof. Gieseke is right. Moreover, the economic damage in itself will also carry a cost (and not just a financial one – recessions and depressions lead to death too). But there was no way for anyone to be sure, and there still isn’t.
If they’d have chosen one way, they’d have been crucified by one part of the people and media, and by choosing another way, they got blamed by a different segment. Indeed, even now you have one segment suggesting that the lockdown wasn’t brought in soon enough, and thus “the government” is to blame for deaths, while another segment is pointing to the consequences and demanding opening up happen sooner. And yet it is still the case that no one can be entirely sure of the result of either course, or indeed realise that many things may be out of human hands entirely.
In short, what I suggest is that – while taking steps we can to keep ourselves as informed as possible – we approach all these things with a degree of intellectual humility.