Notes From Lockdown

On the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, incompetent leadership, political opportunism, and future hopes of civilisation & democracy.

Notes From Lockdown

So it’s 70 days into lockdown, or about time I articulated some thoughts on the global pandemic that has shut down most of the world, killed hundreds of thousands, left scores of millions unemployed, and threatens to devastate almost every major economy on the planet.

First, let’s quickly recap some of the basic facts.

COVID-19 infects many people who don’t present symptoms, yet are contagious. That fact, combined with the fact that the virus is novel (there was no existing immunity), makes stopping the spread of the virus insanely difficult. It also defines the response: when you can’t readily identify who is contagious, it’s inevitable the quarantine net must be cast over everyone.

Just to stop outbreaks spreading like a rash through a population and completely overwhelming the capacity of any country’s healthcare system, racking up unconscionable death tolls, people must stop meeting with each other, stop mixing, stop touching things unnecessarily (especially their faces), and start washing their hands (a lot) and wearing masks in public. Enter lockdown.

Hands and hand sanitizer pump
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Restrictions on movement are enforced, which includes stopping most people going to work. This points the economy in the direction towards collapse, in order to prevent the healthcare system—the higher priority—collapsing when it is needed most. Countries have varied in the extent they are willing to shut down their economies, i.e. how many people are stopped from traveling to their workplaces, but generally a group of jobs is categorised “essential services,” and workers in other jobs need to work from home, or just stop working.

As soon as this happens society begins walking on a tightrope. When put off-kilter, all kinds of dangers start swirling in the air. Just like nature, civilisation relies on a heavily interconnected and interdependent ecosystem. Its fragility is quickly exposed when part of that system is forced to stop.

The nature of the virus means it is especially difficult to control in those societies with dense population centres, where its people move freely and often inside it, and where the government has no effective apparatus to stop them doing so. That describes most modern first-world countries to some degree, but it is especially fitting in describing the economically prosperous, liberal democracies that currently make up the biggest slice of the world’s economic and political power: The West.

Within the EU, Germany has proven highly effective at responding to the virus, through a mix of luck (the outbreak started in less vulnerable groups, buying them time), thorough preparedness (they already had an enviable number of ICU beds available), and a rigorous scientific approach to fighting the outbreak (contact tracing teams, mass testing, and scientifically-minded Angela Merkel leading things).

None of that has made Germany immune, but it seems to have minimised the damage as much as possible within a Western democracy of its kind. Alongside Asian democracies like South Korea and Taiwan, it has served as a model.

By way of contrast, the US and UK, both sporting clownish leaders following divisive, populist movements that sprung up in the years preceding the virus, have struggled to maintain the appearance of minimal competence.

Boris -Joker- Johnson
Photo by Jannes Van den wouwer / Unsplash

The UK government initially appeared to point the country towards the goal of achieving rapid “herd immunisation,” a novel concept linked to chief adviser Dominic Cummings (a key player in the Brexit campaign, now facing calls to resign after breaking the lockdown rules he helped engineer). This would have meant imposing “just enough” restrictions to flatten the curve of infections sufficiently to keep the health service operational, while allowing the majority of the population to become infected and either die or recover as quickly as possible, in order to reach the point of “herd immunisation” and get the economy back up and running.

That point where “herd immunisation” is reached is thought to be when 60% or more of the population has been infected, recovered, and become immune after their body produces antibodies to fight the virus. And it may be for most countries the only way out of lockdown is to reach that level of immunity in the public… but to avoid millions of avoidable deaths, a vaccine will be needed to get there.

The publication of a report from Imperial College  (released March 16) appeared to precipitate a swift reversal of policy from the UK government (guidance was given March 16, businesses were ordered closed March 20, and a nationwide lockdown announced March 23). The report laid out that in the most optimistic outcome hundreds of thousands would die in the UK alone following a strategy of "mitigation" (AKA "herd immunity"), while predicting the NHS to be overwhelmed with demand outstripping capacity for ICU beds 8-fold (meaning the death toll would be much higher than the optimistic figure—likely in the millions).

From the report:

We therefore conclude that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time. The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound. Many countries have adopted such measures already, but even those countries at an earlier stage of their epidemic (such as the UK) will need to do so imminently.

The UK government re-shaped their policies in the days following publication until they were aligned with the consensus approach of most other nations (suppression rather than mitigation): shut down businesses, close schools, and require people to stay in their homes except for essential trips. Gone were the apologetic pleas for the public to follow the government's recommendation and not go to the pub.

That the policy shift was staggered over several days likely led to further unnecessary deaths (after arriving late at the policy itself), and struck as an attempt to reverse course gradually enough to avoid the appearance of reversing course, like a ship's captain trying to cover an egregious navigational error by slowly making a 180 degree turn over the course of hours rather than minutes, further compounding the consequences of the mistake. These changes were sold to the public in the daily press briefings as "waiting for the right moment” to announce each part of the new restrictions.

Then Boris Johnson contracted the virus himself and almost died, a few days after insisting on shaking hands with everyone at a hospital that included infected patients (back when he was still in the “sorry to deprive the great British people of a pint in the pub” mode of virus fighting).

Donald Trump (impersonator) at the White House, Washington DC.
Photo by Darren Halstead / Unsplash

Over in the US, the president has seemed to understand the crisis as something of a marketing challenge, where his objective is to thumb his nose at reality and simply inform the US public he is handling everything brilliantly. Trump has switched sporadically between attempting to project an image of total control over the virus and framing it as an ingenious and deadly attack by an “invisible enemy”—that in the context of his rhetoric often sounds like it means "China."

The WHO has also been a favourite external body to deflect blame onto: among frequent verbal attacks accusing the WHO of being in bed with China, Trump froze US funding to the organisation as the crisis was unfolding.

Initially Trump cast the virus as an exaggerated threat conjured by democrats to prevent his re-election. Once that lost all plausibility, he flipped the script and began to cast the virus as "a brilliant enemy."

Recently the POTUS formed a habit of making rash statements, quickly becoming infamous around the world for their astounding stupidity, regarding possible treatments for the virus: blasting the body with a very powerful light of some kind, and injecting disinfectant to clean the virus out. Presumably the aim here was to score points by impressing the US public with how actively their president was trying to participate alongside scientists and medical professionals in the search for a cure.

After proactively brain-storming virus cures during live broadcasts, Trump began publicly endorsing an existing drug used to treat malaria, which was undergoing trials to establish if it was effective against C-19.

Well, the first results are now in on that drug, and the WHO has suspended further trials after initial tests suggested it could double the mortality rate among patients infected with the virus—and the increase was worse still when used as a treatment in combination with antibiotics. Which seems to clearly answer the question Trump posed to reporters: “what do you have to lose?

One of the dangers in a time like this, when so many nations are all at once occupied with a crisis within their borders, is what is allowed to slip past unnoticed while no-one is looking too closely at other events.

The regime of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, which has failed to resemble a democracy as much as a post-fascist, authoritarian state in recent years, passed rule-by-decree with no expiration date—essentially transforming the EU member state into a dictatorship. Verbal assurances were provided that these powers will be temporary, and are necessary to ensure the safety of all.

Budapest, Hungary
Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik / Unsplash

I am sure I have heard this story before… ah, yes, it was in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones, when Palpatine passed emergency powers through the Galactic Senate to ensure peace and safety throughout the Galactic Republic (and then used them to establish an evil empire).

Elsewhere, South Africa saw a rogue police minister appear to turn a temporary ban on alcohol sales into some kind of personal crusade, warning that his forces would "destroy the infrastructure where the liquor is sold."

And of course the Chinese Communist Party didn’t wait long before starting to encroach on Hong Kong’s autonomy. It also had time to have a team ascend Everest, incidentally—the only climbers to summit the mountain during the pandemic. The optics of which are interesting.

Dangerous political opportunism has likely only just begun.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the pandemic is that due to its unprecedented nature (comparisons with the 1918 flu pandemic being of limited use due to how different the world was, in almost every significant geopolitical and technological way, a century ago), nobody seems to have a clear grasp on exactly how big these events are, of their exact shape, what the greatest long-term dangers are, or generally what is likely to happen next at any given moment.

Since events are unfolding simultaneously across almost every country on Earth, it becomes impossible to follow everything that is happening. It may not be possible for all significant events to be fully reported, either—at least when it comes to those of ambiguous significance. The nations of the world have found themselves dropped into a game where many of the previous rules have been thrown out the window and the new ones must be learnt on the fly.

From the vantage point of a citizen, since just before lockdown came into place it has felt like being in a series of perceptual bubbles, each bursting sooner than expected and revealing a new, slightly bigger, or at least different bubble, where perhaps a slightly more accurate picture of the situation emerges, before the bubble bursts again and reveals the next one… and so on.

The general pattern is to under-estimate the scale of the crisis, then swing in the opposite direction briefly, seeing with fresh eyes new problems the pandemic is causing around the globe, getting a rough grasp on some of the potential outcomes, before slipping back into a level of comfortably numb “normality,” until the next bubble bursts as new events transpire and narratives once again shift.

Just a good bubble. colorful
Photo by Diana Orey / Unsplash

However you cut it, living in a world of so many unknowns feels acutely dangerous. A place where things could go wrong in any number of ways. The nature of the crisis continues to morph, and we can only hope a sense of grounded, patient calm and peaceful sensibility win out over the long haul politically, while countries attempt to minimise the death tolls and economic damage from within the eyes of each hurricane.

The world has executed a sudden hairpin turn against its long-held globalist trajectory, transforming practically overnight into hundreds (or hundreds of thousands if you look at things regionally) of virus-fighting territories with well-defined borders, and for now the healthy have little else to do but wait indoors, hunker down and make the best of things as the battle rages in hospitals and morgues. But they will, inevitably, have important roles to play in the effort to steer their societies through the pandemic.

However this pans out, chances are we have already, without knowing it, said goodbye to the world as we knew it. It left on the first day of lockdown. None of us know exactly what shape the world will take on the other end of this thing, but it could be as foreign to us as the United Kingdom must have seemed to itself in 1919 compared to the years immediately before World War I, where wealthy gentleman wearing top hats, spoiled in the riches of empire, complacently lazed, immersing themselves in fine culture and foods while much of the world sweated and bled to turn the cogs of the British empire.

Which parts of the pre-COVID-19 world have died is still up in the air—they could be superficial parts, like shaking hands or kissing cheeks as default greetings, or they could be much bigger.

Hopefully, it is not the viability of democracy as the guiding principle of the world’s most vibrant and powerful economies. There have already been signs in the last few years that democracy may have been hacked, gamed. A fatal security hole found in its firmware that cannot be patched. And now comes a big push that could force the most liberal, successful democracies to rapidly construct something akin to the apparatus of a police state in order to prevent the death of millions—movements and gatherings of the public monitored, and legal permission needed to make them.

The exit strategy is key. It currently appears that the development of a vaccine, and its distribution to hundreds of millions around the world, is the only viable way to achieve the critical mass of virus immunity within populations to allow citizens to move freely again without fear of sparking new outbreaks, forcing economies to shut down on repeating cycles of death and economic destruction.

From the same report from Imperial College London:

The major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package – or something equivalently effective at reducing transmission – will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) – given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed. We show that intermittent social distancing – triggered by trends in disease surveillance – may allow interventions to be relaxed temporarily in relative short time windows, but measures will need to be reintroduced if or when case numbers rebound.

Of obvious concern is the timeline in which a vaccine can be made and distributed—assuming a vaccine can be made, which is not a certainty. The most common timeframe mentioned is 18 months. What I think is under-appreciated at the moment, and could become one of the pandemic's longest lasting effects, is that after living in a form of lockdown for 18 months, societies will likely have already restructured themselves. Mentalities will have changed. Behaviours will have adapted. Normality, and normal ways of thinking, will be defined within a new set of parameters around much of the globe.

Perhaps most concerning of all, in many countries attitudes towards contrasting systems of government like those of the United States and China could undergo a gradual but ultimately radical shift based on their respective performances against a virus.

If the United States descends into chaos, with leadership making foolish decisions, and it experiences major civil unrest, suffers unending waves of outbreaks, and ultimately sees economic devastation… while China appears to chug along steadily on a trajectory more-or-less normal for them, insulating itself by imposing extreme regional lockdowns on its closely monitored population to freeze outbreaks at their source… at what point do people in other countries around the world start to associate life in China under the CCP with stability and financial security? With steady political power? With positive attributes that lead to a higher quality of life, the way the world has seen the United States and Western democracies for most of the last century? That possibility, however remote it might be, could be one of the most alarmingly dystopian long-term outcomes: a global swing in public perception away from democracy and towards authoritarianism.

It may take a monumental, sustained effort from the currently powerful and resourceful democracies of the world to make sure civilisation is steered through the pandemic with its underpinning values intact, and re-emerges as something inevitably Changed, but still firmly Good and Free in its guiding political principles. And since we are talking about democracies, that effort will often need to generate from the citizens themselves.

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, short fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected], or follow on Twitter.