One day a judge will be appointed, witnesses will be called and an inquiry will begin into how and why the British government locked down society and large parts of our economy to tackle the covid-19 pandemic. To find out what really happened it must examine a concept at the heart of our leaders’ decisions – human proximity.
In his 2009 book ‘The Life You Can Save’ the Australian philosopher Peter Singer invited us to imagine walking to work. We pass a pond in which a toddler appears to be splashing about but on closer inspection we find the child is actually drowning. Saving the child will ruin your new shoes and dirty your suit. What should you do? All morally competent people will immediately save the child. What are shoes compared to a child’s life? However, Singer goes on to point out that thousands of children die every day, unseen in distant places for want of food and medicine and yet millions of us take no action to remedy this. Why?
The reason is proximity. What we can see directly effects our emotions and moves us to action, just as what we can’t see – aerial bombing comes to mind – insulates us from human pain. Proximity explains worldwide government action in applying lockdowns and it explains the ‘dust up’ between opposing epidemiologists Professor Neil Ferguson and the Swedish expert Professor Johan Giesecke.
Ferguson co-authored the Imperial College report which predicted more than half a million covid-19 deaths (without mitigation) in the United Kingdom and shifted policy towards lockdown. Revealingly, the motivation for the Imperial paper was narrow rather than broad. Its focus was on the present emergency (imminent deaths from a single cause) rather than those in the long term (future deaths from many causes). Ferguson’s view was quite specific: ‘We were looking at surges in healthcare demand and how do you avoid a health system being overwhelmed.’ He was convinced that lockdown measures would avoid deaths – proximate deaths – by driving transmission down.
Giesecke took a different view. He believes that lockdowns are mistaken, will do more harm than and advocates a ‘herd immunity’ strategy which would run alongside protecting the vulnerable. Giesecke is quite resigned to our future, saying to UnHerd, ‘I don’t think you can stop it. It’s spreading…. It will roll over Europe no matter what you do.’ On this view, different policy measures won’t make much difference to the final death toll. It’s as long as it’s short.
The real difficulties arise when you consider the lockdown’s effect of flattening the economy because this is a policy with a long and vicious tail.
The synchronised decimation of the world economy will likely have huge cumulative consequences to human health including increased heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression, anxiety and suicide linked to joblessness and bankruptcies. Yet Imperial did not model this, which is a weakness because, merely from a utilitarian perspective, future deaths, although not yet visible, must count too. The lockdown itself is lethal but no one, it appears, was in the room speaking for this future ‘non proximate’ devastation. Looking forward, our task as Social Democrats is to work to limit the damage caused by these tragic events and, in particular, to do everything we can to prevent our young people from becoming covid’s lost generation.
This begs the question – could our government have acted differently?
I think not. The lockdown was a tragic necessity and proximity explains why. Covid-19 deaths are visible, publicised, present and therefore highly politically salient. Attritional, long-term deaths from flattening the economy are exactly the opposite – presently unpublishable, immeasurable, unknown and unseen. The future victims of this are hidden and few speak for them. And our cynical ‘gotcha’ and ‘if it bleeds it leads’ press culture reinforces the problem. A world in which celebrity journalists compete to publicly shame politicians – and the press pack physically hound their advisors in the street – is not a world in which future (possibly greater) deaths could ever have been treated on a par with present tragedies.
No government would have challenged its – rather narrow – scientific advice and kept the economy open in March when world class hospitals in northern Italy were leaving the old to die. Tragically, human beings have a tendency to prefer smaller sooner payoffs over larger, later ones.
Is that what the world, on the biggest scale imaginable, has just done? Probably.