One of the most frustrating things about covid is how often it forces you to return to first principles.
This is a virus. It spreads through close contact between people, especially inside. People are scared of catching this virus so many of them stay at home regardless of government restrictions.
It’s not that complicated. It is very simple indeed. Yet it seems incomprehensible to many of the people who regularly discuss the subject.
Last night’s Newsnight, former Pizza Express chairman Luke Johnson railed against the new restrictions that will come into effect after the lockdown. “The pubs didn’t even close during the Blitz in World War II,” he said. Meanwhile, there was discussion in the newspapers this morning about whether to hug your grandmother for Christmas.
Apparently this needs to be said. It is noteworthy that it should be, but obviously it is. The difference between lightning and a pandemic is that lightning was not spread through contact with other people. Whether you were in a pub or at home during the Blitz made little difference. Whether you are in a pub or at home can potentially make a huge difference.
Hugging your grandmother this Christmas is not a good idea. The virus spreads through close contact. This puts older people at greater risk. So the problem with hugging your grandmother is that if you have Covid, you can kill her.
In the background of these childlike arguments stands the persistent myth: There is a binary opposition between health and economy.
During the pandemic, leaders in politics and journalism have insisted on upholding the idea that there is a zero-sum relationship between these two priorities – what you give from one to the other. “The Labor Party has been calling for stronger, tougher and deeper bans since the start of this matter,” Claire Fox, an ally of Nigel Farage, said in Question Time last night. “They want to shut down the economy and then seem shocked that there is an economic crisis.”
This is wrong. A recent analysis of data for 45 countries by Michael Smithson compared deaths per million people with economic indicators. No evidence of a positive association between deaths and imports or exports was found. There was a negative correlation between covid deaths and GDP and between covid deaths and consumer spending. In other words, those countries that even temporarily managed to suppress the virus have generally been better off economically than those that did not.
It is not just the lockdown that is responsible for our economic problems. It’s the virus itself. Containment saves lives and the economy.
Elements of the pandemic are highly counter-intuitive. We associate the sight of loved ones with all the things that are best in our lives. We consider a hug to be the most natural thing on earth. It’s hard to keep reminding yourself that being close to those you love can put them at risk.
But many of the people who act against constraints do not struggle with this natural intuitive separation. They simply refuse to face reality – the world of empirical data, compromise, and the least bad options. Sometimes it’s because they just can’t get their mind in touch with it. Sometimes it’s because the mental models they think with – typically war, valor, and national masculinity – aren’t helpful at all during a pandemic. And sometimes it’s because they see an opening – a group of potential anti-lockdown voters – and cynically try to take advantage of it. This is, of course, Farage’s reasoning when he formed his new political party.
Whatever the cause, this is a dangerous moment to fly into the land of simple emotional responses. The news about a vaccine is encouraging. It may be available very soon. And one of the main issues that the political debate now needs to tackle is tackling the growing online movement against vaccination.
There is a significant moral and intellectual difference between the simple-minded positions outlined here and anti-vaccine propaganda. However, this radicalized form of anti-scientific thinking is getting rich ground to grow from a mainstream debate that refuses to engage on evidence, and instead struggles over emotions and false binaries.
If it continues to bloom, if the mood against vaccines really takes hold, this virus will be with us a lot longer than it needs to be. The damage it does to us – our health, our lives and the economy – will last longer than necessary. The first step in counteracting this is to monitor the empirical basis of the mainstream debate.
Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book How To Be A Liberal has been published.
The opinions expressed in the “Comments and Analysis” section of Politics.co.uk are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the website or its owners.