Mr. President, Covid lockdowns have caused misery and death. What’s done is done. But even remaining measures deny human rights and cause terrible things. Now we have an opportunity to lead the world out of this. You, in particular, have a shot at greatness.
Here are my reasons to end the lockdown, a framing of the way we should debate this, and a straightforward route to freedom.
Lockdowns on trial
First, lockdowns don’t work. Certainly, once a virus is in a community, that option is off the table. Just puzzle over the following charts. California locked down hard and persistently. Florida and Texas opened up months ago and removed mask mandates. Applying an eyeball test, it is plain that locking down does not save lives to an appreciable degree, if at all. (See charts at the Financial Times coronavirus site).
Below is Sweden versus the United Kingdom. The Scandinavian kingdom famously stuck to pandemic planning principles established before Covid hit – and suffered the world’s ire for it. They made recommendations (like the wearing of face masks on public transport during peak hours), kept businesses open, and barely interrupted education. The UK locked down fiercely. This despite their initial instinct to take a light touch, acknowledging they could not control a virus. They suffered all of the harms of lockdown and received none of the planned benefits.
Note especially that the scale is deaths per 100 000 people and that the UK is below 0.2. They have had days with zero Covid deaths in recent weeks. Sweden has been at zero just about every day for weeks.
We reach the same conclusions when we apply robust mathematics. Stringency of lockdown does not correlate with cases and deaths. The South Africa-based team at PANDA have done the sums for us. They find that “neither average nor maximal lockdown stringency are at all correlated with the residuals or the response variable. Lockdowns do not appear to reduce deaths or flatten epidemic curves in any way” .
We can add context to this picture. Covid is now 24th on the list of leading causes of death in England. Below is a list of major causes of death that the mainstream media have little interest in considering. A number of these are exacerbated by lockdowns where they curtail exercise and encourage poor eating and drinking habits. I fear our news media have succumbed to a mania that is perpetuating this crisis.
We must contextualise all of these deaths around age. Much as we value all lives, Covid’s impact on quality-adjusted years of life is far smaller than it might be if it killed evenly across all ages. Deaths are heavily skewed towards older people. Youngsters, however, are being asked (forced) to carry the same lockdown burden as everyone else. The table below shows the age distribution of Covid deaths in South Africa as reported in May 2020 .
Framing the argument
If we frame the argument poorly, we’ll get poor answers.
The world dived into lockdowns in panic. I thought that was wrong from the start, but we’ve now had plenty of time to properly evaluate their costs and benefits. I’d suggest we still haven’t framed the argument acceptably. Media and governments have remained in panic mode. I believe this to be the case among your advisors and colleagues.
Here’s my blueprint for a sound way to frame the Covid lockdown debate.
In the face of a dangerous virus:
- The burden of proof is on those arguing for lockdowns. Politically, logically and legally it is right that we ordinarily be open and free. Those of us fighting lockdowns have nothing at all to prove. Starting and maintaining lockdowns demands ongoing justification, or they are illegitimate;
- Determine whether we can change its course;
- If and to the extent we can control the virus, establish the efficacy of each potential measure (as well as the combined impact) and the costs;
- Costs must include both direct and opportunity costs. Every cent we spend on face masks is a cent not spent on education. Every hour a scientist spends developing a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 is one not spent on another killer illness;
- Where measures inhibit human rights, especially those in our Constitution, the burden of proof is a high one;
- When measuring costs and benefits, the comparison is not between universal, government-enforced lockdowns, and “letting the virus rip”. The likes of individual responsibility and targeted protection demand full consideration;
- Only if we can restrain the virus without causing greater costs should we act;
- If we act, we must determine which entities are appropriate to act. That is, where should national governments act and where should private entities make their own policies?
- If we act, we must have clear guidance on our objectives and the criteria for de-escalation. In other words, the burden is to continue demonstrating that lockdown measures are justified. A right delayed is a right denied; and
- There will be painful, life-and-death decisions to be made.
Some foundations are essential to apply the above properly. First, we can’t fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. Just because we have ploughed time, money, and energy into lockdowns does not mean we should keep doing so.
We humans are woefully bad at surveying risk/reward scenarios and responding logically. Our little mammalian brains overemphasise what is right in front of us. Covid has been thrust in front of us by the minute for 18 months. It takes discipline to step away and consider all of the other risks in proportion. These are many, and often have implications that will last a very long time.
In fact, it is not far from accurate to say that lockdowns attempt to make one thing better (Covid outcomes) but necessarily make everything else worse. Of course, lockdowns can make some other things better and have a neutral effect on others. But for the sake of this argument, it is not a stretch to argue that they make “everything” worse. From the big things like education, economics, and mental health to the small things like getting a haircut (as outlawed during the heavy lockdown).
Often “little” things are voluminously important. I frequently hear “just wear a mask”. Many see this as a little thing. I thoroughly disagree. The state mandating that each one of us cover our faces is a denial of a human right to bodily integrity. Worse, it has developmental effects on children, who need to read people’s emotions. Mask mandates also fuel public panic as a constant message that the people around us are walking biological weapons. That is not to mention the flimsy-at-best evidence that cloth masks are able to contain the virus.
This is a good time to highlight again that the comparison is not between state-mandated laws and nothing at all. Information and recommendations will help people make their own choices. Nobody has argued for bans on anyone wearing a mask of their own accord.
Don’t ignore time, either. Much of what we lose today will expand into the future. In financial terms, any money not made and invested today is money that can’t be invested and grown into the future. That is the phenomenon compounding. Just as we teach youngsters to save small amounts so they grow into large amounts when they are older, the same applies in reverse and in the form of opportunity costs. Similarly, things like undiagnosed cancers (indeed, the late diagnosis of every ailment outside of Covid-19) has a “compounding” effect with time.
Naturally, if a virus resulted in hospitals being flooded, that would inhibit treatment of all other conditions, too. This speaks to the part of my frame on goals. The originally stated targets of lockdowns were to flatten the curve and prevent hospitals being overrun. We have had time to build capacity and hospitals are not currently overrun. That leaves us in purgatory, unsure what might convince you and your team to end lockdowns; unable to plan ahead for our businesses and lives generally.
Too often I hear people arguing that “the economy can come back, but lost lives can’t”. True. However, we need to despatch this sort of thinking. It only applies to the extent that lockdowns work. It also ignores the fact that the economy makes life worth living and keeps us alive. If we drive SA Inc. into the ground, there will be no hospitals or doctors or medicine. No parties or braais or football matches.
Moreover, recessions are most deadly in developing countries like ours and hit children hardest. Here is a finding from December 2020 out of the Bank for International Settlements: “During years of falling GDP, death rates rise by 0.4 deaths per 1,000 people (4% of the mean). Child mortality rates surge by 4 deaths per 1,000 births (6% of the mean). Importantly, we find that recessions cast a long shadow: they lead to significantly higher death rates for up to ten years and higher child mortality rates for up to twelve years”. Every restaurant that shuts early and each new car not sold and every job not created contributes to ill-health and death.
We also owe it to our hard-won liberal democracy to ask whether the political cost is worth it. You know better than I what it takes to fight a government intent on dominating the lives of individuals. That’s why the Constitution embeds our rights to move around freely, to earn a living, and to decide whether or not we drape something over our faces. Lockdown laws run the risk of making an ass of the law.
There is a case that some lockdown measures have actively worsened the effect of the pandemic. I’ll allow myself a personal sore point here. You banned jogging. As an avid runner, that did far more than inconvenience me. You took away an important part of my life. Like many South Africans, running is a source of enjoyment (and pain!). It is part of my identity. It does wonders for my mental health. It almost single-handedly ensures I am metabolically healthy – perhaps the strongest defence against a virus.
We knew even when you banned jogging that transmission of the virus in this setting was vanishingly rare. Banning jogging denied rights protected in our Constitution. It forced us to choose between keeping healthy (star jumps inside a flat are not a substitute) and obeying a bad law.
But, as per my statement on sunk costs, I’ll leave jogging as an example and move on.
My point is that everything has a cost. Everything. We have a duty to evaluate all the costs.
Critically, we have access to deeply researched and soundly explained alternatives to universal lockdowns. What about focused protection? This is what the Great Barrington Declaration advocates.. In the words of its authors (highly regarded scientists at leading institutions): “The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk.”
I don’t believe you have addressed this. It is eminently sensible to adjust behaviour by age.
President Ramaphosa, as a concerned South African, here is my appeal to you. Open everything. Keep focused advice if you deem it useful. Monitor the situation, but use only education and encouragement. Reject lockdown laws imposed and enforced by the might of the state.
Explain the reasons and back yourself. South Africans and the world will get it. We will make our own decisions to protect our own health. If your advisors don’t back you, there is no shortage of qualified and respected people who will. Their advice and forecasts have been consistently better than those advocating lockdowns. I am confident they will leap at the chance to advise you and back you up.
We can help the world to avoid the dangerous, illiberal scheme of “vaccine passports”. I stop short of commentators who compare this to apartheid. That does not mean they are innocent. Forcing people to produce a document proving injection of a medicine to gain access to a restaurant, theme park, or museum is an affront to freedom. Add to this the fact that vaccines have limited ability to prevent transmission (rather, they appear to subdue symptoms) and that the vaccines are still under emergency approval, awaiting full testing and final results. We must not watch the globe tumble into bio-medical tyranny.
Welcome back travellers, open bars and nightclubs, revive sports events with large, noisy crowds blasting vuvuzelas and shouting for their team.
Never again ban jogging or shut public parks or force businesses to shut.
Use the chance to harness the power of sport. The health benefits will save lives and prevent suffering.
We’ve seen the enthusiasm people have when they encounter you out walking on Cape Town’s Sea Point Promenade. It’s cool. I’ve spotted you out for a walk during my own morning runs. You have a way about you that draws people to you. You inspire them.
Ride the wave of Olympic spirit. I believe Roland Schoeman’s pitch to be your Minister for Sport was a heartfelt offer. Make him your “Fitness Captain”. Then take your pick from our runners, hockey players, long jumpers and more. I reckon they’d be delighted to design training programmes for South Africans. Be it a “couch to 5km” for those who need a gentle introduction or the mammoth guidance and inspiration required to take on our iconic Comrades Marathon, I have no doubt you and our sporting heroes can move people.
You can elevate this with some skin in the game. If you enter a half marathon – Soweto, Cape Town, Knysna, take your pick – I reckon several hundred South Africans will do the same. We need scary goals.
US President Ronald Reagan took a scornful tone towards his Soviet opponents in 1987 with his iconic “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” I have alienated friends and acquaintances with this sort of tone over lockdowns. It doesn’t work. And you’re not an opponent. You’re a teammate. I hope my concern and optimism have come through more strongly than my criticism.
Mr Ramaphosa, let’s tear down this lockdown!
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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