The “cost” of lockdown

Allister Heath’s recent op-ed reflects an opinion shared by a growing number of media commentators over the “costs” of further national lockdowns. In their view, increased restrictions are tantamount to economic and moral decline. Echoing the austerity era, they draw upon metrics such as GDP and national debt to tell us that we must “learn to live” with the virus, meaning a wholesale return to work and consumption. Not doing so amounts to a lack of fortitude and common sense.

This false dichotomy between the economy and public health has been widely debunked. When the virus is prevalent, consumers become more risk averse. Nations that have effectively supressed the virus have better economic outcomes. However, pitting public health against “economic health” has proved a useful for lockdown-sceptics, who present protective measures as the “the victory of fear and emotion over reason”.

There is of course the human cost. This does not escape Heath, who concedes that 20,000 lives could be saved by a circuit-breaker lockdown. But this is a price worth paying for the economic benefits. Chillingly, he recommends we “relearn to live with death”, and not display “fragility” to the type of illness our “forebearers shrugged off”. An editor of a national newspaper defending tens of thousands of avoidable deaths as the “rational” response, for perspective.  

What informs this position? The implicit understanding of Heath and his ilk that it will not be them, their family, their friends. The burden will fall, as it has already done, on those whose disability, ethnicity, class or place of residence puts them at greater risk to exposure and serious illness from the virus. Disabled women are 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-disabled women. People from minority ethnic backgrounds are up to four times as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Members of poorer communities are more likely to be key workers and to live in multi-generational households, both major risk factors. We may wonder how these findings inform the “cost-benefit” calculation Heath claims to be guided by.

Heath’s argument speaks of (and appeals to) a sense of social dislocation. It equates personal risk with societal risk. For those not in immediate danger, the effects of the virus can seem distant, something that can be escaped or mitigated. The tragedies and hardships happen “out there”, in private, to Others. This leads to a kind of purposeful denial, a non-recognition of the impact the virus has on vulnerable communities. As Heath’s article demonstrates, this contempt motivates scientific, economic, and moral contortions. The social and personal cost of the virus is something that many of us choose not to reckon with, because we don’t have to.

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