Lockdowns and terminal decline

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Lockdowns and terminal decline

Friday, 16 October 2020 | Allister Heath

The pandemic will accelerate the fall of the West unless we abandon our irrational approach to the virus

Please, please, Prime Minister, do not lock the UK down again. Do not listen to the unidimensional, anti-economic, risk-averse groupthink from Sage. Ignore Sir Keir Starmer and Sadiq Khan’s shameless politicking. A “circuit-breaker” is doublespeak for another lockdown, and cannot be a sustainable answer: The virus would only be temporarily suppressed, with transmission bouncing back as soon as the restrictions were lifted again. A vicious circle of stop-go lockdowns would be a catastrophic indictment of Government policy, an admission of total defeat, a victory of fear and emotion over reason. We would no longer be a free society tolerating an exceptional, temporary shutdown to allow our scandalously unprepared establishment to learn to manage a terrible situation. Instead, we would have transitioned to a world of permanent emergency, a wartime society whereby individual rights and lives were permanently suppressed for an ill-defined, ever-shifting “national interest.” A new principle would have become established: That the Government has the right and even the obligation to lock us down at the first sign of any new epidemic, even one that doesn’t truly threaten the survival of our society. The main rationale for a “circuit-breaker” — that it would buy yet more time for “one last push” on testing, the app, tracing and a vaccine — is tragically delusional. Even the French and Germans have failed to introduce effective testing and tracing, suggesting that the endeavour may be an elusive El Dorado, at least for now.

Yes, a few deaths might be avoided by spreading out ICU admissions to our hopelessly ineffectual National Health Service. Yes, a few others — maybe even up to 20,000 in a best-case scenario — might be saved as a result of multiple lockdowns if an effective vaccine suddenly, miraculously materialises by April 2021. But, in reality, most deaths would not be avoided, merely delayed, and there will be plenty of additional fatalities caused by the lockdown itself — including out of despair — to set against that. Unemployment would have surged, tens of thousands more businesses ruined, family and community life laid to waste, and immense misery created. What kind of society is ready to destroy so much to save so little?

If he agrees to the lockdown fanatics’ every demand, Boris Johnson’s legacy would have been to sweep away the Eurocrats, and cut back on the juristocrats, just to replace them with a new medicocracy. A gang of well-meaning scientists and doctors would be empowered to impose their narrow vision of the good on the rest of us, the first therapeutic, zero-risk State in world history.

But public health experts don’t have the full perspective. We can’t go on like this for much longer. The first lockdown probably increased our debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio by 20 percentage points; adding yet another 20 per cent over the winter would weaken us severely. We could survive that, of course, but what firepower would we have left when the next calamity hits us? What about another virus? And the one after that? Or what about the next bad flu season? We would be all but bankrupt by 2030, with a Dollar, Sterling and Euro crisis on our hands.

Lawrence Summers, the economist, estimates the cost of Covid will reach 90 per cent of the GDP for America alone — a mind-boggling $16 trillion or $2,00,000 per family. This is “four times larger than the output loss of the Great Recession, twice the cost of all wars since 9/11, and roughly the cost of climate change in the next 50 years.” We need to find ways of minimising this cost for future pandemics, or we will be condemned to impoverishment, social decay and geopolitical decline.

This latter point is ably demonstrated by the International Monetary Fund’s latest forecasts. It expects the UK to suffer a 9.8 per cent fall in GDP this year, identical to France, better than Italy or Spain. Germany and America will shrink but by less. Astonishingly, however, China’s economy will actually grow this year. This pandemic has accelerated many trends, not least the transfer of power from the West to the East. South East Asian countries are among the few to have kept the costs of the virus to manageable levels, and China is laughing.

Britain and the West have two choices. We could relearn to live with death, as we did in the post-World War years when big flu epidemics killed tens of thousands. The alternative is to embrace the South Korean approach. We will need to invest a fortune in pandemic preparedness and technology, and pounce on the next virus as soon as it emerges. Ruthless, brutal quarantining, isolation and hugely superior tracking and tracing will be necessary.

Can we do it? Would we have to give up too much privacy and liberty? Are we nearing the twilight of the West, defeated by its fragility, its inability to cope with the kind of virus that our forebears shrugged off? If we don’t get our act together, this will not just be Asia’s century but also the West’s last as any kind of beacon to the rest of the world. Boris Johnson needs to show that Britain, for one, hasn’t yet given up.

 (Courtesy: The Telegraph)

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