I am currently reading The Plague by Albert Camus; a book I’ve meant to read for quite a while. I decided that, if I was ever going to actually read it, now was a good time! It’s chilling reading, full of the stuff of nightmares – but then following current news, is not much less so. In the book, written in 1947, an Algerian town in the grip of deadly bubonic plague finds itself in quarantine from the rest of the world. COVID-19 takes the proposition to the next, even ultimate, level where the whole world is in effect a plague zone and there is no hiding place. As a result, I can’t help thinking that the error we may be making is in trying to contain it, which will cause more human harm via the resulting economic & social hardship than the lives it may save; in fact ‘not save’, as it looks certain that there is going to be a pandemic regardless of what we do.
Over the past few days, I have tested this proposition on a number of my friends who have professional experience of some consequence to all this and have found some traction with this viewpoint. At the personal level, we all take some comfort in the thought of government taking measures that will help to save our lives. But taking a macroscopic view, it may turn out that what is being done all over the world is an example of knee-jerk myopia as a longer-term cost-benefit analysis is likely to show that the steps now being taken will reduce deaths from coronavirus but may increase future deaths from all causes. This is because a reduction in prosperity is itself a killer, as overall mortality is a decreasing function of prosperity. For example, in the UK, those suffering economic hardship as a result of a shrunken national/global economy will be less able to heat their homes properly, feed themselves properly etc and are more consequentially more prone to illness i.e. the overall mortality rate is potentially greater than that which is likely to occur from an uncontained virus.
There are many examples in our world of comfort-giving practices that potentially fall foul from a cost-benefit perspective. Excessive and expensive security checks prior to airline flights, for example, may save lives but may actually result in more loss of life as a result of people using their cars more for intermediate distances because the cost of air travel has been raised.
And it’s not just intervention that may be counter-productive. Advice issued by governments, who want to show that they have a measure of ‘control’, may actually be confusing and counter-intuitive to the effectiveness of a broadly based socio-political response. For instance, the current advice is that face masks are not useful for the general public, that the viruses get through the masks, that people do not wash the masks properly & reuse them, and that it is not worthwhile. But then we see that the police who are carrying out crowd control are wearing masks, the sanitary workers are wearing masks and so on.
The plague issue is obviously a complicated one, none the least as a result of the difficulty in controlling people at an individual level. This then becomes an issue of governmental authority vs personal freedom. In China, apparently, some progress in containing Coronavirus has been made but at a heavy cost to individual freedoms. In the UK, a more benign example of compulsory personal action was smallpox vaccination, which existed in my youth and I myself was vaccinated against smallpox. The vaccination programme was successful, and I am sure that a cost-benefit analysis would show that it was worthwhile to eradicate smallpox and that the net effect did reduce overall mortality. Current commentary suggests that, whereas in the UK we are content on the whole with compulsory vaccination of babies and children, our government taking on of China-style polices would be unacceptable to the majority.
All the above is clearly nothing more than academic chatter. We are where we are. However, when we look back at it all – as, hopefully, all Ericle readers will do – the post facto analysis indicating what governments shouldn’t have done may turn out to be more significant in saving lives than what they actually did do.