Escape from Lockdown

The Freedom Bridge, aka “Chuck Norris” bridge, Devinska Nova Ves

With the final stage of Slovakia’s easing of lockdown restrictions complete a couple of weeks ago, the next major block to be lifted is opening the borders, now well underway: as of Thursday, the border between Czech and Slovakia re-opened without any restrictions of checks. Rather oddly, prime minister Igor Matovič claimed this to represent a re-instatement of “Czechoslovakia” which must have raised a few eyebrows since of course it is nothing of the kind, merely restoring the pre-pandemic Schengen area arrangements between the two republics.

Free travel is also possible between Slovakia and Austria- at least in practice, since although technically this only applies for 48 hrs if you want to return without undergoing 14-days home quarantine, as we discovered yesterday on a cycling trip taking us over the so-called “Freedom Bridge” across the Moravia, there are no police checks of any kind either side of the border. It is likely (but not yet confirmed) that all border restrictions for Hungary will also be lifted by the middle of the month, or latest by the end of June.

The sweet taste of freedom…standing on the border that runs down the middle of the Moravia river between Slovakia and Austria

Better known as the “Chuck Norris” Bridge, after a public poll revealed this as the most popular name, the fine cycling bridge stands as a powerful symbol of unity and freedom of travel between east with west, something not possible prior to 1992. Just a few months ago, in November last year, marked the 30th anniversary of the end of socialism. This was the last time had we cycled over the bridge, where a temporary mock barrier had been erected and visitors were handed “visas” as a reminder that free travel across the Moravia should not be taken for granted. Never could we have imagined that the bridge would once again be closed so soon, for a very different reason.

During the lockdown we went to Devin a couple of times and gazed mournfully across the river towards the shores of Austria just a few hundred yards away, and got a feeling for what it must have been like under the communist regime, except that this time of course, restrictions were not just between east and west, but on borders everywhere.

The Slovak government imposed a 90-day State of Emergency in March, and this will expire in a week’s time. In principle, they could simply reimpose another 90-days immediately, but this seems unlikely, with Matovič seemingly alone in his desire to do so. There is little support for the continuation of such measures from either the ruling coalition or opposition parties. With new cases close to zero, Slovakia has escaped both the ravages of the virus and the worst excesses of the lockdown, and as in much of mainland Europe, things are rapidly returning to something close normal.

Traffic in the city is almost back to pre-Covid rates, sidewalk cafes and restaurants are busy, some schools have re-opened, people are returning to work, albeit with some changes such as staggered shifts. Cinemas and theatres remain closed since the restrictions on seating and required social distancing make it uneconomical to do so, but outdoor events are starting again including live music. Masks are much less in evidence outside where they are only required within a two-metre distance. Shops are allowed more people inside at a time, it is permitted to sit in groups of up to 6 in restaurants, although the 2-metre rule still applies in general. Secondary schools will remain closed until September.

As in other countries, hospitals were emptied out here to make way for Covid patients who mainly failed to materialise. GPs stopped coming to work or referred patients to specialists instead. My partner, a neurologist, saw her own patients all but disappear for several weeks, frightened away from seeking medical attention by media scare stories about over-run hospital wards. For the past two weeks she has been going into work with barely a handful of patients to see each day. As of last week, this situation seems to have ended and she is as busy as before the lockdown.

While some are concerned about a second wave and would prefer the borders to remain closed, it it seems unlikely there will be any return to lockdown even if this does happen. Across Europe, borders are re-opening like floodgates. Italy, which had one of the hardest lockdowns and the highest number of deaths, abruptly changed course last week to throw open its borders and welcome all comers in an attempt to save its tourism industry. Overall there seems to be a sense that enough is enough and that whether the virus has run its course or not, there will be little political or public appetite for imposing such draconian restrictions again as other concerns take over.

Most obviously, the Black Lives Matter protests taking place around the world seem to be throwing all concerns about Covid to the winds in an extraordinary shift of priorities.

It is almost as if noone ever believed social distancing was necessary in the first place. How can we explain this?

Toby Young, writing on his essential Lockdown Skeptics blog, writes:

Let me help you with that, buddy. The reason public health workers and progressive politicians are now saying Black Lives Matter protestors are free to completely disregard the social distancing rules they’ve been promoting is because the scientific basis for those rules — particularly the most draconian, such as stay-at-home orders — is virtually non-existent. It was never about “the science”. Asking people to socially distance was, at bottom, a form of puritanical virtue-signalling, an opportunity for holier-than-thou elites to boss around the little people. So of course that “scientific advice” has now been trumped by another even bossier, even more self-righteous form of virtue-signalling: anti-racist sermonising.

The rhetorical response to Black Lives Matter has been All Lives Matter, but given the fact that more lives will be lost as a result of the lockdown than from Covid, a more appropriate slogan might be All Deaths Matter (not just Covid ones).

In Britain, the situation remains dire, the government only slowly inching its way to re-opening society despite astronomical costs to society and the economy of the lockdown. By and large, the criticism it is getting seems to be that it is opening too fast and should be applying ever more precautionary breaks. It has been dismaying to hear interviews with teachers representatives arguing against schools reopening because there is still “some risk”. This is a fallacious approach- risk cannot be eliminated, only managed, and the demand that no level of risk at all is acceptable is only possible to maintain if all other, non-Covid risks- being hit by a car, developing cancer, being struck by lightening- are completely ignored. It is of necessity an entirely selective and exclusionary position.

Governments generally will claim that their policies are just “following the science”, a convenient way of passing the buck and avoiding shouldering the responsibility for the extraordinary lockdown policies that have damaged millions of lives. But science doesn’t work that way. There is no straight line between “the science” and policy. Scientists tend to be experts in a narrow field, which is precisely why you need policy makers, to make judgments about relative risks. Epidemologists may not be wrong when they claim that opening schools, for example, will inevitably lead to higher rates of infection, but they are being selective. Higher rates of Covid infection are by no means the only consideration for looking after the wider needs of society. Keeping schools closed also have extensive risks and costs that may not be, however, so easily quantifiable.

The science on Covid-19 is far from settled, but the diversity of opinion is not reflected in either government advisory panels, nor in the media, much less in public perception. It is becoming increasingly clear that the lockdown has been a massive over-reaction to a virus that kills only those with other underlying conditions, that is not so easily transmitted without consistent close contact, that leaves younger people and children pretty much alone, that is largely a nosocomial (spreading mainly though the medical system and care homes) and which large numbers of the population probably already have some immunity to.

Senior British government scientific advisor Professor Robert Dingwall argues against the lockdown, because the costs outweigh the benefits:

Indeed, and again, I would say there has been a learning process. Some of the measures that were taken at the beginning – very traditional public-health measures of quarantine and isolation – do come with risks as well. At some point we get to a stage where the damage to physical and mental health that has been caused by the lockdown exceeds the benefits in terms of disrupting the transmission of the coronavirus.

We also need to take account of the fact that the inevitable economic recession will have health consequences – the so-called diseases of despair that go along with high levels of unemployment and economic inactivity, which we saw a lot of in the 1980s. The damage to health and the death toll that result from these other causes are something that we need to set alongside the death toll from the current pandemic.

Leading Oxford epidemiologist Professor Sunetre Gupta argues that the lockdowns have been an over-reaction, and will exacerbate social inequalities. She also feels that they make us more vulnerable to disease, since we need to socialise constantly to develop immunity, and she also believes that the virus has already worked its way through the population (in Britain) and there will be no second wave.

“So what do we do? I think we weigh that strong possibility against the costs of lockdown. I think it is very dangerous to talk about lockdown without recognising the enormous costs that it has on other vulnerable sectors in the population.”

It was widely understood even before the outbreak that lockdowns cannot stop the spread of such viruses, which is why they have never been tried before in response to previous pandemics:

-not during the 1918-20 Spanish Flu which killed 50million worldwide, and was far more dangerous for young people;

-not during the Asian flu of 1957-8, which killed 2million people worldwide;

-not during the Hing Kong flu of ’68-70, with its death toll of a million;

-not during the 2009-10 swine flu outbreak, which killed 200,000, mainly younger people.

Moreover, seasonal flu kills thousands every year– on a bad year, at rates comparable to Covid- yet no-one would ever suggest closing down society in response.

Quarantining the sick has been practiced for millennia, but never before have we quarantined entire populations of the healthy.

Another UK government advisor, professor Karl Friston, believes the way the virus has behaved across the world indicate that there could be as much 80% prior immunity to COVID-19 in the population, for a range of reasons such as previous exposure to other corona viruses, or differences in vitamin-D levels.

Epedemiologist professor Knut Wittkowski, agrees that the lockdowns do more harm than good, and that the virus is already on its way out in Europe.

But we knew from the very beginning that neither in Wuhan nor in South Korea did one per cent of all people infected die. South Korea has 60million people. It is about the same size as the UK. How many deaths were in South Korea? Did they shut down? No. The South Korean government was extremely proud to have resisted pressure to drop the very basic concepts of democracy.

How then has this extraordinary situation in which governments have been willing to close down entire societies without any proper consultation or good evidence come about?

In so many ways, the rhetoric around Covid has been an extension to apocalyptic scare-mongering of various kinds over the past couple of generations, most notably around climate change, but also many other environmental issues, including nuclear power and GMOs. Remember Extinction Rebellion? Good times! As with the threat of climate change, we are being told that the threat is so great that literally no cost is too high to mitigate against it. We have incubated an extreme risk-averse culture which promotes hysteria at any level of risk. Children are discouraged from walking to school or playing outside or walking to school without escort. The slightest hypothetical risk is enough to squash new innovations which could save millions of lives.

Enter Covid. Whole economies have been destroyed and debt stored up for future generations to pay off in the name of eliminating all risk of a disease which for most people will be only mild.

If there is any good to come of this when the smoke clears, it will be that more people will realise they have paid an extravagantly heavy price for what at the end of the day was a relatively low threat. Only then will governments be held accountable for the damage done, and the public develop a more practical approach to managing risk.

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