Epidemic of illogicality

Culture and behaviour are key to containing the virus

One of the many regrettable consequences of the Covid-19 crisis has been an epidemic of illogicality. Thus:

  • Countries which originally locked down have rising infection rates. Therefore lockdown was useless and the economic damage it caused was entirely unnecessary.

  • Sweden never locked down and now its infection rate is negligible. Therefore we should all have behaved like Sweden. 

  • Although infection rates are rising, the numbers who are dying or need intensive care have declined. Therefore the crisis is over and there’s no need for any more restrictions.

  • Most of the rising infection rates involve young people. Young people don’t generally have a serious form of the virus. Therefore the crisis is over and there’s no need for any more restrictions.

  • A lot of the statistics being banded about are rubbish. This proves the whole idea that this pandemic requires drastic action is rubbish.

  • Despite the panic having been unjustified hysteria from the start, government ministers are still deliberately ramping up public terror in order to increase the power of the state and seize control of our lives.

Duh?

Such arguments, and many more in similar vein, display a regrettable failure to acknowledge complexity, or the difference between correlation and causation, or the concept of being between a rock and a hard place – which means the alternative to something bad may not be something good but something else that’s bad too. Does that really need spelling out? Apparently so.

Governments are desperate to avoid further general lockdowns for the obvious reason that these would be even more catastrophic for their economies. It does not follow, however, that their initial lockdown was useless. Everyone knew that the effect on the economy would be drastic. It was a desperate attempt to avoid an unconscionable mortality rate, because measures already introduced on social distancing and hygiene were clearly proving inadequate. 

The British government reversed its policy and locked the country down only when it realised that the infection rate was doubling every three days. At that stage, the likely death toll was heading towards catastrophe.

Currently, the lower rate of people dying or needing intensive care even though infection rates are rising is a mystery. But there are several possible explanations: the prevalence of young people who get the virus only mildly; the virus may have mutated; more people are wearing masks, thus reducing viral load and serious effects on those infected; better treatment of sufferers at all stages; the death of many of the most vulnerable early on in the pandemic. 

As the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned today, while the highest number among Britain’s now sharply rising infection rate are young people aged between 17 and 21, infections will gradually extend from them to other age groups.

Moreover, the danger from Covid-19 isn’t just that it can kill people. The Wall Street Journal reported David Hui, a respiratory disease expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, saying of the virus that the effects are severe in approximately 20 per cent of the people it afflicts.

The report adds:

In a separate review, researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons found that up to a third of those infected had neurological symptoms. By coming into contact with this virus, “you wouldn’t know what kind of effect a meeting with it would have: Maybe you will be unscathed, but maybe you would die,” said the University of Oxford’s Sarah Gilbert, whose team is developing a vaccine against the virus that is in late-stage human trials.

In a recent German study, researchers studied the hearts of 100 patients who had recently recovered from the virus. They found that 78 of these patients, mostly young and previously healthy, now had heart abnormalities and 60 now had myocarditis. Complacency about infections among younger people, or the desirability of enough people contracting the virus to provide herd immunity, is therefore misplaced. 

It also doesn’t follow that because Sweden apparently now has negligible rates of infection, this proves that its refusal to lock down and rely instead on herd immunity was the better course of action. 

Not only does Sweden have a death toll from Covid-19 more than four and a half times greater than that of the other four Nordic countries combined. It has also imposed a battery of social restrictions including banning public meetings of more than 50, religious gatherings, plays and concerts. 

Moreover, with an estimated immunity rate in Stockholm of 15 per cent it is far from achieving herd protection. Why its infection rate has dropped so steeply is therefore a mystery baffling Sweden’s own health officials. 

But surely behaviour and culture are the key factors in containing this virus. The Swedes tend to be highly conformist and with a deep respect for and trust in their government. So they do what they’re told; and they are likely to have observed the social distancing rules to the letter.

Contrast this with Israel, where I’ve been for most of the pandemic. Although its proportionate death rate is still much lower than in Sweden and most other countries, its early success in stifling the virus after locking down very early has gone into apparently uncontrollable reverse. 

In May, with new daily cases at a mere handful and the death toll at around 250, Israel relaxed many of its restrictions – although people were told still to socially distance and wear masks. Crucially, however, the children went back to school. And immediately that happened, the virus cases started to rise again.

Now more than 1,030 have died and 467 are in a serious condition, with warnings from hospitals that their virus wards are approaching full capacity. On Monday, more than 3,400 new cases were identified. With a population of some nine million, Israel has achieved one of the highest proportionate daily infection rates in the world.

The problem has been that, with schools returning and the crisis deemed to be over, the public has thrown caution to the winds. And while as in Britain most infections appear to be among younger people, increasing numbers of Israelis have become seriously ill or have died.

Despite its initial success, the Israeli government’s subsequent strategy has been incoherent, incomprehensible and chaotic, with ministries and politicians working against each other. But beyond the blame game, there are some useful lessons here.

Most infections in Israel are occurring within two specific segments of the population: ultra-orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs. These groups are not only often crammed into high density housing but haven’t stopped taking part in their many communal or religious activities. 

Crucially, both groups also tend to ignore what the government tells them to do. Flouting social distancing rules, some 5,000 people attended a wedding last week in the Israeli Arab town of Shfaram, while hundreds attended the wedding of an Israeli diplomat’s son.

It’s all about behaviour and culture. If we have to carry on living with this dangerous virus, we must all discipline ourselves to buckle down to a distanced, masked and somewhat restricted way of life. 

In stroppy, excitable, politically dysfunctional Israel, that will continue to be a nightmare. In mild, damp, orderly Britain, there isn’t even that excuse.

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