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Matthew Paris: Crashing The Economy Will Also Cost Lives

Matthew Paris, The Times

Just like the virus, impoverishment kills, and locking down the elderly might have been a drastic but fairer solution.

From the start we’ve all agreed on one thing: we must follow the science. Viruses, we say, are blind to politics and the coronavirus emergency requires only one political choice: to listen to the experts. Our prime minister is hardly seen except flanked by two of these and the intended message is clear: there are no political choices here. “The science” will tell us what to do.

But when people tell you there is no place for politics in a decision, it is almost always the case that they have already made a political choice, often without knowing it. Boris Johnson has. He may well have made the right choice. God knows, when as prime minister you face the possibility that within a year we could lose more of our citizens than we lost during the Blitz, the pressure must be almost intolerable. He has decided to proceed, as have most world leaders, on the basis that it’s best to err on the side of caution and throw everything we have at this pandemic. Including our economy, as evidenced by the chancellor’s astonishing measures to try to mitigate the harm.

I cannot say he is wrong. What do I, what does he, what does anyone know? One writes with great hesitation on an issue like this. But there’s a lurking doubt in my mind that still seems worth thinking about, if only for when the next pandemic strikes, as it surely will.

World leaders have decided to prioritise the reduction of deaths among the old and very old at the expense of the livelihoods and prospects of those who are still at work. Even that is only a guess at this stage. It does seem that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are overwhelmingly going to be the casualties but information is still coming in and it’s too early to be sure. But on that basis we’re weighing the nation’s jobs, businesses and the whole of the younger generation’s and working population’s prospects against an imperative to keep one smaller part of the population (to which, being 70 years old, I belong) alive. Must it be either/or?

If the aim is finally to corner and isolate the virus, and if we throw everything into the attempt, we shall almost certainly succeed but at enormous cost. What, though, if this is not the last time a virus mutates into a fast-spreading threat to life? Even after we beat this one, we won’t know whether Covid-19 is annihilated for good or just beaten into a temporary stand-off. So it’s worth attempting a dispassionate survey of the battle, to see what can be learnt for the next one.

Some things seem increasingly likely. That, for instance, Covid-19 is much better at spreading itself than the influenzas we’re familiar with; that it appears much, much more dangerous to the old or physically fragile than to the rest of the population; and that the fatality rate is much higher than from flu. Figures vary wildly between countries, however, and can be especially unreliable when they come from countries like ours where (to the bafflement of most of us) there has been little or no testing of the general population. The most reliable figure probably comes from South Korea and that figure so far is just short of 1 per cent.

The Korean rate may look small but could still mean about half a million of us British would die, far more than seasonal flu kills; and my guess is that this is the worst-case scenario ministers are contemplating. It would overwhelm our NHS, which explains this week’s U-turn on the previous policy of attenuating the spread rather than trying to stop it. Most of these deaths would probably occur among our oldest citizens plus some younger people already at risk.

Given what we already know, or surmise, might it be worth considering a more ruthlessly but more narrowly targeted drive to confine the most apparently at-risk (like me, I fear) for our own protection, rather than (as it seems) wreck the economy by confining almost everybody else? Are we going to do this all over again next time a mutant virus threatens the ever-increasing number of fragile elderly that modern medicine adds to our population? My mother is 93 and very frail. My father was kept alive for 15 years with heart operations and drugs. I wouldn’t wish to sacrifice a day of their lives but if we could design a way to keep grandparents safe without closing down the economy, then their many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would thank us and so, I think, would they.

“Epidemic” is an emotive word; “pandemic” even more so. A virus, especially a “foreign virus” roots easily in the public and political imagination as an identifiable enemy, an alien assassin. Fatality statistics look like brute and indisputable facts, especially when the figures for “would have died anyway before long” are beyond our grasp and sound so unfeeling. Contrast these all-too vivid and immediate spectres with cloudy abstractions like “the economic health” of a nation or the planet.

But economic distress is no less real for being stealthy. Impoverishment kills. Redundancy can be a physical or mental health disaster. Bankruptcy wounds. Debt scars. Austerity comes calling in its own hood, wields its own scythe. People die quietly, alone and unreported — through drink, drugs, unhealthy living, depression or despair. Read Sir Michael Marmot’s 2010 report, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, and you will see hard statistics about the links between poverty and reduced longevity — longevity which in the poorer parts of Britain is already dropping. And if this is true of a rich country with a well-resourced health service such as ours, what will a global recession do in places where provision is already thin and overstretched?

If you kick the global economy in the guts, you kick billions of real people in the guts too: it’s just that, unlike coronavirus victims, we’ll never know who they were. For good and honourable reasons our government is straining to protect the identifiable, but perhaps at the expense of the less identifiable. We can’t change course now, and nor am I even certain our present course is unwise, but let’s give some brutally honest thought to how we approach the next epidemic when it hits us. Is crashing the economy, every time, the only answer? If so, and given this pandemic is not the last, we’re in for a rollercoaster ride.

The Times, 21 March 2020