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  • Writer's picturegraeme

Lockdown Reflections Day 20: The gaslighting has begun

The Gaslighting has Begun

As predicted, we are now seeing the rise of articles and shared comments about how much more damage is being done by lockdowns than could ever be done by Covid-19. The basic gist of these arguments is that the economy is being wrecked by lockdown and that we should all just get back to work now.

The people writing about this clearly have not been watching Italy or New York or Ecuador or elsewhere. There are three simple reasons why they are wrong. Firstly, Covid-19 is remarkably contagious. If we just go about our “normal” lives, almost all of us will get it. Quickly too.

There is some disagreement about how deadly it is. Somewhere between 0.5 and 5% of people who contract the disease die from it. For the sake of argument let’s go with the lower end number of 1%. And let’s also assume that only 70% of the world would get the disease (that’s when herd immunity would probably start kicking in). Note: I am not a medical expert, nor am I making a medical point here. This is data science. And I am taking very conservative figures here. But taking these assumptions on a world population of 7.77 bn would mean we would see around 55 million people die horrible deaths. In the next 2-3 months!

That’s the second reason these people are wrong. And the more important one. Every country in the world would have their healthcare system completely overwhelmed if we let this happen. Around 400 million people would need hospitalisation in the next few weeks. Healthcare workers would be overwhelmed. Many of them would contract the disease and a lot would die. Because, the third issue is that not just old people die. This is most insidious and, in my opinion, immoral of all the arguments I am starting to see. It says that since this disease mainly affects old people, that surely old people would be OK to die so that their grandchildren “could have a future” (by which they mean, let everyone go back to work so the economy doesn’t collapse). This argument values the economy over humanity. It is just not true that Covid-19 is an old person’s disease. At best we can say that it is really dangerous for people with compromised immune systems, for people who have been sick recently and especially for people with underlying heart and lung issues.

In my close circle of family and friends, around ten people (out of about 40) would be vulnerable. This includes a young mom going through chemo, a few people in their 40s and early 50s, at the peaks of their careers. And it includes me. I have asthma.

And that’s where gaslighting comes in. Gaslighting is framing an argument in a way that makes you feel like you are the crazy one. It’s normally used by abusers against the people they abuse, making them feel like they are the ones that caused the abuse. In this case, it says things like the cure cannot be worse than the disease. Or we have to balance lives against livelihoods. Those kinds of arguments are going to increase dramatically in the next few weeks. Of course governments need to balance many competing priorities. That’s life. But if “human life” is not TOP of that list of priorities then something has gone wrong. The economy can recover. Dead people don’t.

Yes, we can also acknowledge that a contraction in the economy will cause hardship, and that some people will die because of that hardship. But if that number is less than 55 million (which I remind you was the very lowest estimate we could use) IN THE NEXT THREE MONTHS, then our current approach to lockdown is still correct.

Yes, we cannot sustain a very much more extended complete lockdown. We will need to start transitioning out of complete lockdown soon. But that’s not the same as just “going back to work”, especially because the very people who are calling for everyone to go back to work don’t need to use public transport, will probably continue to work from home themselves and have private healthcare.

Saying all of this does not take away from the conversation we should have about unemployment, underemployment and the nature of our economies, especially in brutally capitalistic and individualistic countries, led by neoliberals and libertarians. But that conversation should be about what our economy looks like AFTER we have found a way to deal with Covid-19 that minimises mortality and does not overwhelm our healthcare systems. And I bet you that anyone who is writing about “lives vs livelihoods” or “going back to normal as quickly as possible” right now is not suggesting we have a deep and meaningful chat about wealth redistribution, inequality or taxing the rich more. They just want the workers back in the factories so the shareholders don’t lose too much more value. Go on, I dare you to ask them and prove me wrong.

And if you fully appreciate the economic hardships lockdown - and the virus - are causing, but believe that saving human lives is more important, know this today: you are NOT the crazy one. If you do understand this, then also know that when we are able to get back to work, that we should take this opportunity to build a new economy anyway. Let’s rather have that discussion now.

UPDATE based on a comment from Siya Khumalo: The conversation we need to be having is somewhere between “maintain lockdown” and “go back to normal”, and we need to have it urgently.

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