Back in 1968 and at the height of the Vietnam War, the Americans called in artillery and air strikes to prevent Communist guerrillas from over-running the town of Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta. An American major surveying the ensuing devastation with journalist Peter Arnett of the Associated Press famously said: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” The quote became a symbol of the insanity of that conflict.
Is it possible that the authorities in Portugal and other countries around the world are embarked on a similar madness in implementing blanket lockdowns to halt the advance of Covid-19? Well, consider the facts. We have long known that the virus mainly affects the elderly. In the UK, for example, the average age of people who have died with Covid-19 is above 80 with more than nine in 10 of the deaths among the over 65s, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Indeed, the average age of death from Covid-19 in the UK is over 82 in a country whose average life expectancy is 81. It has also been estimated that the chance of dying over the following six to nine months from the virus is the same as the likelihood of a person dying anyway. In other words, people who die from the disease would have almost certainly died from another (often underlying) health condition over the following six to nine months if they hadn’t succumbed to the virus. Similar figures have been found in Portugal and across the world.
Moreover, only a few hundred deaths have been seen among those aged under 45, while six children under the age of 14 have died. Moreover, the children who have died from the virus have had profound underlying health conditions. Influenza kills around a dozen children every year in the UK, but we don’t put entire societies into lockdown to prevent this happening.
The hysterical response of the 24-hour news channels to Covid-19, and so many other issues, almost certainly lies behind the overreaction of the authorities. People have been so scared by the doomsday coverage of coronavirus that their estimation of the dangers the virus poses is hugely exaggerated. A poll conducted in July found that the average Briton thought the virus had already killed around 7% of the population. That would equate to around 4.5 million deaths. In fact, by December this year, around 71,000 Britons had died.
Now, of course, every death is a tragedy. It doesn’t matter how old a person is, if they are your mother or father, or your grandparents. I am not trying to minimise the grief or the impact when a close relative passes away. But policymakers are paid to deal with the facts and implement policies that benefit society as a whole.
The economic lockdown measures implemented in Portugal and other countries make little sense when viewed from that perspective, particularly when it is the poorest and the most vulnerable in Portugal and across the world who are the worst affected.
The poor pay the price
A blog on the World Bank in June estimated that the lockdowns across the globe were already pushing between 40 to 60 million into extreme poverty. It added that “this has increased the death toll in low- and middle-income countries, induced longer shutdowns, and increased the economic costs of the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, The World Health Organisation said in September that “the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and presents an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work.”
It added that “nearly half of the world’s 3.3 billion global workforce are at risk of losing their livelihoods. Informal economy workers are particularly vulnerable because the majority lack social protection and access to quality health care and have lost access to productive assets. Without the means to earn an income during lockdowns, many are unable to feed themselves and their families. For most, no income means no food, or, at best, less food and less nutritious food”.
Then there is the indirect impact of the lockdowns on other significant health conditions, such as cancer. Delays in treating cancer and other critical illnesses will take a significant toll across the world. The British Medical Journal estimates that delays in diagnosis of the four common types of cancer (breast, bowel, lung and oesophageal cancers) due to the Covid-19 pandemic will result in approximately 3,500 avoidable cancer deaths, equating to 60,000 years of life lost reflecting the younger age profile of many cancer patients.
It has been estimated that the global economic crisis of 2008 was linked to over 260,000 additional cancer deaths worldwide as a result of unemployment and reduced public-sector health spending. Yet, the economic downturn caused by the lockdowns is far greater than that triggered by the global financial crash of the last decade.
So, it seems pretty clear that the lockdowns imposed by panicked governments make little sense. It may sound overly cynical, but one can’t help but wonder if the politicians and scientists stampeded into action by an hysterical media would have been so quick to act if they had actually worked in the private sector. What if their livelihoods and that of their families had been threatened by the lockdowns? If they had spent decades building up a business might not a cooler logic have prevailed?
For surely it would make sense to adopt a more targeted approach to protecting the elderly overall, not just in Portugal but across the world? To their credit, the Portuguese government has recognised this, deploying the military, for example, to help protect nursing homes which, according to some sources, account for around 60% of worldwide deaths from the virus.
The elderly and the most vulnerable should continue to be the focus of the authorities’ efforts globally. Everybody else needs to be liberated and allowed to rebuild shattered economies and lives.
If we fail to do that, the treatment risks being far more deadly than the virus both economically and in terms of lost lives. We risk destroying what we are trying to save.
Comment by Anthony Beachey
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Anthony Beachey is a former BBC World Service journalist now working on a freelance basis in Portugal, where he specialises in economics and finance.