By Rupert Read.
It is hard for humans to imagine things radically outside their own experience.
As there has never been a major worldwide pandemic in this age of globalisation, contemplating that tens — or possibly even hundreds — of millions of people may be about to die is simply not within the realms of things most of us are willing to consider.
And why should it be? The world has radically changed since Spanish Flu hit us hard, after World War One. It was the deadliest pandemic in modern history with an estimated 500 million people infected worldwide and 50 million deaths. Since then, we have become more pleased with ourselves, more confident that our technology and science are such that we are near-invulnerable to threats from the mere natural world. Allegedly.
…Such hubris comes before a fall…
Despite the now inevitable daily rise in the numbers infected with COVID-19, I’m here to tell you that that fall could still be cushioned.
To protect ourselves, to protect humanity, from a potentially very harmful series of events, it isn’t a miracle we need but something called the Precautionary Principle.
Often explained with proverbs such as ‘better safe than sorry’ or ‘look before you leap’, in this case it’s about taking swift and strong action now — before it’s too late.
While the facts about COVID-19 are still emerging, we know that some cases of people ‘cured’ are seeing a recurrence; more seriously, that the illness is far more contagious than flu; and more seriously still, that the death rates from the illness appear far higher than those of flu.
But, most seriously of all, there appears to be a long ‘latency’ period in the virus while the host is already contagious, meaning that it is possible to have the virus for days or even weeks without symptoms but while potentially transmitting it to others.
So what would be the key precautionary recommendation in response to this nasty cocktail of qualities?: A massive reduction in hyper-mobility. We need to curb travel — primarily air because it is mass air travel which, obviously, is the game-changer in increasing physical connectivity since the days of Spanish flu; but also cruises and some long-distance journeys by rail and road. As an environmentalist it pains me to say it, but: it is already time to look at restricting some public transport too.
We need to shut down all but emergency transport of people from countries which have infections — it is a scandal that people from north Italy were in some cases still flying into the UK untested until a few days ago — , and we need partial shutdowns within such countries, and state-to-state.
Extreme? I don’t believe so.
The easiest thing would be to carry on as we are, to wait for an ‘evidence-based’ approach dependent on identifying cases and ‘super-spreaders’ and those they have had contact with. This would allow the economy to keep on rolling for as long as possible.
But because of the nature of COVID-19, and because we are in an unprecedented situation where the virus is travelling (in us) far quicker than it did a century ago, taking that easy road would be entirely irresponsible. There is a stark choice facing us now between prolonging economic business as usual as long as possible on the one hand — or saving lives on the other.
A precautionary approach, an approach aimed at protecting those we love and not merely our economy and lifestyle as we currently know it, would look to close down potential routes of COVID-19 penetration into new places before such penetration has been achieved.
If we are serious about staying ahead of the virus, this is what we will do.
And it’s not just travel we need to think about.
Because of the huge skew on age-vulnerability, because our elders are so very vulnerable to this virus, there should be some skew as to what precautionary measures we take with regard to different age-ranges. For example, schools shouldn’t necessarily be shut prematurely but golf and country clubs, and bingo halls, are early candidates for closure.
There is still a window for serious precautionary action but it closes a little more each day until finally it will be slammed shut.
Is this column ‘alarmist’? Some, especially those who are making profits from prolonging ‘business as usual’ for a little longer, will undoubtedly say so.
I don’t mind receiving some opprobrium, if that helps to inject the urgency into this debate that it actually requires, to save lives.
On the question of ‘alarmism’, let’s recall Winston Churchill’s crucial distinction between alarmism and raising the alarm. Churchill was accused by appeasers of being “alarmist”.
He made clear in response that he was raising the alarm by telling the truth about a real and rising risk that we were facing. His concern of course proved justified.
What you really don’t want to do, in a creeping crisis like the one that we are inhabiting, is to err on the side of being complacent. Far better to err on the side of ‘over-reacting’.
Because the worst we’ll do if we ‘over-react’ is to create a recession or something similar. Whereas the worst we’ll do if we under-react is to unnecessarily facilitate the deaths of tens or hundreds of millions of people, including quite possibly our own parents or grandparents: if both your parents and all four of your grandparents are still alive today, there’s only about a 50/50 chance that that will still be so, after this pandemic has run its course.
If we are fortunate, and the percentage of the populace eventually infected turns out toward the low end of current estimates (say 20%) and the percentage of those infected dying dips down below 1%, we might get away with less than 10 million deaths worldwide, even if we don’t take any of the strong measures outlined above.
But even ‘just’ a few million deaths is still a lot — and the tragedy is that many of the tens of millions of deaths that are potentially coming if we are not fortunate CAN be stopped… But only if we are willing to get serious about taking wide, deep and rapid precautionary action.
Our elders and those with pre-existing medical conditions in particular are at desperate risk in this emerging emergency. Now that Health Minister Nadine Dorries has fallen sick with Covid-19, will the Government finally wake up and act? If not, then when our health system gets overwhelmed by old and ill coronavirus sufferers with life-threatening pneumonia, which I predict will happen within roughly 4–6 weeks from now, and as has happened already in north Italy, then — they will have blood on their hands.
Dr Rupert Read is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. His published work on the Precautionary Principle includes the paper of that name co-authored with Nassim Taleb. His full briefing on the coronavirus can be found here. A full-referenced version can be found here.