The WHO has just declared Europe to be the epicentre of Covid 19, which to many would seem to be a political statement, since the US has the highest rate of mortality and China and Russia and many other states are opaque about the state of coronavirus in their territories.
London and the UK have been in lockdown since March 23. In western Europe, the only country to have found an alternative to a lockdown is Sweden. There are restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people, but the emphasis is on individual choice for social isolation, rather than a collective enforcement. Sweden is a large country geographically, but with a relatively small population, so that may be key to making this work.
There are nine million of us in London and it is very tough on the city, on business (the expected loss on the UK economy is expected to be 30%), on normal life and to be honest, on sanity.
Political lockdowns in regions such as Kashmir are transparent in what they are; armed force to keep vast numbers of people under curfew. The global coronavirus lockdowns are different. Although delivered in very simple terms by the UK government—the UK is locked down to flatten the curve of the virus so the National Health Service has the capacity and ventilators to manage the 30,000 or so pneumonia cases in its intensive care units—there are many complex questions that the government can avoid
Of those treated on ventilators, only 50% to 60% will survive. Ventilators are brutal for the body and if patients do survive, it can take six months to recover, and then with limited lung capacity. Deaths are largely geriatric (91%) and due to underlying health conditions such as heart conditions, diabetes, lung cancer. Mortality rates for men are double those for women
However in an average year in the UK between 8,000 and 18,000 will die in a similar way because of pneumonia complications from the flu.
When all this is over there will be many questions for government. Was the modelling right, was this kind of lockdown across the UK essential to flatten the curve of infection and collect data about which individuals and communities are most vulnerable to the disease. The virus passed directly to care homes for the elderly because many were in hospital for other reasons, and then discharged. In other words, the most dangerous place for people to be has been in NHS hospitals.
Alongside the elderly, and quite separately, it is the poorest workers in London who have been hit; they are the bus drivers, baggage handlers at airports, cleaners. They are, in other words, those who are disadvantaged in protecting their health and their incomes. This tells us what we know already, that men and women from poor communities who do frontline heavy jobs that bring them into contact with vast numbers of people are far more vulnerable in almost every aspect of life than large swathes of middle income Londoners.
Above all, in London, we want the poor and those who have so few choices, protected. But it also amazes me that the people who are keeping us fed, keeping the supermarkets open, are young men and women from the sub-continental diaspora. In my local grocery store, they keep coming to work, keep smiling, although now wearing masks. I know in the last week of March, it was chaotic and frightening for these young staff in the supermarkets.
For the rest of us, stuck at home under lockdown, it is a question of fighting the tedium. This is not the time to go down with any ailments because it is difficult to access doctors. I had a dose of real fever and cabin fever, pure misery in the strange atmosphere of the lockdown. The cabin fever, which may or may not have exaggerated my physical illness, was about the authoritarian government diktats; you must not go out, you must, must not go out for up to 14 days if you are ill.
I live in a society in the West that is obsessed with its health and the right to life. It is a fanciful illusion of course, but like all fanciful illusions it sometimes turns authoritarian. As well as living in individuality and freedom, most people want to die in individuality and freedom too. A pandemic precludes that. I wonder when the men in suits in the government and their professor doctors in the NHS will step back and think, “Did we do the right thing?”