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The big debate: is lockdown wrong?

Matt Labash and Toby Young debate the biggest question of the moment

Is lockdown a gargantuan mistake? That’s the view of a growing number of thinkers and critics, including The Spectators very own Toby Young, who sees the political class’s shutting down of entire populations as the most catastrophic policy error in history. Not every free thinker agrees, however. We asked Matt Labash, a contributing editor and a skeptic of lockdown skepticism, to challenge Toby over email.

Matt Labash: Toby, thanks for stepping into the squared circle and joining me for a Pandemania tussle as a gentleman pugilist, sage, and co-equal partner in the search for truth. And also, as a fellow amateur epidemiologist, which there is no longer any shame in saying, since the pros have bunged things up so spectacularly. (Remember when they insisted we shouldn’t wear masks, before insisting we do? Makes me want to cough on them.) But I look forward to going old-school in the sort of online dialogue Slate used to do, back when it was still legal to speak to people you disagree with. It beats the hell out of the communication rage of the moment, the inspirational Zoom choir. I solemnly vow that no matter how hairy this gets, I will at no point break into ‘We’re All In This Together’ from High School Musical, featuring special guest-star Ashley Tisdale.

Let me say at the outset that I commend you on your new enterprise, lockdownsceptics.org. It has everything I could want. Bleak unemployment news, graph porn, and a COVID crossword puzzle (future attraction). The site’s tagline implores us to ‘Stay sceptical.’ And I’m trying to. Not just of the British spelling of skeptical. But of coronavirus skepticism itself. I correspond all the time with friends who, if not coronavirus-deniers, are at least not-much-to-see-here types, in their valiant quests to make sure vape shops and tanning salons open in timely fashion. And I’m not mocking their essentiality. Those places employ people, too. It is important that everything re-open.

And yet, it took this country 17 years to lose 4,582 people in Iraq. Which most sensible people agree was a tragic waste of human life. But as of this writing, the US has lost 95,058 people in roughly two months. (That number will rise again as soon as I’m done typing this sentence.) The last two months then, have seen the loss-of-life equivalent of having 20.7 Iraq Wars. And that’s leaving aside the other near quarter-of-a-million people that coronavirus has killed worldwide.

So my skepticism is piqued when people charge that our (admittedly) drastic mitigation efforts are pure hysteria. I’m anti-hysteria as a general rule. But when your house is on fire, isn’t it prudent to first herd your wife, children, and pets outside, and try to put the damn thing out before you can resume watching yet another inspirational Zoom concert, featuring special guest stars John Legend and Chrissy Teigen?

Toby Young: Thanks for your kind words re LockdownSceptics.org. Rest assured, I also bought LockdownSkeptics.org and pointed it towards* the site, so those with spelling difficulties can find it, too.

Are you certain that all those people have died from coronavirus as opposed to with coronavirus? As I’m sure you know, American hospitals get paid around $30,000 by the federal government for each patient they lose to the virus, which must result in some fatalities being ascribed to COVID-19 when the real cause of death is something else. And it’s worth bearing in mind that the average age of COVID fatalities is 80 and an estimated 90 percent have co-morbidities.

But even if the figure is as high as you say, that’s still fewer Americans than died during the Asian Flu pandemic of 1957-58, estimated to have killed up to 116,000. In the second half of 1957 the Dow fell about 15 per cent, but it rebounded quickly, not least because the economy wasn’t mothballed for three months in response.

I’ve done an admittedly cursory amount of historical research and as far as I can tell a policy of quarantining entire populations, whether in a state or a country, has only been tried once before — in Mexico in 2009 as a response to the H1N1 pandemic, aka Swine Flu. And it was abandoned after 18 days because of the rising social and economic costs.

Some people point to the city of St Louis in 1918 during the Spanish Flu outbreak as an historical precedent, but I looked that up and the mayor didn’t issue a shelter-in-place order. Churches and schools were closed, ‘amusements’ were suspended, and citizens were advised to wear masks. But businesses were only shuttered for 48 hours.

The reason so many governments across the world decided to place their citizens under virtual house arrest is because the World Health Organisation praised China for doing that on January 29th. Worth noting that in Wuhan and neighbouring cities this involved mandatory testing of the entire population, with the imprisonment of all those who tested positive in purpose-built ‘hospitals’ and literally boarding up in their homes anyone who tested negative. This was a massive over-reaction by China’s Communist leadership, which was embarrassed because it had initially denied there was a problem and, after finally admitting it, only imposed a travel ban on January 23rd, after an estimated five million people had left Wuhan to fan out across the country to celebrate Chinese New Year.

So a knee-jerk response by a totalitarian dictatorship, which involved denying tens of millions of people their basic rights, was then mimicked by the rest of the world, thanks to the sage advice of the WHO.

One of the weirdest things about this is that the WHO published a report in 2019 about how to respond to the next pandemic in which it specifically recommended against the indiscriminate quarantining of whole populations.

The suspension of civil liberties across the world — in the UK, the right to trial by jury has been suspended, which dates back to the 13th century — might conceivably have been justified if there was compelling evidence that lockdowns suppressed fatalities, but there ain’t. Zilch, nada, bupkis.

Compare the deaths-per-100,000 in those countries that have locked up their citizens with the deaths-per-100,000 in those that haven’t and there’s no evidence that lockdowns have ‘worked’. Nor do you see a relationship between the severity of the shutdown and the deaths-per-100,000.

OK, comparing the course of the pandemic in one country to its course in another is hard, not least because they often count deaths differently. But compare the deaths-per-100,000 in those US states that issued stay-at-home orders, such as New York, with those that didn’t, such as Arkansas. No evidence lockdowns were effective. Delaying lockdowns, as in Georgia, didn’t result in a tsunami of deaths either, as Gov. Brian Kemp’s critics predicted. Nor have those states that have ended lockdowns early seen an uptick in infections, as JP Morgan has pointed out. The lifecycle of the pandemic wherever it’s broken out seems to follow exactly the same pattern, with no connection to the vast majority of the non-pharmaceutical interventions leaders have put in place.

True, some interventions have exacerbated the impact of the virus, such as discharging elderly hospital patients into care homes to prevent hospitals becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Far as we can tell, COVID-19 is a largely nosocomial disease, meaning hospitals and nursing homes are the main vectors of transmission. That seems to be the only impact the shutdowns have had on the course of the disease — they’ve made things worse in some cases, better in none.

And, of course, ordering entire populations to remain in their homes has had a devastating impact on public health. I’m not just talking about the huge rise in mental illness and domestic violence, including the abuse of children, although that’s bad enough. I mean hundreds of millions of people around the world missing out on screening and prevention programmes. In the UK, an estimated 50,000 people will die unnecessarily from cancer alone. But the most devastating impact of following China’s lead will be felt in low- and middle-income countries, where public health programmes designed to prevent the spread of TB, HIV, dysentery, malaria and all the other mass killers have been suspended. The death toll from that alone will run into the tens of millions.

Even though we won’t see the full impact of this disastrous policy for some years, I think we can say with near certainty that the lockdowns will cause a greater loss of life than they’ve prevented (not least because there’s no evidence they’ve prevented any).

And don’t even get me started on the economic impact, which will lay waste to small businesses across the West, condemn hundreds of millions of people to long-term unemployment, and could kill as many as a billion people in the developing world thanks to the inevitable wave of famines.

I have no doubt the lockdowns will come to be regarded as the most catastrophic policy error that’s ever been made in the history of the world, including in wartime. I’m going to write a book about this calamity called Burning Down the House, and that’s what politicians, public health officials, bureaucrats and their lickspittles in the mainstream media have done – they’ve laid waste to the global economy and killed countless millions of people in response to a virus that’s no more deadly than a bad bout of seasonal flu. Future generations will look back and marvel at our stupidity.

ML: I kind of expected some light foreplay before we started sticking each other with data, but time is of the essence, since there are not many months left to Make America Great Again, Again. So let’s start with the last: ‘no more deadly than a bad bout of the seasonal flu.’ Not in our parts. Our very worst flu season of the last decade was 2017-18, which resulted in 61,000 deaths. And it took an entire flu-year to kill that many people.

In April of this year alone, COVID was responsible for 58,705 deaths. So we essentially had the equivalent of the worst flu year in recent history, in just one month. So far this month, with just two-thirds of it passed, we’ve had 37,829 more deaths. And that’s just as of this writing, something I will likely say a lot, because the death knell keeps ringing. (Remember when I said 95,058 people had died several hours ago? Now we’re up to 96,354.) Ask any doctor who has treated it, and that’s the meanest sonofabitch ‘flu’ they’ve ever seen. And they’re not usually worried about dying themselves when treating the common flu. They’re scared to death of COVID-19.

These aren’t my numbers. These are the numbers. Even if, as you suggest, some hospitals might have incentive to goose the figures. Not as much, I’d submit, as do slippery politicians like Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who as you may recall, saw his health department get caught suppressing death counts that came in lower than those of local medical examiners (the Florida press fought like alley cats to make those numbers public). In fact, plenty of epidemiologists think COVID-19 deaths are being vastly undercounted due to factors like lack of testing and people dying at home who were never hospitalized.

But let’s take the flu out of it. America’s leading killer, according to the CDC, is heart disease. Or at least it was heart disease. It’s responsible for one out of every four deaths. Good for around 647,000 deaths a year. In just one month, as previously stated, the coronavirus killed 58,705 people. Heart disease, on average, kills 53,916 people per month. So this virus that none of us knew existed six months ago, is now killing more people in our country per month than does our reigning champion killer, heart disease. And heart disease, unlike COVID-19, isn’t contagious. No matter how you slice it, no matter how bad the unemployment rate is, no matter how many other unintended consequences result from the lockdowns (all of which we can debate, but plenty of which I concede straightaway), that’s a lot of dead people.


And you know what can kill economies as fast as lockdowns can? Dead people. Dead people don’t make for good shoppers, or restaurant patrons, or cubicle monkeys in high-rise office buildings. They’re a real mood killer. Aside from being dead, themselves.

My point, less glibly stated, is that this is not as much of an either/or proposition as the skeptics would have it: Obey the public health Nazis/or turn the economy back on. People will turn off the economy all by themselves when they feel there’s a decent chance they might get infected and/or die. As we’ve already seen from the near-empty malls in wide-open states.

As for co-morbidities? Two of the three leading co-morbidities named in COVID-designated deaths are obesity and hypertension. That’s right: fat people with high blood pressure. Guess what? That describes half of America. Almost literally. Nearly 40 percent of Americans are considered clinically obese. And about 46 percent of adults have high blood pressure. Probably more, now that at least one out of every five adults are currently unemployed.

As for COVID being an old person’s disease, ask your own fine Prime Minister (who I’m actually a big fan of) about that. It nearly killed him. And he’s 55, not 85. With no known underlying conditions, unless randiness and dipsomania count.

TY: I daresay COVID-19 has killed more people in the US than the flu of 2017-18, but probably not as many as the Asian Flu pandemic of 1957-58. And in other countries, it will kill fewer people than the 2017-18 influenza season. For instance, it now looks almost certain that the outbreak in Germany, which Angela Merkel described as the worst crisis to afflict the country since the Second World War, will kill fewer people than flu did in Germany in 2017-18.

One reason COVID-19 has killed far fewer people in Germany than the UK in spite of it having a larger population is because the Germans have been better at protecting elderly people, particularly nursing home residents. That’s also one of the reasons Florida has fewer COVID fatalities per 100,000 than New York.

Unlike Andrew Cuomo, Ron DeSantis did not sanction discharging COVID patients back into care homes without testing them first to make sure they were negative. That practice has been widespread and the blame partly lies with epidemiologists touting apocalyptic computer models showing healthcare systems being overwhelmed. To give just one example, the shonky computer model cooked up by Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College predicted that demand for critical care in Sweden would exceed supply fortyfold if the country didn’t shut down. As you know, Sweden never locked up its citizens and the healthcare system still hasn’t been overwhelmed.

So, yes, COVID-19 has killed more people in the US than influenza did in 2017-18, partly because politicians, bureaucrats and policy advisors have managed the pandemic so badly.

Shutdown advocates will claim that COVID-19 would have killed more people than Asian Flu if we hadn’t locked everyone up, but for the reasons I set out in my previous email there’s no evidence lockdowns have been effective at suppressing fatalities.

You mention heart disease and I’m glad you’re aware that COVID-19 isn’t the only risk to public health we should be concerned about. Did you see the recent ABC News interview with some doctors in Northern California saying the rise in suicides since the shutdown was imposed on March 19th has killed more people than the virus? The same is true of Tennessee and no doubt other states too. A report compiled by Just Facts at the beginning of the month estimated that anxiety alone will result in at least seven times the loss of life than shutdowns can possibly have prevented. Seven times was the low end. The high end was 90 times.

You’ll argue that the virus would have made us anxious whether we’d locked down or not, just as you claim the pandemic would have damaged the economy willy-nilly. But did you see that recent piece in Bloomberg in which a reporter used the data assembled by the Blavatnik School of Government, ranking countries according to how severely they locked down their citizens, to see if there was any correlation between the strictness of the lockdown and the number of COVID fatalities? Answer: there isn’t one. No signal in that noise. However, the reporter did find a correlation between the severity of the lockdown and damage to the economy — the stricter the lockdown, the worse shape the economy is in. I’m sure we’ll see the same pattern in the US.

I’m surprised you’re questioning the data about the mean age of COVID-19 fatalities. In both the UK and the US it’s 80. Yes, younger people have succumbed to the disease, but not many. As John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine at Stanford, has pointed out, if you’re under 65 you’re more likely to die in a road traffic accident — and the younger a person is, the lower the risk. In the whole of the United Kingdom only two children under 15 have died from the virus. There are 11.91 million children aged 14 and under in the UK — almost exactly a sixth of the population. That means the chances of a child under the age of 15 dying from COVID-19 are one in 5,955,000. An average of 49 people are injured by lightning in the UK each year and if we assume those strikes are distributed equally across different age cohorts, ie divide that number by six, that means about eight children aged 14 or under are struck by lightning each year. So if you’re under 15, you’re four times more likely to be struck by lightening than die of COVID-19.

You’ll accuse me of cherry-picking. But the CDC recently estimated the infection fatality rate of COVID-19 to be 0.26 percent, about a quarter of the rate predicted by Prof Ferguson and his team when advising the British government and 13 times lower than the original estimate by the WHO. That means if you catch it you have a 99.74 percent of surviving. Still think we should have suspended the civil rights of a quarter of the world’s population to ‘protect’ them?

ML: I have to take issue, though I guess that’s what I’m here for. The Asian Flu pandemic of 1957-58 is thought to have killed 70,00-116,000 Americans. COVID-19 is already long past 70,000, and since it’s now at 98,750 deaths and counting — still dispatching well over 1,000 people a day on most days — it will likely surpass the Asian Flu’s upper estimate within about two weeks, probably sooner. And it’s made short work of that many people in roughly two months, keeping in mind that the US had only just reached its 1,000th death mark on March 25.

I have no quarrel with criticizing the US’s handling of nursing home cases. I criticize it myself. Why we didn’t immediately swaddle these places in bubble-wrap is beyond me, since oldsters do die at disproportionately high rates, though they are by no means the only deaths, nor are deaths the only gruesome side effects of contracting Covid, doctors are learning the hard way. The Cuomo boner you speak of was one of the biggest cock-ups of this entire pandemic, leading to thousands of extra deaths. (Of course, if the feds had a nursing home plan at all, I missed it.) Cuomo’s costly mistake was right up there with Trump lying about everyone who wanted a test being able to get a test. Or him lying that ‘it’s something we have tremendous control of’ back in March. Or him lying about PPE not being ‘sporadic.’ (See the emerging pattern here?) It was right up there with Trump claiming his COVID press briefings were doing Bachelor-finale type ratings. (Not a lie, necessarily, just such a prickish thing to say that I thought I’d gratuitously mention it.)

Another big boner was the White House’s decision to scotch its own reopening guidelines, because Emperor Stable Genius preferred a rosier model than the gloomy predictions of epidemiologists. According to the Washington Post, he preferred a model hatched by adviser Kevin Hassett, an economist by trade, who predicted ‘deaths dropping precipitously in May, and essentially going to zero by May 15.’ Someone ought to point out to Kev that we’re running well behind schedule.

As for free’n’easy Sweden, invoked nearly as often as DeSantis’s Florida for its miracle curative COVID powers (hate to be a turd in the punchbowl, but just a few days ago, Florida saw its highest number of new daily cases since April 17) , the mythology doesn’t hold up. While Sweden’s population is less than twice that of its Scandinavian neighbors, Finland and Norway, it has seen 13 times more deaths than Finland, and 17 times more than Norway. Perhaps Sweden was relying on Kev’s model, too.

But I’m less interested in models, which after all, are future projections, than I am in present hard numbers. Skeptics love to quibble about the true mortality rate of COVID. Which, fine. I get that. Any reliable analysis has to concede that God-knows-how-many people are walking around asymptomatically, never even thinking to get tested, let alone, dying. However, there’s another supremely inconvenient statistical reality that the skeptics dodge, almost as often as they dodge giving the death toll, when discussing COVID-19’s lethality.

And that is: how many people are dying who actually do get logged as identified cases? That’s not a model, that’s perfectly knowable right now. In the US, we have 1,674,054 total cases, as of this writing. (Again, these numbers are obsolete almost as soon as I set them down, since they’re always ticking up.) And we’ve had 98,315 deaths. Aside from that meaning that one out of every 198 Americans is identifiably infected with the coronavirus, it also means of those cases, 5.9 percent die. And that number hasn’t budged in weeks, no matter how much more we’ve tested, no matter how many more cases are added to the pile.

It’s even worse in other hotspots. Way worse. Spain and Italy both test at a higher per capita rate than we do. Yet Spain’s death toll among diagnosed cases is 10.1 percent. Italy’s is 14.2 percent. And while I respect your skeptical (or sceptical) propensity to ask some tough questions, I wouldn’t rest easy if I were you, either. The UK’s current death rate among identified cases is a whopping 14.1 percent.

Again, any honest accounting of what has or hasn’t been worth doing should also factor in the unfortunate realities you highlight — from deaths of desperation to the financial ruin caused by businesses being required to shut down. These are not small concerns.

However, I’ve found it difficult, when sparring with skeptic combatants, to get an honest accounting out of them when clocking just how lethal the virus that precipitated the lockdowns is. There is some very hard denial going on in that camp. Are all those in the let-‘er-rip school really OK with 14 out of 100 people who are diagnosed with COVID dying from it? Or would they pretend that’s not dangerously deadly? Seems a lot higher chance than getting struck by lightning.

If that’s the conclusion they’re coming to, they might have already developed something like emotional herd immunity.

TY: You may be right about COVID deaths in the US surpassing 116,000 this year, but you may be wrong. Daily deaths peaked in the US on April 21 with 2,683 and last time I checked they were down to 1,036. If the pandemic follows the same course in America as it does everywhere else, daily deaths will decline quite rapidly from now on — the ‘second spike’ predicted by bed-wetting epidemiologists hasn’t occurred anywhere. Daily deaths also peaked in Sweden on April 21 with 185. On May 17 that number was down to five. And, yes, the Covid deaths per capita in Sweden have been higher than in some of its Scandinavian neighbours, but then they’ve also been a lot lower than some other countries that have imposed strict shutdowns, such as Belgium. Take a look at the numbers in Belarus, the only other European country that hasn’t placed its citizens under virtual house arrest. Hell, they haven’t even stopped soccer games in Belarus. Total deaths to date: 199.

You don’t like Trump? I’ll take him. You can have Boris. I think your President will turn out to have got more calls right during this crisis than our Prime Minister, including singing the praises of hydroxychloroquine. His gut instincts about the virus — not that bad — and the shutdown — needless act of self-harm — are right. Kevin Hassett’s model may have been a tad optimistic, but it’s a darn sight more accurate than most epidemiological models. We published a review of the code powering Neil Ferguson’s model on Lockdown Sceptics by someone who’d been employed as a senior engineer at Google for eight years. His conclusion? ‘All papers based on this code should be retracted immediately.’

I’m afraid your back-of-the-envelope calculation of the infection fatality rates in different countries are worthless. The number of cases doesn’t reflect the number who’ve been infected — not even close. To get that figure you need to carry out seroprevalence surveys, as John Ioannidis and his team at Stanford have done. In Ioannidis’s latest preprint, he calculated the infection fatality rate by looking at 12 seroprevalence studies in which the population sample size was higher than 500. His conclusion is that it’s ‘in the same ballpark as seasonal flu’, i.e. between 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent. Yes, your chances of dying from COVID-19 are higher than being struck by lightning, but not much.

But we’re getting distracted here. The argument against the lockdowns isn’t that the virus isn’t as deadly as people initially thought. It’s that there’s no evidence they suppress fatalities. I don’t know how many different ways to say this so that it sinks in. Some non-pharmaceutical interventions work — Taiwan’s decision to quarantine people entering the country in early January was smart and South Korea’s track-and-trace programme has been effective. But stay-at-home orders don’t work. That’s the reason I have every sympathy with those protestors in states like Michigan and Colorado. The civil rights of hundreds of millions of Americans, which are supposedly guaranteed by your constitution, have been suspended needlessly. They should be restored immediately.

ML: As with you, it always makes me laugh a bit when worrywarts fret about ‘the second wave.’ But for totally different reasons. Because that would suggest that the first wave ever ended. Bad news for the rose-colored-glasses crowd: it hasn’t. Let’s all hope it does. #We’reAllInThisTogether as our mutual warrior-poet hero Ashley Tisdale sings. And maybe the first wave will die of natural causes (hear our prayer, O Sun God). But thus far, it hasn’t — we’re still in the barrel. As I’m writing this installment of our statistical wank-fest in the middle of the night, your time, we’ll very well likely surpass 100,000 deaths before sundown tomorrow.

For a little historical context, this not-very-deadly, slightly-more-robust-equivalent-of-the-flu, as many of you skeptics have it, has now come just 16,000 or so deaths shy of the entire American death toll in World War One. If the current clip holds, we’ll easily lap that by early to mid-June. At least World War One took a good year-and-a-half to wreak that kind of havoc (since America didn’t enter the war until 1917). But COVID-19 will have done it in a little over two months. Still…nothing to see here, folks! Don’t believe your lying eyes, believe the seroprevalence projections! And aside from the fact that I’m guessing you well-know how much fire that study has come under by a jury of its peers for sloppiness — a rabbit hole I will not jump down, for fear of glazing the readers’ eyes over even more — you’re also better than what you just did. You’re a very smart man. But you’re trying to use my own admission — that I was not talking absolute mortality rates — as a cudgel. I clearly and overtly stated that I was speaking instead of the death rate among known cases, not the absolute mortality rate among total infections. Which firmly stands. And also incidentally, even that drastically reduced universe is still very high, representing one out of every 198 Americans. (As also previously stated.) Which is hardly ‘worthless.’

But my unsportsmanlike peevishness aside, I will throw you a bone: the daily deaths have come down from the mid-April peak. At least for now. But the country is just now widely opening up again – all 50 states hitting at least Phase One as of this weekend. So let’s see if that’s still true three weeks from now. One factor you’re disallowing is that New York’s deaths — which at peak accounted for 800 and 900 deaths a day all by its lonesome — have fallen precipitously. They had just 119 deaths yesterday. And Andrew Cuomo’s nursing home goat rodeo notwithstanding, they were one of the most hardcore lockdown states around. Not only that, but Cuomo himself has been a veritable evangelist for social distancing — netting many hours a week on all three cable news networks. Much more convincingly than our president has, even though it was Trump’s policies which locked us down in the first place. (A subtlety which is often lost on the Red Hats storming their state capitols, eager to blame their Democratic governors in a faux-populist froth.) Love Cuomo or hate him — I’ve never been a fan — but without New York hammering down their curve, we’d still often be over 2,000 deaths a day on many days.

Failing to recognize this is a bit like being the guy whose girlfriend makes him wear a condom, and because they haven’t gotten pregnant after the last 10 goes, the guy concludes that ‘condoms are useless. Why would I need those? My girlfriend’s never gotten pregnant!’

You can bellyache all you like about there being no proof that lockdowns prevent deaths. You’re essentially trying to prove a negative. But Virology 101 tenets — which nine out of 10 or so epidemiologists seem to concur with — dictate that if you keep uninfected people away from infected people, there are fewer infections. This was widely practiced during Spanish Flu a century ago, it’s not a new concept. It is also known as ‘common sense.’ Fewer infections mean fewer deaths. (And now, I will sit in silent expectancy, as you gird your herd immunity argument.)

OK, silence over. You’re right, I would trade you Boris for Trump, who I’m not even convinced is taking hydroxychloroquine. I suspect he’s bluffing, since he’s never even ingested something as strong as a wine cooler, so he doesn’t strike me as the type to conduct medical experiments on himself. (This, admittedly is fed by my own inherent paranoia: never trust a teetotaler.) And even if he is taking it, it’s a major comedown from his tacitly suggesting that we shoot Lysol into our veins. (A failure of nerve, in my book. I could see Boris mainlining Lysol if he ran out of conventional drugs. I admire that kind of heedlessness.)

I should add that though I’ve criticized Trump harshly, I don’t at all hate him. He amuses me. Or at least he used to, before life-and-death stakes became involved. I do, however, agree with him about one thing. It’s one of the truest things he’s said during the pandemic. When he did his Lincoln Memorial interview with Fox, he suggested that in locking down the country, a million and a half lives might have been saved. In typical Trump fashion, that was probably hyperbole. Let’s reduce that by a lot, and say maybe we saved several hundred thousand in the bargain.

Who knows what’s true in this era of post-truth? We could all be wrong about everything, as this virus keeps proving us wrong, again and again. I am humble enough to allow that possibility. And like you, I am a civil libertarian by nature and temperament. It makes me very uncomfortable to be on this side of the argument. I disobey petty third-rate bureaucrats every chance I get, as my raft of unpaid parking tickets can attest. In fact, I’ve even committed acts of civil disobedience during the coronavirus crisis, as an avid fly fisherman, when my governor mandated that catch-and-release fishing was verboten — a totally stupid and arbitrary decision.

That said, here’s one thing we know is true. Which many of the lockdown skeptics can’t afford to admit. When their cult leader, Donald J. Trump, first introduced, in the middle of March, his ‘15 days to slow the spread’ edict — the beginnings of the lockdowns you so protest – how many people were dying a day? Twenty-two. That’s it. And nearly everyone went along pliantly, thinking it a necessary measure. Just a few days ago, 1,552 died in a day. Or 70.5 times more people than died when Trump suggested we should take these drastic measures. Which we did back then without complaint.

Only now, those measures have become the Enemy of the People. The Jackboot of Oppression. And I don’t dispute that lockdowns are unsustainable. We can’t shut down the economy and our lives forever. Calculated risks will need to get taken. And they are getting taken, now that our country is opening up. But I would submit that people who take those risks without knowing the risks — well, those people are taking risks. And those risks should be honestly reckoned with.

The circumstances on the ground haven’t changed, so much as our definitional parameters have of what entails risk. But these are no longer epidemiological questions. They’ve become political ones, with tribes falling into predictable alignment. Some people are now willing to die for their cause. And you know what? They just might get their chance to.

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TY: Let me begin by withdrawing the word ‘worthless’. That was me being irritable and isn’t the right way to deal with worrywarts, as I know when trying to coax my children to try something new.

I think the worst is over and the easing of restrictions across all 50 states will not see death tolls creeping up again. Let me remind you of those hysterical denunciations of Georgia governor Brian Kemp, as well as Florida’s Ron DeSantis, by mainstream media panjandrums when they began to reopen their states last month. I’m thinking of Amanda Mull’s piece in the Atlantic headlined ‘Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice’. ‘Georgians are now the largely unwilling canaries in an invisible coal mine,’ she wrote, ‘sent to find out just how many individuals need to lose their job or their life for a state to work through a plague.’ Last week, the Washington Post’s Ben Terris and Josh Dawsey dismissed DeSantis as a typical ‘Florida Man’ — with his ‘devil-may-care’ attitude and ‘oafish’ demeanour. Yet the death tolls have continued to fall in their states since reopening. Those governors made tough calls under extreme pressure and got them right.

In time, I think we’ll come to regard hysterical liberal journalists, wagging their fingers furiously at anyone questioning the shelter-in-place orders, as partly culpable for the loss of life resulting from the shutdowns. As you know, I believe that toll will be far greater than any lives saved by quarantining whole populations.

I accept that ‘proving’ beyond doubt that lockdowns have been ineffective isn’t easy and we’ll probably still be arguing about it in 50 years. But the preponderance of evidence certainly points that way. I’m not just thinking of the low death tolls in countries that didn’t issue stay-at-home orders such as Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Belarus — and, yes, even Sweden compared to some other European countries.

There’s also the lack of a statistical relationship between how severely countries locked down their citizens and the number of COVID deaths they’ve had, as well as the evidence that easing those restrictions hasn’t caused deaths to tick up again. A couple of weeks ago, the rate of infection in Germany increased following the reopening of the country and the media jumped all over that, citing it as ‘proof’ that easing the lockdown would unleash the apocalypse. Turned out, Germany had so few infections that a breakout in a slaughterhouse in Baden-Württemberg caused the national infection rate to increase. It was a blip and it’s been falling ever since. Last time I checked, Germany had three new cases and zero daily deaths.

You’re right about minimising contact between infected and uninfected people being a ‘common sense’ way of dealing with a viral outbreak. But you can achieve that by quarantining the sick and the most vulnerable, not by indiscriminately imprisoning entire populations. In too many US states, as well as the UK, the favoured approach ended up protecting the strong and endangering the weak, care home residents being just one example. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research — a non-partisan source, I’m sure you’ll agree — examined the different policies of US states and concluded: ‘we find that optimal policies differentially targeting risk/age groups significantly outperform optimal uniform policies and most of the gains can be realized by having stricter lockdown policies on the oldest group.’

If that’s true, the suspension of our rights during this crisis is indefensible. Some lockdown enthusiasts cite all the ‘known unknowns’ about the virus and invoke the precautionary principle to justify ordering people to stay in their homes. But as a civil libertarian, you must share my view that if a state authority is going to suspend citizens’ rights it better have a good reason, particularly without any due process. In this case, there wasn’t a good reason. Just a lot of blather about how we were facing an ‘emergency’. The burden of proof always falls on those seeking to deprive us of our rights, and it wasn’t met in this case.

I’ve been thinking about why you and I disagree about this Matt, given that we agree on so much else. I think it must be because I’m a more cynical conservative than you. For the most part, the people responsible for the shutdown policies across the world have been the same pointy-headed muckety-mucks, sucking on the public teat, that have been screwing up the world for centuries. Some conservatives on my side of this debate think the epic mishandling of this crisis will be the last hurrah of these central planners. Yes, they’ve messed up before, but never on this scale.

As ordinary people survey the wreckage of the economy — and millions across the world start to die as a result of the shutdowns — there will surely be a reckoning. But alas, I don’t think so. They’re just too powerful.

*To avoid further hurt in this already bruising transatlantic exchange, and for this article only, we have kept Toby’s replies in English English, while Matt’s remain Americanized, with a z. Also it makes their jokes better.


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