The lockdown is worth it

Ivor Sarakinsky says Jeremy Gordin is out of his depth when it comes to Covid-19

Jeremy Gordin’s “The dark at the end of the lockdown tunnel” (Politicsweb 16 April) proves again what an entertaining writer he is- fun to read and good for a laugh, as always. But for deeper insight into the aetiology and panacea for this COVID 19 pandemic, one needs to look elsewhere.

His critique of Dr Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health, and Prof Abdul Karim, a world-renowned epidemiologist, is that they don’t engage adequately with the economic implications of lockdown. However, they don’t deny that there are such implications, but that they don’t factor them into their decision making and advice, respectively. Now Jeremy Gordin is, as I acknowledge above, a consummate writer. But it is churlish to accuse him of not understanding the total complexity of the pandemic. But on one issue he is horrifyingly wrong.

When Prof Karim says that the lockdown is buying time, it does not imply that we may as well do nothing and wait for it all to pass and bury the dead while we get on with the economy. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson tried that one and look where that got them. What Prof Karim means, and this is obvious in his presentation, is that lockdown and the extension buys time to put in place measures that will save lives and reduce the burden on the health care system, public and private, as well as the economy.

Lockdown has negative economic consequences, but it also enables the medical profession as a whole to prepare for the worst to reduce the overall negative impact of the pandemic in South Africa. The costs of providing health care, the costs of managing high mortality rates, the emotional and financial costs to the families who remain behind after loved ones have passed away and the cost to the economy of large numbers of managers and workers dying. Mitigation of all of these variables is not only moral, but economically sensible.

But Jeremy Gordin, after all, is no epidemiologist and not an economist of note either. But he is a good writer. Dr Mkhize and Prof Karim are medical practitioners and experts in this field. They, too, are not economists of note. So, why should they be criticized for not being economically omniscient when their expertise lies elsewhere.

The decision making on lockdown occurs in an environment where multiple factors - pandemic, health care, socio-economic and economic – are considered by a committee where all the areas of relevance are brought together. This is where the rubber hits the tarmac. How do you decide what to do when there are negative consequences to everything you decide to do? You balance costs and benefits, taking all the information available at the time, into account. The Economist refers to this as a “grim calculus”.

Despite these other and considered ways of engaging with a remarkably complex and difficult situation, Jeremy Gordin, in a move away from humour to overly-dramatic sarcasm, declares “What I have noted is that those arguing for an extension of our lockdown are, with rare exceptions, people who are paid handsome salaries by government (vu den?) and by established companies, including media houses; and what I’ve also learned is that the lockdown is destroying lives and families, not to mention the country’s already-crippled economy, whatever brave words Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and Reserve Bank Governor Lester Kganyago muster.”

This just shows how out of his depth Jeremy Gordin is. Since when does the accuracy of the pandemic's aetiology and panacea become reducable to positionality? It is good to see Politicsweb publicise the philosophical assumptions of Identity Politics and those who laugh at the above quote are closet fellow travelers.

However, the epistemic challenge of the COVID 19 pandemic is so much more important than this. It is novel, it does not fit into of the models of prevention that have been used successfully in other disease outbreaks. In order to manage the pandemic, there is a need to understand the objective structure of the virus, the conditions that enable its transmission and the prospects for a vaccine while planning for a tsunami of patients. This is all independent of the perceptions and alleged prejudices of the securely employed, better off and scientists working to find cures and best mitigation practice. There are so many unknowns that decision making now is much more difficult than in other contexts.

What is becoming clear is that countries who have lockdown and even extended it are faring better in limiting the fallout (including its socio-economic forms) than others who engaged in adventurous experimentation or pig-headed ignorance. So the trick really is: how does one time a relaxation of lockdown to ensure that the progress made in limiting the outbreak is not undermined? Prof Karim proposed a measure of cases to inform this. But Jeremy Gordin objects. At the same time, not all relaxation measures will be optimal in health care and economic terms. What we know so far is that older people are at higher risk of dying from COVID 19 than the young.

In South Africa, where infants, adolescents and adults share households with older people, is the risk of infecting aged people worth taking just to allow an already under-performing economy miraculously and suddenly to come to life? Sweden tried something like that and look where they are now.

Glib attempts at humour fail to capture the grimness of the calculus that falls upon the leaders in government. Whatever they do, there will be significant negative consequences. Is it moral to prioritise economic growth in South Africa when there is no absolute guarantee of it taking off in the short or medium term as per the global economic slump coupled to South Africa’s known economic challenges?

As Johan Maynard Keynes said, in the longer term we are all dead anyway. Is our economic success based on a ratio of GDP to burials? How many burials per point of GDP is acceptable? Or is it better to follow the Precautionary Principle and protect human life that, once lost, cannot be resuscitated a la Frankenstein? As Jeremy Gordin has retreated into subjectivity as the foundation for deciding, or rather ridiculing, these issues, perhaps he should consult all those over the age of 60, especially those with known conditions, that are predisposed to an almost certain death should they be infected.