OPINION: Is the severity of the lockdown justified?

April 23rd, 2020 5:10 PM

Local shops have been forced to close and are urging people to get behind the national ‘fly the flag’ initiative, but is Ireland’s lockdown a step too far for our economy? (Photo: Andrew Harris)

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Scientist Helga Frost from Durrus argues that the restrictions have been so wide-ranging and our economy so badly hit, maybe the ‘medicine’ is worse than the illness

WITH the prospect of the lockdown being extended for even longer, is it not time to consider whether the severity and detail of the lockdown was necessary?

Lest it be forgotten, there has been almost no debate in the Dáil, before or since the lockdown was declared by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, on  March 2nd.

Covid-19 (which belongs to the coronavirus family) is highly contagious, we are told, and therefore restrictions are rightly called for. But the restrictions must not in themselves lay such waste to the economy of the country and so diminish the life of the ordinary citizen, that there could be an argument made for asking, ‘which is worse, the illness or the medicine?’

Let’s be generous and admit that the lockdown has helped, or at least slowed down the advance of the virus. It hasn’t stopped the epidemic, or there wouldn’t be a need to extend the lockdown.

The Draconian conditions of the lockdown; restricting the over 70s to their homes and all others to a 2km radius from their homes, together with social distancing and travel restrictions, has had an absolutely devastating effect on the way we live our lives and on the economy.

Many businesses and trades face wipe-out. Many employees might never return to the workforce again. Many shops might never open again. Many families could face problems paying their mortgage or rent. And I have not even mentioned those who were already perilously close to homelessness.

Tourism in West Cork, as in the rest of Ireland, transports the visitors into the midst of stunning scenery, history, family memories and often happy tactile experiences. But none of this would be as enjoyable and memorable, or indeed possible sometimes, if bereft of the craic. And what better craic is there then to share the experiences with a friend, a relative or even a stranger? But it’s difficult to share  the craic at 2m distance, or a drink or a meal, separated in this weird, social exclusion    zone. Not surprising, then, that the West Cork tourist industry, and many more industries, have shut down. In polite speak, they have been mothballed. Alas, many may not be reopening without a lot of government help. That is a sad fact.

So it’s time to ask, on what basis did the Taoiseach decide on the major lockdown, when the scientific knowledge relating to how the virus is spread is not yet well known or understood?

South Korea is viewed by many as the best country to emulate. It has followed a policy of removing all those who are not affected by the virus from a household, leaving behind only those who have been diagnosed with the illness. This authoritarian action, combined with a programme of widespread testing, was implemented by a democratic country, and it has slowed the epidemic, whilst allowing economic activity to continue.

This has been a successful policy and South Korea has now emerged from the crisis. Those against the South Korean way argue that the Irish commitment to individual human rights militates against introducing such a policy here.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch initially favoured encouraging the public to mix, to deliberately spread the virus and develop ‘herd immunity’.

This results in the infection being spread so that those infected develop antibodies against the virus.

However, this was quietly jettisoned, and a lighter version of our lockdown came into effect. This ‘lockdown-lite’, officially referred to as ‘intelligent lockdown’,  has closed schools, universities and suggests people work from home if they can.

The flower and horticulture industry in Holland is worth approximately €5bn annually, yet Aalsmeer, the largest flower market in the world, was forced to close. Some shops and supermarkets are allowed to open and the public and their owners are expected to use ‘discretion’. The Dutch have kept one eye on maintaining economic activity, as much as possible, unlike the Irish.

On March 23rd, UK prime minister Boris Johnson, on the advice of his ‘experts’, declared a strict lockdown, very similar to ours.

The UK lockdown is forecast to effect growth and add hundreds of billions to their debt. One of Johnson’s ‘experts’ was Prof Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist, professor of mathematical biology who specialises in patterns in the spread of infectious diseases in humans and animals.

It was Prof Ferguson who forecast one million deaths and a lockdown period of 18 months, which forced Johnson to act.

Some days later, however, much criticism of Prof Ferguson’s forecast began to surface. It was revealed that it was the same Prof Ferguson whose nightmarish forecast of mass fatalities from mad cow disease proved totally wrong, and whose policy of mass slaughter for foot and mouth disease, cost stg£8bn.

The German scientist, Prof Hendrik Streeck, director of the Institute of Virology at University Hospital in Bonnhas in Germany’s worst-hit area and home to Germany’s most serious Covid-19 outbreak, said: ‘The home of one infected family did not have any live viruses on any surface’. The professor told German TV: ‘There have been no proven infections while shopping or at the hairdressers.’

He continued: ‘We know it’s not a smear infection that is transmitted by touching objects, but that close dancing and exuberant celebrations have led to infections.’

He said Germany’s ‘patient zero’ had only infected her colleagues and not other guests or diners at the hotel she had been staying at.

As if to add weight to Prof Streeck’s comments, The Guardian carried an article by Sally Weale, that referred to a University College of London study which found that, ‘school closures had little impact’ on the spread of the virus.

So one wonders. If there is so much scientific doubt about how this virus is transferred and spread, could Taoiseach Varadkar, with a little less haste and some help from his friends in the Dáil, have introduced a ‘South Korean lockdown’ or even a Dutch ‘intelligent lockdown’? This would surely be preferable and more appropriate for dealing with the Convid-19 crisis.

This lockdown has shredded business and economic activity, leaving many in the private sector to dangle in the wind.

Some ‘experts’, one suspects, did no more than put a wet finger up to the air. Yet based on such ‘expert’ advice, many families will have a dreadful price to pay.

For the record: there are seven coronaviruses that infect human beings. In addition, some coronaviruses infect animals and then evolve (mutate) to infect humans. Three recent examples of this are 2019-nCoV, Sars-CoV, and Mers-CoV.

All the signs tell us that if this was a dummy run, then the government needs to improve its reactive strategy. The next pandemic coming down the tracks might well be a lot less forgiving. If this is the best that can be done, then heaven help us next time around.

Helga Frost BSc (Biology) MSc (Zoology) is a medical scientist, naturopath, medical herbalist, and nutritionist.

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