Sunbathing and suicide
Some comments on lockdown and exit strategies
The purpose here is not to object to the general concept of a ‘lockdown’ It is a valid strategy for containing an infectious disease. But there are some elements of the strategy that are worth comment, because it is not clear how they contribute to reducing transmission and/or because they might be counter-productive. We will also, sooner or later, need an exit strategy, and I hope the government is already considering the options.
- Exercise in the country.
We have been told that we are allowed to have one form of exercise per day, but it must be close to home. That is fine for those of us who live on the edge of open country, but for those who live in cities it means they are confined to parks and other urban open spaces, which runs the risk of those places becoming crowded, and posing a much greater risk of transmission of the virus than if they took a short car ride into open country. Granted that we do not want large collections of people in popular beauty spots (just close the car parks?), nor is it desirable for people to travel hundreds of miles to get their exercise (although I’m not sure what the problem is there, but I’ll let that go). This looks like a London-based rule, that ignores the fact that in many Northern cities, open countryside is only a short way away.
And now, predictably, we have some parks becoming sufficiently crowded that they are threatened with closure (and in some cases have been closed).
There has also been an element of ‘Eyam in reverse’ on some occasions. (Eyam, in case you don’t know, was the ‘plague village’ in Derbyshire which, when plague arrived there, decided to cut themselves off to prevent the spread of the disease to neighbouring villages.) The comment from Derbyshire Police that some of the people visiting Curbar Edge came from Sheffield sounds rather like the reverse of Eyam’s action. So does the comment on the News tonight from a resident of the Lake District that visitors coming from Manchester were being selfish in that they might be bringing the virus with them. (But I do think that someone from Manchester has no need to go all that way when there are plenty of opportunities much nearer to home).
- Are we allowed to enjoy ourselves?
What is the problem with sunbathing, or having a picnic on a (deserted) beach? Provided of course that you keep your distance from everyone else. Yet we have seen police intervening to stop such activities. This looks like a rule that is designed to stop anyone from looking as though they might actually be enjoying themselves. I’ll come back later to the desirability of having fun.
- Do arbitrary and pointless rules matter?
At present, the vast majority of people seem to be going along with the rules (at least up to a point), but will it last? As the ancient proverb says “The tighter you screw the lid down, the sooner the boiler will burst”. (Actually, that’s not an ancient proverb; I just made it up. If anyone knows better, let me know!).
In an authoritarian culture, you would get away with it. But we’re not used to being told what to do in such depth, and if people start to think that the rules are unnecessary, it will be hard, if not impossible, to enforce them. Unfortunately, that might mean the sensible rules would be flouted as well as the pointless ones. This will become increasingly important once the peak of the epidemic has passed.
- Downsides of the lockdown.
The financial and social problems are sufficiently obvious that I don’t need to go over them. But there are other effects that are not well enough discussed publicly, mainly those associated with being cooped up all day in a small flat. We are starting to see evidence of an increase in domestic violence, mental illness, and apparently also in the number of suicides. There is not much public data yet, but the effects were predicted, so the small amount of evidence is credible.
A more subtle effect is the increased level of stress and anxiety in the population. Although a certain amount of anxiety is needed to ensure that the rules are kept, stress can also be counter-productive for attempts to control the epidemic. We know that factors like immune deficiency, respiratory problems, diabetes, obesity etc are risk factors for infection, and for the severity of the disease. It is less known that stress also reduces our resistance to infection. The precise mechanism of the interaction is imperfectly understood, but it has been shown in humans and in experimental animals, so it is a real effect.
This brings me back to point 3. If allowing people to have a bit of fun occasionally reduces their stress levels, it would go a long way to countering these negative effects of the lockdown.
So keep safe, but have some fun as well.
- An exit strategy.
Once the numbers start to come down in earnest, there will be increasing pressure to know when the brakes are coming off. It will be essential to get this right. If we relax too soon, the epidemic could start off again. If it is delayed too long, apart from the unnecessary financial effects (both on industry and on the workers), there is the risk that people will start to take matters into their own hands.
Furthermore, it will have to be a staged exit. You can’t suddenly say ‘Tomorrow, we’re all back to normal’. The Glossop Labour Club will need to know in advance when we can start ordering beer, and our suppliers, in turn, will need to know when to start making it. Apply that over the whole country, and you can see that chaos will ensue unless the exit is managed carefully.
Am I being too sanguine in hoping that the government is already producing such a plan?