Looking beyond the numbers
A group of academics caused some controversy when they proposed a COVID-19 Plan B to the current lockdown approach. I have much respect for these academics who have extensive knowledge and expertise in their field of work, notably not in the field of infectious diseases. In their rather mild defence, the science they reference has some merit, but was devoid of important context. They argued that there was a lack of anticipated pressure on our health system and a much lower death rate compared with other countries. These results have come about because of the lockdown and we only have to look abroad to know what Plan B would look like here. Our hospitals struggle under the burden of a winter without COVID, so it is unimaginable the strain of trying to achieve herd immunity for many months. Thankfully more context has since been provided by Dr Siouxsie Wiles in her latest Spinoff article proving that numbers alone don’t give us a full picture.
Reading through the Plan B site, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental issue with the value proposition of their proposed alternative plan. This is where those of us who look at research beyond just the numbers, depart significantly from their logic. The underlying premise of their argument is that we can sacrifice one part of the population, the frail elderly who have lived their life and therefore must be resigned-to-departing-this-world-one-way-or-another-so-why-not-COVID, so that we can save the economy for the rest of our younger population. It is an economically driven principle that espouses a utilitarian approach, decisions made ‘for the greatest good for the greatest number’. So essentially Plan B is not without an ethical basis. Upon deeper inspection though, there are several flaws in their logic and three stand out for me:
1. Plan B assumes that our elderly play no role in our country’s economy
Many assume that our elderly sit in rocking chairs all day and make no further contribution to our society, so why would we make monumental changes for the sake of a redundant few? This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many families rely on their parents and grandparents to support them with child-rearing in order to work or manage children’s sports and other extracurricular activities, and most importantly, to help instil in younger generations a sense of their culture and identity which in themselves are factors of wellbeing and economic success in families. Our household matriarch turned 80 during the lockdown and we are forever grateful for her presence and support that allows us to work and raise four boys. She shows no signs of slowing down and continues to prepare meals and do laundry for our hectic bubble. It was refreshing to see this sort of capital reflected in the Government’s Living Standards Framework and rightly so because for too long society has underestimated the wider impact of losing a grandparent, including the financial implications. With the lockdown posing a risk to job security for many families, some of our elderly may too become a source of income for many households. Not to take away from those who’s loved ones actually are frail and less active, as they too teach us and our children the importance of caring and maintaining connections, values that are important in team and work settings.
2. Plan B underplays the impact that fear and grief would have on our country’s economy.
Exposing more of our society to try and achieve herd immunity would result in thousands of deaths which for our small country, would mean each of us would lose someone in our network of family and friends. For our Pacific communities the ramifications would be significant, as many deaths would also be among those who are under the age of 70. I’ve seen three Pacific people in my social media network declare they were positive for Covid, and all three were under the age of 50 and were hospitalised. The respiratory symptoms would be dire for our high proportion of chronically affected people. Add to this the restrictions of hospital visitations and funerals, and you have communities of stressed and grief-stricken families leaving a trail of trauma across all generations. A colleague sent me an article from Penn State University estimating that for every person who dies, there would be 2.2 children bereaved and 4.1 grandchildren bereaved, having direct impacts on their ability to learn and work. The alternative approach would also cause immense stress and anxiety among communities living in fear of catching Covid and even if they felt too young to be seriously impacted, many would be trying hard not to be ‘responsible’ for the death of a loved one. Neither grief nor fear would make for a productive society, let alone a well one.
3. Plan B sends the wrong message to our children about our country’s economy.
My son on his first day of homeschooling had to write an essay imagining that he was 90 years old and was describing the lockdown to his grandchildren. My first thought was I hope he remembers that as a society, we valued our elderly and did everything we could to protect them from coronavirus. I also thought that he would live until the age of 90 because society was now led by the very children who were brought up in lockdown and who were led by a compassionate leader who balanced both science and the equal value of all people and were also compelled to be innovative and productive in ways that were kind to people and the environment. Plan A may be ambitious in its goal of elimination, but at least as 90-year olds in future we can say that we boldly tried for the sake of all our people. This is the message that we are giving to our children. Not the alternative view that some people matter more than others.
Plan A has had to make some adjustments along the way so it wasn’t perfect to start with, but we must acknowledge the amount of data available at the time of making decisions and conversely the limited amount of time to make them. Nonetheless, in the words of Leonard Berstein, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” Regardless, knowing that economies eventually recover from pandemics and depressions, but legacies last forever, I’m pleased we are currently pursuing Plan A and a legacy of people over money.