Months into COVID-19 crisis, we should come to grips with the fact that lockdown as a single silver bullet has run its course. Across the world, especially in developing economies, stalled construction sites, halted assembly lines and mothballed trucks and trains mean people most vulnerable economically are left without a way to feed their families, let alone provide small luxuries like milk and chicken. Across the US, lines at food banks are a mile long at times and hospitals stopped caring for illnesses other than COVID-19 putting millions at risk. By taking away two key emotional ingredients of a human being – individual responsibility and self-worth through work – lockdowns are a one-size-fits-all solution that fits nobody. And it is causing actual deaths by limiting, or worse denying, medical care to those critically ill otherwise.
Lockdown was absolutely worth it at the start; we did not know what the virus could do. The first response to any pandemic is to flatten the curve, reduce transmissibility so we prevent overwhelming of medical resources. It seems we have been successful in doing that, even in New York City where structural reasons caused elevated levels of transmission and morbidity. After a haltering start, we may now have enough supplies of medical supplies, including ventilators, to address their need nationally. Pockets across the land will surely face temporary shortfalls but they will receive fresh supplies reasonably soon. Data vindicates that COVID-19 is a risk worth taking for overwhelming majority of people, most of whom will never know they had it, some will show symptoms that will go away on their own in 2 weeks. As with all pandemics, response focuses on the vulnerable small minority, and that is the right thing to do.
Fallouts have been brutal. Thirty million, and counting, are freshly unemployed. Food-banks are catering to people who never thought of lining up. People sheltered at home are starting to worry how long before they lose their home and their sheltered existence shatters right in front of their children. Lockdown’s legacy already includes loss of self-worth by risking its single biggest source – providing for their family through work that makes a living.
Open may be a state of mind, but hunger is a growling reality for millions.
Lockdown ignores another key ingredient of mental make-up – individual responsibility. A simple categorization of “your freedom versus my life” ignores my role in creating a bubble around myself, if I so choose. Reverse lockdowns are absurd – nobody is dragging me to the ball-field if I am not so inclined. By the same token, why can I not self-isolate if I feel vulnerable? Lockdown already does that, but it also incarcerates hundreds of millions willing and able-bodied children, women and men against their wishes.
A relevant question to ask is “Is my fear more relevant than livelihood of your family”? What have I done to assess my risks and protect? Why have I chosen to be in public, open to transmission, if I were so worried in the first place? Why did I not take ownership of my own health?
Pandemic response worldwide needs to move to the next stage – differentiated by risk, and personal accountability to self-isolate if tested positive or showing symptoms. To reduce morbidity among the vulnerable – e.g., those immuno-compromised or the elderly – we should encourage a protocol of lockdown around them. Primary Care providers can be proactive to reach out to their patients and warn them ahead of them venturing out. Since a vast majority of them will already have other illnesses, it will be a good way to initiate conversations around care.
We must accept there are people, a vast majority I would hazard, who are willing to accept risks to go ahead with normal economic or educational activities. They can be in general good health, they may be economically vulnerable, or they may be willing to bet on the fact that over 95% of people with COVID-19 will just be OK. Some lessons of the pandemic can last. It may be well-advised to limit large indiscriminate gatherings in closed spaces, take better care of hygiene, check for own vulnerability and seek care if needed regardless of the issue. Work-from-home is a very good option for many as it has shown to have benefits beyond mitigation of pandemic risk. The list of lessons goes on.
COVID-19 fatality in the US reached sixty-nine thousand this morning. CDC reports that about two million people died in 2017 from leading medical causes, or about four hundred thousand deaths since pandemic response took center-stage in the country; actual count is likely higher as those at death’s door did not receive care. Lack of care for months will result in higher morbidity from the same cohort in the months ahead. It is fair to estimate that stalled medical care will cause a million deaths, many prematurely, in the US when the dust settles.
Lockdown’s legacy includes actual deaths, unreported in the media, but mourned all the same by their families. Pandemic response will kill more millions worldwide if we are not careful. Time for a fresh look.
[Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA is an entrepreneur in Water technologies, Blockchain and Wealth Management in US and India. All opinions are of the Author alone, and do not necessarily represent that of any organization he may be part of. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission]