This is an appeal for calm. The number one command in scripture is “Fear not” (33 times in the ESV Bible). But there is a lot of fear. A lot of what’s happening right now in Australia, especially in Victoria, and in the world, is driven by fear. And I think that the political response is also being governed by the fear that people have. Both of those things are not helping us.
This post is based on a message by Martyn Isles of the Australian Christian Lobby.
Victoria has the toughest lock-downs we’ve experienced at Stage 4 in 31 local government areas in Melbourne. That’s over 5 million people! There are only four reasons to leave the house: necessary work, necessary goods and services, medical care and compassionate reasons, and exercise. But exercise is limited to one hour per day within 5 km of your home. Shopping is limited to one person per household per day, within 5 km of your home. A curfew applies between 8pm and 5am, which is astonishing in a free country. And it’s the usual stuff with non-essential businesses closed. And most who still have jobs are working from home. But as a result of these measures 500,000 workers have been stood down with more to come. All this is done to save lives. But I wonder whether there is more harm being done than good? Whether we are creating fear where we shouldn’t be?
Firstly, it’s important to realize that there’s no cost-free approach to dealing with the coronavirus. There are times in this fallen world when we encounter things that are going to hurt no matter what we do. All we can hope for is to act wisely and minimize the pain. And that involves weighing up the severity of the situation, weighing up the severe implications of the possible responses and plotting a path between them. And the severity and pain of the present crisis comes to us in several forms and we are focusing on some and not others. Yes, there is illness. Of course, that’s severe. Of course, that’s painful. Yes, there is the fact that some people will die from the illness. That’s always tragic. But there are also other costs.
Let’s take the costs of isolation, which are hard to measure, but they are serious. For example, loneliness. It’s exceedingly hard on people. For example, those who are struggling with mental health concerns. Those recovering from addictions. Both groups stand to lose a very great deal. In fact, if you’re recovering from an addiction and you’re put into this kind of isolation you’re in big trouble. Phone calls to mental health services are through the roof. One can turn to economic matters, which effects people and lives. Look at what this is doing to those with small businesses. Look at what this is doing to those without jobs. Bankruptcies have a horrifying impact on individuals and their entire families. Likewise, for business sinking into voluntary administration. Likewise, for their staff and for their shareholders. Likewise, for their clients and for their creditors. There’s that ripple effect that works its way out into countless more people. Now do these things take a toll on people in terms of really harming their lives? Yes. Do they take a toll in terms of lives actually lost? Yes, they do. Suicide rates in Australia are already through the roof. And these are precisely the reasons why people commit suicide.
And there’s future costs. The government had already raked up a quarter of trillion dollars in economic measures. Debt. Inflation. Interest rates. Taxes. Intergenerational burden. All this stuff is now on the line and there’s a great flurry of people saying “debt doesn’t matter. It’s OK”. One person said, “it doesn’t matter as long as we grow out of it”. But we won’t be growing if a coronavirus comes along again or if a Global Financial Crisis (GFC) comes along or we continue on this downward spiral.
And what of the divided world that we’re waking up to? Can the world continue to exist in a patchwork of isolated bubbles? Places with COVID-19 and places without COVID-19. Is that separation sustainable in the long term? No, it isn’t. There’s no clear end goal here. Are we trying to eradicate the virus? Are we trying to minimize the virus? When is it OK to come out (relax the precautions being taken)? What happens if it spikes again? What’s the goal? There’s no articulated goal. No way out. No strategy to resolve this. I repeat; there is no cost-free approach. This is not a battle of those who care about people and those who do not. That’s a self-righteous accusation to smear people and it’s quite wrong. Everyone’s concerned about people. But how are we navigating these costs? Well, we’re sort of stopping the spread. There has been not much success so far. But what about other costs?
What if the media didn’t merely publish the daily number of coronavirus cases? What if it also published the daily number of cases from other illnesses as well, like flu and cancer, so we’ve got a perspective as to what’s normal? What if they published a daily tally of deaths from all causes, so we’ve got a perspective on how many people die every day normally? What if they did a tally of individuals declared bankrupt or businesses that have gone into administration? Or people who have lost their jobs? Or people requiring mental health services? Or a leader-board of people who had gone without social contact for the longest? Or the number of revived addictions? Or the number of suicides?
Or what if the media reported and seriously contended with and wrestled with and reasoned through some of these perspective-giving facts? Firstly, that the American Center for Disease Control estimates the COVID-19 fatality rate at 0.26%, while the fatality rate for a bad flu season is 0.24%. That 440 Australians die every day from all causes. And 161,000 die per year – they’re just not published; they’re not focused on. They’re not turned into a disaster. In a population of over 25 million there are currently 43 coronavirus cases classified as serious. 1% of cases become critical. The vast majority, close to 99% of cases, are mild. The fatality statistics include those that die with COVID-19 and not just those who died of COVID-19 and there’s an important difference between the two. 85% of the small number of fatalities are in nursing homes. And that’s not said to diminish the elderly at all. This tells us where we should be focusing our energies if we really want to solve this. If we protect the elderly in nursing homes, the death rate reduces to a very very small number indeed. Victoria had 400 more deaths than usual in the month of April 2020. Very few of those were COVID-19 deaths. There were less people on the roads. Less people were in hospitals. And flu and the contagious diseases were down because of the isolation. So, what were those deaths? Did people delay seeking medical help because of the lock-down? Were they suicides? It’s a very good question.
Or what about this perspective-giving fact. Sweden. All we hear about Sweden is that Sweden was a disaster. Sweden did a silly thing. Sweden got themselves into all kinds of trouble. The country that didn’t lock-down. The country that gave its citizens advice and then said well the only way through this is to just get though it and just be careful about yourselves. We’re not going to impose any lock-downs etcetera. But what was the scale of this so-called disaster? This nation that they’ve tried to turn into some kind of pariah (outcast). But the death rate in Sweden is down to nearly nothing. There will be more cases but it’s intermittent and the curve is all the way down. If you’re a Swede, you had a 99.95% chance of surviving the pandemic.
Going back to my point about focusing on the elderly, and I wish I had an under 70 or under 80 statistic but I’ve got an under 60 statistic. If you’re under 60 years of age there is a 99.998% chance of surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s also a better result than some lock-down countries like Belgium. Like the United Kingdom. Like Spain. Like Italy. So how effective are the lock-downs? If all of this was reported. If the media focused on all the costs and on all these perspective giving statistics, then COVID-19 would fade into its context. And it would fade into the background. If that happened, COVID-19 wouldn’t look like a state of disaster where the government has the power to suspend or over-ride any law and the police minister controls government operations. It’s a crazy reaction. If that happened, we might actually care a little bit less about a relatively benign pandemic and more about people’s daily needs and the full scale of costs that this is imposing on the society. There’s no cost-free way. You’ve got to pick your costs – all of them affect people’s lives. If that happened, we might actually see that this must surely be about the safest pandemic in history. And yet we’re behaving like this is the Black Death. We’re behaving like a quarter of the population are going to die, like we’re in wartime and the wartime metaphors continue to roll in. Like “we’re fighting for our lives”. But this is not a state of disaster.
By making provision for the elderly and the frail, a country can see a near total survival rate and that ought to be the focus. And by locking down in the way we have, my fear is that we’re destroying so much more than we’re claiming to preserve. We’re ruining so many more lives than we are claiming to save (see Appendix). It made sense initially because we didn’t know what we were facing. And all we had was Italy, which looked terrible. It made sense initially because some countries had a chance at early eradication, like New Zealand. But things have changed. And the question arises, why is it happening? Why are we destroying ourselves willingly? And crying out, “make us safe”, “do anything”, “do what it takes”. No matter the destruction.
Well it mightn’t be the sensible response, but it surely is the political response. And it’s the political response because people are scared. And I’m not surprised that they are scared with the media coverage and the pro-lockdown media saying that if you are not pro-lockdown to the maximum degree then you hate grandma. And I saw a headline in a major newspaper that said, “Be afraid”. It’s astonishing. And that’s the case right across the western world. And so, the politician who is “saving lives” and being tough on the virus and leading the way in COVID-19 safety is the politician who rides high in the polls. Who gets a huge boost and wins the day? That’s the politician who deals with an outbreak. That’s the politician who deals with the virus and is applauded by everybody who says, “make us safe whatever the cost”, not knowing what they’re saying. But the politician who has to handle an outbreak, the politician whose country looks chaotic, like say Donald Trump, or like say the costs politically Daniel Andrews (Premier of Victoria, Australia) has had to go through, the politician that lets the virus “out of the bag” – they are blamed. And they are held to total accountability. And politicians therefore unsurprisingly, because they are politicians, behave politically. They don’t behave especially rationally.
Did you know that the most prevalent command in all of the Bible is “Fear not”? And if people are this scared of the virus, we’re not doing very well on that front. And I wonder what it says about us as a people. But there is no reason to fear. Not just for spiritual reasons, and I’m glad I’ve got those as well. God is in control. My life is in His hands. But there’s practical reasons not to fear as well. And I think we need to get that perspective. And when we have that perspective, this virus fades into a context. A much broader context. And it doesn’t look scary at all.
Now, I want to say two things. The first one is that I’m not advocating for disobedience to the government rules. That’s a different issue. I think Christians need to be very careful about that sort of thing. Secondly, I’m not saying that this is a conspiracy. I don’t believe that. I think it’s real. But I do think that the response is politically driven. More so in America by the way, because of the presidential election. And I think that is affecting the way that this virus is being dealt with and the fear that’s being stoked around it. So, I think America’s got a particular problem. But we also have a political problem in Australia as well with the handing of the virus.
This post is based on a message titled “Coronavirus politics” by Martyn Isles of the Australian Christian Lobby. In “The truth of it” video series, Martyn takes a weekly look at Australian politics through a Christian worldview.
Appendix: Control measures worse than COVID-19
How long can society survive going in and out of lock-downs? The control measures shouldn’t be worse than the virus. If this continues, many people will lose businesses, their homes, careers, and their will to live.
The professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford reports (Heneghan, 2020).
“In the week ending the 24th of July, 8,891 deaths were registered in England and Wales (161 fewer than the five-year average). This is the sixth week in a row that we have observed fewer deaths, a total of 1,413 fewer deaths than expected. While the number of deaths in care homes and hospitals remains below the average, the number in private homes remains higher than the five-year average. There were 727 more deaths in private homes in the week ending the 30th of July.
Deaths at home have been almost 40% higher than the number registered with COVID-19 in any other setting in the last six weeks, (4,526 versus 2,799). It is not clear why there is such an excess of deaths in the home but one thing is clear: it is not COVID-19. Fewer than 5% of deaths in private homes are due to the virus.
These excess deaths represent a considerable number of unexplained – and potentially avoidable deaths – particularly if they represent individuals deterred from visiting hospitals. Public Health England’s suggests this might be the case, and it is a substantial problem – half of people they surveyed with a worsening health condition did not seek advice for their condition. The most common reason was to avoid putting pressure on the NHS (National Health Service).
Analysis of NHS data reveals the deadly consequences of the government’s messaging to ‘stay at home, save lives, protect the NHS’. During the lock-down, there was a near 50% decline in admissions for heart attacks. It was assumed that the risks of COVID-19 outweighed the risk of not seeking NHS care despite worsening symptoms for many people: 40% more people died from lower-risk treatable heart attacks than usual. For strokes, the situation is further exacerbated by living alone and not having visitors as 98% of emergency calls for strokes are made by someone else.
There have been seven registered COVID deaths in children – representing a tiny risk. However, delays in seeking medical help might have contributed to the deaths of at least nine children, according to a survey of doctors. One-third of the 241 emergency paediatricians asked had witnessed delayed presentations. Some doctors reported late presentations during labor that resulted in adverse outcomes; some said early discharges after birth led to infants returning with severe dehydration.
A recent Government report suggests 200,000 people might die because of delays in healthcare and the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 lock-down. NHS figures show that urgent cancer referrals made by English GPs are down by 47% in May compared to last year; 26,000 people are waiting more than a year for routine operations, and over half a million people have been waiting over six weeks for essential tests.
The coronavirus outbreak has involved powerful emotions and strong impulses for taking action. Despite evidence pointing to the contrary, many want to stay in lock-down. …
When it comes to COVID-19, the real threat is not the disease; it’s how we react to the emerging information.”
Heneghan C, “The real COVID-19 threat”, The Spectator, 7 August 2020.
Posted, August 2020
Also see: A new harmful mutated virus
You don’t have to fear!
Trials, struggles and COVID-19
How to respond to the coronavirus pandemic
War on coronavirus
Three lessons from COVID-19
What does the Bible say about a major disaster like COVID-19?
Grief and loss during the shutdown
Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut