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Rethinking Covid and Collective Punishment

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With 2020 now behind us, we’re facing the conclusion of two strange, whirlwind eras. One started almost exactly four years ago across the ocean with a president freshly out court for trafficking in fake college degrees and casino debt.

The other is not even a year old and tells the tale, more sober, but equally weird, of a pandemic ravaging the globe, transforming governments into lemmings, each imitating the other in Sisyphean, yo-yo lockdowns, opening and closing society.

Typically, at the end of the calendar year society takes stock by looking back. Here, I propose first looking forward to a point from which we can look back to gain more perspective on this most unprecedented past year.

History is least soporific where there’s intrigue – and the conspiracy-minded will smell a rat – a joke played on the world by China. Not because the virus came from there, but rather because the country exported a model of dealing with the current pandemic that only it was capable of implementing – a model predicated on high-voltage dosages of authoritarianism and the total closing down of society.

Lockdowns have been used in the past – they’ve provided the only means of shelter from epidemics and pandemics that killed categorically and indiscriminately – think Ebola and Spanish Flu, both which could reduce their hosts to bloody, soiled cadavers within hours. China applied the tried and tested model of total lockdowns as a zero-tolerance approach to eliminate Covid from its borders – with a good deal of success. Because of this, or independent of this, much of the rest of the world followed suit – but with a difference – with the goal not of eliminating the virus, but of “flattening the curve.”

Flattening the curve aims at ensuring that the disease doesn’t spiral out of control, as infections don’t increase linearly but exponentially. And undeniably there’s an indexical relationship between lockdowns and reduced number of cases and deaths. The tighter the lockdown, the more apparent the relationship. In Jordan, for example, the first lockdown was so restrictive that people weren’t allowed to leave the house even to walk their dogs – expected, then, to do their business inside. While Covid deaths were well over 100,000 in the US, Jordan, surrounded by states hit hard by the disease, had 1.

But here’s the problem – when restrictions are eased – and they eventually have to be because a society can’t hold its breath forever, the virus pours in like water through a sieve, making the economic and social sacrifices during the previous lockdown a total exercise in futility. November 4, 2020 issue of The Guardian reported, “Rates of new Covid-19 cases in Jordan have risen to among the highest in the world a few months after the kingdom appeared to have eliminated community transmission of the virus and relaxed most public health restrictions.“ The same happened in the Czech Republic, as we know, where in a matter of weeks we went from one of the world’s success stories to one of the most infectious countries on the planet. Jordan and Sweden, with almost identical populations but with radically different implementations of lockdown policies, today have almost an identical number of Covid cases.

Covid has been represented as the bubonic plague of the 21st century. But while both are curses and both spread like wildfire, fatalities involved with Covid do not generally strike the population at random. The disease does not unfold like Russian roulette – three bullets in a cylinder with 100 chambers. Rather it’s a disease with the potential to infect virtually everybody, but for the most part with its fatal bullets reserved for those with fragile health. Statistics point to the following: under the age of 50, one is more likely to die of the common flu than Covid. For those under the age of 70, the survival rate is 99.95%. 94 % of all fatalities associated with Covid are among those who had other serious health issues.

This is not to trivialize the virus. On the contrary – the statistics give Covid a particularly sinister hue, almost as if it was designed by an evil mastermind bent on applying Darwinian principles to the homo sapiens sapiens.

And Covid is not a hoax. The numbers of those affected by the disease are real, as are the masses dying from it. The Czech Republic has been trying to do its best. The fact that the population has been so cooperative suggests that in that common denominator of humanity, concern for the well-being of others and ability to sacrifice personal benefits for the well-being of society has a place. The country’s response has been exponentially more humane than that of the administration in the US, opting instead for the ostrich burying its head in the sand approach. Even Sweden’s model, organized around ensuring availability of hospital beds and the smooth functioning of economy, seems heartless in comparison.

But the future will marvel at how the Czech Republic’s current approach of lockdowns, or “collective punishment,” enjoyed such an unchallenged monopoly in the policy world. Something particularly puzzling considering how irrational and destructive the measures can be and the fact that alternative models existed.

Irrational, because while it makes sense to hold your breath if an airborne pathogen is present, it doesn’t if it will still be around when you exhale, figuratively speaking. And if you have a wart on your finger, cutting it off will certainly get rid of it, but it might not be the best solution. A conviction likely to be reinforced upon seeing another emerging on a neighboring finger shortly after.

Other approaches to the pandemic exist. South Korea, located much closer to the original epicenter of the virus than Europe, is one of the globe’s greatest successes in keeping the pandemic under control. It’s done so imposing not one day of lockdowns but rather implementing a rigorous system of testing and tracking and enforcing the importance of mask wearing.

The future will also wonder why we didn’t question that if only certain people are endangered by the disease, wouldn’t it seem to make much more sense to work on protecting that group and let society carry on with normal life? The vulnerable as a category can be broadly identified. It’s uncontested that the elderly and sick are up to 1000 times more likely to suffer serious consequences than the young and healthy.

And if it is challenging to identify with accuracy high-risk persons, and if it is difficult to come up with viable means of protecting them, the starting point is the trillions and trillions of dollars/euros currently being used to bail out airlines, cover furloughs, layoffs and the like which could be divested into programs protecting the at-risk group – as airlines and other wouldn’t then need bailing out in the absence of lockdowns. This amount of money could certainly afford some thought and attention to the matter, attention which was given to the NBA playoffs this year – where thousands of players, coaches and officials were successfully isolated from the disease for a good chunk of time.

Because one thing is for sure about our future readers of the present – and this is my point – in schools and universities, they’ll be given tests and essays on the overwhelming downstream harm resulting from our current policies of temporary lockdowns. They’ll be perusing correspondence like the letter I received from my accountant in the US:

„I lost my mother in August because the state of Maine prevented all non-critical medical procedures in March – just when she started experiencing problems with her larynx. When they finally got her in to look at it in May, they diagnosed it as stage 4 cancer. Even though she started immunotherapy within 7 days, and the doctors were extremely optimistic for her recovery, the treatment takes about 6-8 weeks to start working. “

With access to doctors, clinics and other facilities limited, 2020 will be known as the year of unwanted housemates – missing teeth, operations put on hold, untreated injuries, missed immunizations, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, overdoses, and last, if least, big hair. The story of a galactic mental health pandemic might very well not be found in the sci-fi or fiction sections, but in history aisles. Japan just reported a record of over 2,000 suicides November 2020.

Very much contributing to this is the closure of businesses and paralyzing certain professions, art and other. The future will have a good laugh at the fact that while the rest of the Czech working world was being choked to death by lockdown, the owners of dog salons and flower shops could happily open their doors. When presented a Sophie’s choice of businesses, I suppose the Orwellian absurdity that „some companies are more equal than others“ dynamic is inevitable.

I’ll give you an example from my company. I work at a film school training aspiring film professionals from all over the world. Since March 2020, not only has the school not been able to operate, but our accepted students from outside of the EU have been unable to even start the process of applying for visas to enter the country (90 per cent of our student body). As the process can take up to six months, should the government not open its embassies to our students by March 2021, we’ll be sentenced to two years without income. We’ve been told that this is a difficult period for all and that no exceptions can be made.

But then we see that exceptions have been made – for gun shops … and day laborers and … with no income and monthly overhead expenses in millions, this is a very bleak time for us.

As it is for the artists, restaurant owners, shop keepers and many, many others. And the response from the top? President Zeman sarcastically consoling artists that it’s in troubled times the best art is generated and that the rest can use the time to read books they never had the time to read. The unchallenged policy of lockdowns is ruining people’s lives – turning musicians into beggars, Olympic athletes into non-Olympic athletes and promising start-up businesses into carcasses of store fronts.

Lockdowns will have been responsible for a wave of bankruptcies. For many of the employed, fortunate enough to be able to passively graze from salaries monthly sprinkled into their bank account, this is can be a rather uninteresting, uncompelling topic. But for those who put years, body and soul into growing their own businesses, the idea that they should be denied a living because their enterprise is considered non-essential is maddening. And that they should have their business taken away from them forever is criminal. Bankruptcy is not an economic issue – it’s a human one. Except among thick-skinned psychopaths, very few relationships, marriages or families survive them. The stress induces deep and life-long trauma.

Those currently indifferent to the plight of small to medium business owners will start to be a bit more sympathetic when the dominos start to fall and heads start to roll. And society at large will feel this a few years down the line with no money from company or income taxes in the state coffers.

The future will also wonder at our treatment of the poor kids who’ve already lost a year of their lives. Besides the fact that they just aren’t learning the way they should, one year in an adolescent‘s life is equal in intensity to at least a decade of those older in age – days afire because of the daily negotiation of interpersonal relationships kids have been robbed of by lockdown.

And how are lower income families, particularly those with younger children, managing to balance providing for their households while supervising online learning when schools are closed, equipping each of their children with laptops, web cams, technical support and private spaces for classes?

One voice among top-brass politicians identifying and sympathizing with the potential psychological damage incurred by lockdowns comes from the Czech foreign minister Tomas Petricek. In addition to working on opening borders for Czech travelling abroad, he’ s written thoughtfully on the risk lockdowns present to mental health. On the other hand, even his considerations have not been presented in the context of questioning the use of lockdowns.

I think in fact what will mystify the future most is the stunning level of consent the lockdowns encountered thus far (although this is fast changing!). On one hand, dissent has been politicized: objections to lockdowns, quarantine and masks have been the province of the right – rightist crazies, hillbillies and libertarians. Strange bedfellows no cultured person wants to be associated with. Just like in the US if you’re sympathetic with calls for universal health care, you’re a socialist, around the world if you question lockdowns, you’re a thug or on Team Capital.

There’s also been a dynamic of institutional fetishism at work– if the professionals say so, it must be true. Just the word – epidemiologist – commands respect and predisposes us to obedience. Sober images of phalanxes of experts – infectious disease specialists, scientists, hospital directors, silver-haired ministers – on a phenomenological level communicate the irrefutability of the government’s message.

But while the finest minds in science and medicine stand firmly behind the lockdown policies, it’s also true that the finest minds also grappled with how many angels could stand on the point of a needle, or what language God spoke to Adam and Eve in a different chapter of human history. And don’t forget that measuring the craniums and the Oedipus Complex seemed like pretty good ideas in the not too distant past.

This is not a criticism or dismissal of science – which I think could be used as a proof of the existence of God for those who want one. But we should question how it is that so much effort is being put into the potential side effects of the latest Covid vaccines, but not into the side effects of the bitter pill called lockdown. And while medical professionals, health administrators and policy makers will be irritated by the nagging of lay, self-ascribed experts (yours truly?), nagging is a small price to pay for failing to fully consider the matter from the social-health perspective.

Ideology is mass instinct, and there very much has prevailed a mass affective and intellectual response to the State’s representation of the disease. As Pavel Kolar, the country’s leading sport’s physician stated, Covid’s been given the real “red-carpet treatment.”

In a rare moment in history, 2020 in this country found media and politicians unlikely peas-in-apod, allies in managing and creating the signs and myths whose intent could be nothing else than manufacturing fear and its by product, cooperation.

While rumblings of discontent are now starting to emerge and will likely crescendo with the application of new closures, history will wonder why much of the globe was so quick to embrace the model of “collective punishment.” And for many Americans, collective punishment will also define the years 2016 – 2020, years of civil war, civil in the sense of non-violent. When over 70,000,000 persons in the United States once again voted for the egregiously and inveterate lying narcissist-megalomaniac, and when an entire planet was held hostage to destructive lockdown policies, we have to question our blind faith in institutions – in the institution of democracy which is premised on the hope, not fact, that if you let everyone have a vote, wisdom will prevail over stupidity; and in the institution of experts and policy-makers who don’t always get it right.

But, regardless, we’ll be real good page-turners for posterity!

Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash

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