Yesterday, as I posted a ´very´ controversial article on Facebook about Sweden’s less-than-strict response to the virus, I knew I’d get some negative comments. What I didn’t realize is how personal some people would take my opinion, nor how serious of a backlash I’d get. In an effort to explain my dissenting opinion, I decided I owe everyone, myself including, a real explanation of the reasons for my disagreement.
My motivation for questioning the current draconian lockdown policies is not in an aim to belittle the seriousness of the situation. Nor does it suggest a defense of the economy in favor of human life. On the contrary, I started questioning these strict measures after seeing how badly they are ALREADY affecting real people around me: with hunger, domestic violence, job loss, social unrest and similar problems, that are on the rise. While in some countries, a strict lockdown might be warranted, by applying very strict measures for everyone around the world indiscriminately, we are condemning half of the world population to starvation and poverty. The lockdown is rather elitist in its nature, in my opinion. Here, in Brazil (where I currently reside), where millions live in the slums, on the streets, lockdown is not only NOT an option, but shear suicide. For those people, staying at home, literally means starving. While it may seem that we are saving more lives from an immediate threat right now, millions of lives will be lost in the medium to long-term as a result of economic depression, social unrest, and psychological distress. The total number of people we lose to the very measures we are currently implementing may be far greater than the number of people we fear will perish from the virus. They just won’t be so in our face, nor will we hear about them on the news in such excruciating detail as we are following the chronicles of the Coronvirus. The deaths will happen slowly, without hurting politicians, who are riding the wave of popular fear to gain popularity.
My other reasons for the disagreement stem from an analysis of the situation from a more professional perspective. As an International Public Health Specialist and Psychologist, I question current policies for a number of reasons. From a strict public health point of view, though very strict lockdown measures HAVE shown to work in some places, their effectiveness depended in large part on a very high degree of swiftness and strictness, highly difficult to reach in democratic regimes. A strict lockdown needs to last at least 3–4, and often more, months to work. Even then, once the measures are loosened, we have NO guarantee that the virus won’t come back with full force. Until we are able to reach HERD IMMUNITY at a population level, i.e. reach an equilibrium where enough people have developed antibodies against the virus to protect others that were never infected, we won’t stop the virus from spreading. So gradual contagion is actually desirable and can be achieved with SOME levels of social distancing. And by the way, by definition, social distancing does NOT include compulsory staying at home policies, but rather closure of some key public places, cancellation of public events, avoiding conglomerations, and placing a stricter focus on the high-risk groups. Quarantine (which is what most countries are effectively practicing) in this case, would be ONLY necessary when a person experiences symptoms.
Further, there is a lot of confusion in the interpretation of the statistics we are so frantically following. High mortality rates are normal in countries that are NOT doing much testing, giving us the wrong impression in the degree of seriousness of the virus, grossly exaggerating its mortality. Also, just because one tests positive for it, DOES NOT mean the virus CAUSED the complications or even death. Many of the ´scary´ deaths we read about are not necessarily caused by the Virus, nor complications from it.
Additionally, for someone that has studies fsychology, the epidemic of Fear taking over the world presents a REALLY serious public health concern. While its is true that we need to be on alert and take necessary precautions to prevent contagion, the current approach that is taken by policy-makers and media alike cause widespread panic. This is exacerbated by fake news, misinformation, and completely unnecessary ´real ´ stories about how people are losing the fight to the virus. Fear is a REAL threat to our physical health, serving as the worst culprit for shutting down our immune response. Learned helplessness, i.e. accepting that bad things will happen and that one has little control over them, is taking over the world, and in this state people are not only lose their proactivity and reason (which is what you’d want in a crisis situation like this), but succumb to apathy and irrationality. In this state, people will (or are already) swarming hospitals at the slightest onset of symptoms (that in most cases are unrelated), overwhelming the systems, we are so desperately trying to protect, DESPITE the lockdown measures.
Finally, I believe that as any policy that’s being passed in a democratic country (world!) , we need to have a healthy discourse about what our options are as a society, what their impacts would be in the short-to-long run and have a say in all of this. We need to have space for disagreement, questioning, analyzing and debating. Which is NOT happening. And THAT is extremely scary. MUCH scarier than the virus itself.