ESSAY: How Lockdowns Eclipse the Harms They Cause
Lockdowns themselves affect our ability to evaluate lockdowns
Lockdowns have inflicted hardship and suffering on a massive scale. It was obvious from the outset that they would do so, or at least it should have been. They have affected our children’s education, well-being, social and emotional development, and mental health. They have harmed the very people we set out to protect, by inflicting profound loneliness, worsening the symptoms of dementia, contributing to a more general decline in health, isolating the dying from their loved ones, and adding to the pain of grief and loss. They have taken away jobs, livelihoods, hopes, opportunities and dreams, shattered families, and led to increased domestic abuse. They have exacerbated inequalities, hitting the poor hardest while also having a disproportionate effect on the lives and careers of women. They have deterred people from seeking medical help and contributed to a backlog of undiagnosed and untreated medical conditions, causing many preventable deaths. The national debt is ballooning, as is the weight of many people. Teeth are rotting. Problem-drinking has risen markedly. Mental health services are struggling to cope with surges in referrals. Immunity to established pathogens is waning, with fears of an immunity debt to pay. The list of actual and anticipated harmful consequences goes on and on, and this is just at the national level. When a global perspective is adopted, which takes into account the combined impact of national lockdowns on the world’s poorest, the effects are even more devastating, although the full impact will only become clear in the longer term.
“Media coverage and public discussion [regarding COVID-19] has been dominated by various predictions made by disease modellers, backed up by psychologists tasked with frightening the public into submission.”
What else could have been done? It was never a case of imposing “lockdowns” (a term I employ here to refer to combinations of (a) stay-at-home orders, (b) school- and university-closures, and (c) closure of non-essential shops and hospitality) or doing absolutely nothing. One alternative would have been to adopt a more discerning approach, focusing our efforts upon protecting and supporting vulnerable people (instead of, e.g., discharging thousands of untested hospital patients directly into care homes). But, regardless of what else we might have done, did the benefits of lockdowns at least outweigh the harms inflicted? Let us suppose for the sake of argument that lockdowns (or, at least, some of them) did succeed in significantly reducing the number of virus deaths. Before endorsing such measures, it remains important to consider the many harms they cause, including deaths due to a variety of other causes. However, the costs of lockdowns have received remarkably scant attention throughout the pandemic. Of course, there are regular snippets in the news, regarding one or another actual or potential harm associated with them, but these need to be scrutinized systematically and in detail—only then do we get to see the full picture.
In what follows, I want to offer some thoughts on why the harms of lockdowns have not featured more conspicuously in public discussions. Part of the answer, I will suggest, is that there has been a restrictive and distorted portrayal of relevant science. However, another— and perhaps more important—factor is that lockdowns themselves affected our ability to evaluate lockdowns.
The task of understanding the trajectory of a virus through a population falls within the purview of a few specific scientific fields. Lockdowns, in contrast, impact all aspects of our society. So, what we have here is not a singular, specific problem, to be tackled by a small group of “experts” with domain-specific knowledge and skills. Instead, we face a vast web of interrelated problems, demanding many different areas of theoretical and practical expertise. Furthermore, there was and still is considerable uncertainty, with plenty of space for contrasting and conflicting perspectives. Despite this, media coverage and public discussion has been dominated by various predictions made by disease modellers, backed up by psychologists tasked with frightening the public into submission. The adequacy of these models and their track records to date are highly questionable. It is also important to emphasize that modelling exercises should be embedded within a larger framework of scientific practice, involving hypothesis-testing, evidence-gathering, various different methods, development, refinement and revision of theories, acknowledgement and negotiation of disagreements, and the integration of different disciplinary perspectives. This appears to have been oddly lacking. Instead, we were subjected to a series of dire predictions by modellers, followed by lockdowns. Both the models and the lockdowns were then defended in two principal ways. First of all, there were repeated appeals to unsubstantiated counterfactual claims: whatever happened, things would always have been much worse had we not locked down. Second, we were presented with countries that were faring badly at the time in question and told that this is what you get if you don’t lockdown. Little attention was paid to how those countries had fared over a longer period and might later fare. Instead, when a country no longer served as a “this is what happens when you don’t lock down” posterchild, another country was chosen.
“[Lockdowns] profoundly disrupt the very evaluative frameworks relative to which we more usually gauge the significance of unfolding events.”
We might have expected comparable time and resources to have been invested in modelling the many and diverse effects of lockdowns, with varying degrees of confidence. That did not happen, though. Instead, the trajectory of the virus and the predicted effects of various measures upon that trajectory were presented in abstraction from a much larger situation that encompassed many other important considerations. Another concern is that even the most plausible scientific claims and predictions do not translate directly into policy decisions. When presented with the facts, there is always the further question of what ought to be done, in light of our societal values and the overall situation. There is no such thing as simply “following the science” and there never was. There are many different scientific disciplines, practices, methods, theories, hypotheses, bodies of evidence, perspectives, and opinions. What, exactly, are we supposed to be following? Regardless of the answer, none of this could ever point unambiguously towards a particular—and unprecedented—policy measure, one that stands to impact every aspect of people’s lives. So, when disease-modellers and psychologists with specific and very limited areas of expertise address the public directly, making alarming predictions and insisting that the Government impose lockdowns, “circuit-breakers” or “firebreaks”, things have gone seriously wrong.
There is also something else that has helped to eclipse the harms of lockdowns: the fact that the general public has not only put up with the situation but to a large extent accepted it without question and even condemned dissenting voices. Granted, not everyone is qualified to engage in scientific, political or ethical debate. Even so, most of us have the ability to glimpse something of the radicality and probable impacts of lockdowns—enough to be troubled by them, to wonder whether this is the right thing to do, to seek assurance that all the associated harms have been factored into decision-making and that this really is the best alternative.
Why, then, have many people in the United Kingdom and other countries been so accepting of these measures? There is no single, simple explanation. For one thing, lockdowns will have affected people to differing degrees and in various different ways, influencing their perspectives on the matter. Some have been relatively unaffected or benefited in one or another way from the situation. However, I think that an important aspect of what has happened is this: lockdowns themselves compromised our ability to think through the harms of lockdowns. I certainly do not want to suggest that this was ever explicitly intended as an effect of lockdown. Maintaining that the nature of lockdowns is such that they impede our ability to evaluate them is not to take the further step of claiming that politicians or other parties supported them with that in mind (my apologies to any conspiracy theorists reading this.)
“The unthinkable became not only acceptable, but obligatory.”
How do lockdowns themselves interfere with our ability to evaluate the harms they cause? In short, they profoundly disrupt the very evaluative frameworks relative to which we more usually gauge the significance of unfolding events. Let us take a step back and reflect on how we ordinarily evaluate the impact of situations, events and decisions that affect our own lives, the lives of others whom we care about, and people more generally. It often begins with an emotional reaction, through which something appears sufficiently significant and salient for us to start reflecting upon it carefully. This initial response is not to be contrasted with rational deliberation; it is integral to our ability to think through matters of importance. An emotional experience of a situation, object, or event can be appropriate and proportionate to it, or otherwise. For example, being furious with someone for arriving at a meeting ten minutes late is ordinarily disproportionate (perhaps one has the right kind of emotion, but it is overly intense), while being afraid of ice cream is inappropriate (the wrong kind of emotion altogether). What determines the appropriateness and proportionality of emotion to its object is a background of pre-established values—what we care about. The degree and kind of emotion that is appropriate to a situation depends on its actual and potential implications for what we value.
The values in question fall into a number of different subcategories. There are political and moral values that many of us take for granted as shared, integral to our social world. These are associated with numerous norms of conduct and associated expectations regarding other people—what one does and does not do in various situations. There are also those values that contribute to the distinctive shape of our own lives—the projects we pursue; the commitments we hold dear; the relationships we treasure; the concerns we have for other people. Together, all of this comprises a largely pre-reflective framework through which we live our lives, something that is engrained in our various habits and expectations: a sense of who we are, what we are up to in life, what is important to us, and—more generally—what is of worth in the context of human life. It is relative to this background orientation that we experience things as mattering in various ways, as appropriate objects of fear, relief, worry, anger, joy, or dismay. When we are faced with something important, an initial emotional evaluation is often what motivates further reflection and deliberation. For instance, a feeling that something is somehow wrong can lead us to think through its potential implications, to follow the trails and find out where they end up: for want of a nail, the shoe will be lost; for want of a shoe, the horse will be lost…. In this manner, emotional experiences contribute to our epistemic abilities (our capacities as knowers): they help us to identify what is relevant to our individual and shared concerns and to further reflect on how it matters. Equally, they inform our moral responses to situations, by reflecting those core values that together comprise our “moral compass”.
Disorientation and Loss
The task of evaluating lockdowns, of identifying and responding to matters of importance, posed a distinctive challenge. Lockdowns profoundly disrupted the very frameworks of values, commitments, concerns, projects, habits, expectations and relationships relative to which the significance of unfolding events is more usually grasped. Previously taken-for-granted political values concerning liberty and autonomy were turned on their heads overnight: citizens of democratic countries were punished for straying more than a few miles beyond their homes, forbidden from kicking balls in parks with their children, publicly shamed for taking walks in the countryside, arrested for going surfing at public beaches, and even had masks forced onto their faces by police officers. Established moral standards underwent a similar upheaval. Depriving people of the opportunity to be with loved ones during their final days and hours was now the right thing to do, even as thousands of care home residents and hospital patients died lonely, frightened and confused. Children were prohibited from seeing their friends, confined to their homes (which, for many of them, were small flats with no outdoor space), allowed out no more than once per day (for exercise, not play!), with significant risk of serious harm in the guise of mental health problems, neglect, abuse, impaired social and emotional development, and loss of educational opportunities. Women had to give birth without the support of partners, family members or friends, leaving many of them traumatised. The unthinkable became not only acceptable but obligatory. Then there were all of the usual routines, through which we encountered the little things that mattered to us during the course of our daily lives—the walk to the shop; morning coffee with a friend; the journey to work; regular visits to an elderly relative. On top of this, many of those projects that gave people’s lives short- or longer-term meaning and structure were lost, suspended, curtailed, or substantially altered—getting married; starting or developing a business; studying for a university degree and graduating; doing one’s A-levels; visiting relatives overseas; training to be a pilot; participating in community groups.
“Privation of this interpersonal and social scaffolding exacerbated the challenge of evaluating lockdowns. They not only disrupted our value-systems; they also made it more difficult to interact with others in ways that would otherwise help us to make sense of things.”
Hence, the significance of lockdowns could not be assessed relative to an established background of values, as they involved the profound and pervasive disruption of that very value system. For many of us, the resultant predicament amounted to an all-enveloping experience of disorientation, a feeling of having lost the ground beneath our feet, the structured, habitual context within which we used to think and act. Losing life structure in this way, and experiencing it as lost, is not simply a matter of “putting things on hold” and resuming them at a later date or of removing things that can later be adequately replaced. There is so much that can never be recovered or replaced. One respondent to a survey of pandemic experiences (in which I was involved) wrote the following:
Human beings are not objects that can be stored away for a while, remaining unaltered until they are re-activated. Human life is a process of pursuing meaningful life possibilities, which fit together as parts of a larger, temporally organized pattern. Many of us experienced not just the suspension, but the irrevocable loss, of possibilities that were profoundly important to us. For some, this involved losing whole networks of goals and values that were central to the structures of their lives, to who they were and to who they aspired to be. There are certain possibilities that cannot be taken away from someone while leaving their identity intact. For instance, being a musician may be more than just something that a person does; it may be central to the kind of person they are and also to their sense of being a particular, distinctive person. As other survey respondents wrote: “terrible grief and mourning for my lost ‘life’”; “grief over the future life that is no longer likely to be available”; “I feel a great sense of loss over things which have given me pleasure and confirmed my sense of self throughout my life. They’re absent now and may not return soon, if at all (singing in choirs, performing, rehearsing)”. A full appreciation of the costs of lockdowns needs to somehow factor in and evaluate the cost of depriving people of their social identities in this manner, inhibiting their ability to be who they are and pursue possibilities central to their lives.
For many of us, the task of weighing up the pros and cons of lockdowns thus involved evaluating policy measures so extreme that they disrupted the very fabric of our lives. It is important, though, to acknowledge that lockdowns are far from unique in this respect. A sense of having lost one’s moorings is common to many other experiences of upheaval, associated with the likes of bereavement, loss of long-term employment, breakdown of a relationship, and diagnosis of serious illness. There are also other disorienting events, such as natural disasters and political instability, which similarly affect whole societies and cultures. However, two further ingredients were added to the disorientation of lockdowns, making them quite distinctive.
First of all, lockdowns further deprived us of our usual resources for comprehending and navigating disorienting situations. When faced with a loss of much that we took for granted, most of us turn to other people for guidance and support in making sense of things, reassembling a coherent evaluative framework, and working out how to proceed with life. Friends, relatives, colleagues and professionals can play a variety of different roles in this regard. Privation of this interpersonal and social scaffolding exacerbated the challenge of evaluating lockdowns. They not only disrupted our value systems; they also made it more difficult to interact with others in ways that would otherwise help us to make sense of things. Even when we did get to see others, social distancing, masks, a perception of conversation-partners as potential virus carriers, and a consequent awkwardness and distrust frequently impeded interactions.
“A framework of values was eroded and partly replaced by a virus-centric alternative.”
“Not so!”, one might protest, “We could do it all online”. But we really couldn’t. In working through something in person, making sense of it together, acknowledging and negotiating disagreements together, we experience the pauses, the moments of hesitation, the subtle interplay of expression and gesture, the awkward smiles, the searching for words, the gradual confessions, the crystallization of initially inchoate ideas. All of this helps to generate dialogical space, open up new possibilities, and enable the recognition and consideration of alternative perspectives. It is not replicated in Zoom meetings, and it is a far cry from the “gifs”, “memes”, stylized interactions and rampant confirmation biases of social media. In this way, lockdowns further compromised the ability to grasp, think through, and evaluate the implications of lockdowns. It amounted to a sort of double-disorientation: we were deprived of resources that we would otherwise draw upon so as to evaluate and respond to disorienting events.
The second factor that further impeded our ability to weigh up the harms and benefits of lockdowns was the widespread and persistent tendency to identify the effects of lockdowns with the effects of the virus. In the deluge of monothematic media coverage and messaging that replaced the richness of our social world, “due to contestable policy decisions taken in response to Covid” was abbreviated simply to “due to Covid” or “due to the pandemic”: it is the virus that has eroded the values we hold dear and so it is the virus that now demands all of our attention and concern. (Try typing “due to Covid” into Google and scrolling through the first few hundred hits.) The incontestability of the existence of the virus and the deaths caused by it became wedded to a contestable political response, conferring upon the latter an illusory impression of inevitability and authority: Covid did this to us all. In this way, when the various harms of lockdowns were acknowledged and contemplated in any detail, they were presented as necessary harms, rather than reasons to question a contingent political response.
The combination of these factors helped to facilitate an abstract, partial conception of what was at stake, curiously dislodged from previously established and far wider-ranging values, commitments, cares and concerns. A framework of values was eroded and partly replaced by a virus-centric alternative. Of course, restrictions have now been lifted within the UK, at least for the most part, and in many other countries too. Nevertheless, a shared narrative constructed during the lockdowns remains deeply entrenched, a new bedrock for some people. Supposedly liberal, democratic countries have thus impeded their citizens’ abilities to think and act responsibly and critically, to contemplate the impact of unprecedented and destructive policies in relation to a shared, pre-established sense of what is important to us all and why. While there remains any prospect whatsoever of further lockdowns, the development of a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis that reflects our values as a society—and somehow factors in the cost of what has been done to individual and shared value systems—remains an urgent task.
Matthew Ratcliffe is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of York.
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