It is politics rather than medicine that is driving us out of lockdown

Posted By: May 09, 2020

Patrick Murphy. Irish News.Belfast. Saturday, May 9, 2020

If medicine directed us into lockdown, politics is steering us out of it.

The economic necessity which is fuelling some discontent at the current restrictions has tilted decision-making power away from science and towards political popularity.

The switch has been driven by three factors: the application of nationalism to medicine; the authority of politicians to decide when scientists can or cannot speak in public and the use of science as a menu, from which politicians select specific findings to support their political objectives.

Welcome to the move from lockdown, where all science is now a branch of political science and the impact of Covid-19 on the human body risks becoming less important than its effect on the body politic.

The use of nationalism in medicine is perhaps best exemplified by Britain’s catastrophic failures in tackling the pandemic.

The Tories suppressed the findings of Exercise Cygnus in 2016, which indicated that the country was unprepared for a pandemic. They continued to cut NHS funding. In March, when other European countries were in lockdown, Boris Johnson proudly boasted of “shaking hands with everybody” in a hospital.

Britain now has Europe’s highest death toll, with those in poverty being hardest hit, because of their poor levels of underlying health. (The British class system has always been a killer.)

But instead of radical action, the great British public were treated to a 100 year old former soldier walking around a garden, raising money for the NHS which the Tories almost destroyed. Battle of Britain planes flew over his home to display the Dunkirk spirit and tomorrow Johnson is set to address ‘the nation” (I think he means England) to gloriously lead Britain out of lockdown. Viruses thrive in nationalism.

Meanwhile in the USA, Trump has abandoned his fight against the coronavirus (presumably because no one listened to his advice on bleach) so that he can focus on economic recovery and his re-election. Science never really got a decent hearing in Washington, so leaving lockdown is no big deal. The political damage from 100,000 deaths is seen to be less than the political damage from a collapsed economy. In the US, patriotism is measured by the Dow Jones index.

In Ireland, the triumph of political authority over medical opinion is reflected in Leo Varadkar’s reported by-passing of advice from public health officials in announcing his five-stage relaxation of the lockdown. (That’s the plan they did not tell the Stormont Executive about.) Their cost of responding to the virus is estimated to be at least €600 million every week, which would be unsustainable throughout the summer.

Of course, Belfast is different. Here political populism is based on the claim that either the British or Irish model of leaving lockdown is the best. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP say they are following scientific advice and to some extent they both have a point.

Our scientific knowledge about Covid-19 might best be described as flaky. There is much we still do not understand about it (why does it affect different people in different ways?)

We are also unsure about how to control it. For example, although Sweden avoided a strict lockdown (and prevented economic closure) its deaths per million (288) is very similar to Ireland’s (283). (The UK’s is 452). Indeed the World Health Organisation describes Sweden’s approach as a “future model” for fighting the outbreak’s next phase.

Much of what politicians call “science” is often based on the findings of a single study, which suits their political agenda. As someone who leads a dedicated team assessing the ethics of medical research proposals, I can assure politicians that it takes several replicated and diverse research studies to come close to scientific certainty. We are nowhere near that stage with the coronavirus.

The cure for the virus will obviously be a vaccine. When or if it comes, it will not just safeguard the human body, it will isolate the virus from the body politic – and that can’t come too soon.END.