By Jude Fernando –
By May 24, 2021, COVID-19 infections in Sri Lanka had peaked, reaching 2,900 reported new infections each day. According to the Reuters COVID-19 Tracker, Sri Lanka has seen 161,242infections and 1,178coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began. The percentage of the population living with trauma, anxiety and fear will continue to increase. Yet instead of a countrywide lockdown, the government continues to place its faith in selective restrictions that fall short of a comprehensive and sustained lockdown. Those countries that initially opposed locking down, or who have opted for partial or sporadic lockdowns, have experienced high infection and mortality rates. Countries such as the UK later abandoned such inaction in favor of more stringent nationwide lockdowns. A countrywide lockdown for at least a month is indispensable to contain virus spread. The absence of such lockdown measures, obstruct efforts to contain the spread of the virus, delaying economic recovery, undermining the effectiveness of quarantine, vaccination, and treatment efforts, and creating opportunities for political and economic exploitation of the pandemic, and exacerbating its’ disproportionate impacts on marginalized communities. Countries closing their borders to Sri Lankans make these crises intractable. The arguments against lockdown are unfounded and misleading and have been responsible for the intractable spread of the virus. A nationwide lockdown will make it easier to face these pandemic challenges if the health care professionals are the main drivers of decision making and there is an efficient system to distribute the abundantly available necessities to sustain people’s needs during the lockdown period.
Herd Protection vs. Herd Immunity
Evidence does not back up the claim that countries are likely to quickly reach herd immunity by permitting most of their population to contract the virus. Epidemiological studies of previous pandemics have shown that countries achieve herd immunity most rapidly by minimizing the opportunities for the virus to transmit and increasing the vaccinated percentage of the population. Arguments against lockdowns impede the creation of positive synergy between herd immunity and herd protection while entrenching in society the forces most responsible for health and social vulnerabilities during the pandemic, which disproportionately impact the most marginalized groups.
Herd immunity refers to the immunity of a population developed either through vaccination or previous infection, and herd protection means slowing a spread of the virus by preventing communities from contracting it (Paul, 2004; Smith, 2010). Herd immunity and herd protection complement each other and pursuing one without the other is catastrophic (Cheng, 2020). Christie Aschwanden’s (2021) analysis has proven the near impossibility of achieving herd immunity simply by exposing people to the virus. Sweden, which made headlines earlier during the COVID-19 pandemic for eschewing lockdown in favor of rapidly achieving herd immunity, is nowhere near reaching that goal. A group of 200 scientists and medical experts charged that the argument for herd immunity was based on “flawed and cherry-picked science” and that “the evidence provided for its success was based upon limited and selective data” (p. 12). Sweden’s leading epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, paused the collection of data from children because he thought that doing so would create anxiety among the public, stating that “allowing a deadly virus to just spread in the hope of eventual ‘herd immunity’ made no sense to me scientifically, given our then limited knowledge, and it absolutely made no sense to me ethically” (p. 17).
Far fewer people have died in neighboring Denmark, Norway, and Finland where all have much stricter lockdowns. Dr. Nick Talley, editor of the Medical Journal of Australia said that Sweden had got it wrong, “in my view, the Swedish model has not been a success, at least to date”, and that the target of herd immunity was “not achieved, not even close, and this was arguably predictable.” In December 2020, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden admitted, “We have a large number who have died and that is terrible. It is something we all suffer with” (p. 21). The high rates of COVID-19 infection and subsequent deaths in some developed and developing countries directly correlates with the intentional political decision, urged by uninformed “experts” from all walks of life, not to lock down, so that mass gatherings of all kinds can proceed.
The core assumption of the herd immunity argument—that everyone who recovers from COVID-19 is immune to reinfection—has been called into question by mounting evidence of large numbers of people with proven reinfection and by the difficulties of estimating reinfection rates. The positive accounts of herd immunity provided by some Brazilian epidemiologists during the early months of the pandemic, for example, were subsequently proved wrong. From an ethical point of view, achieving herd immunity at the cost of large numbers of deaths is unacceptable, particularly because the most vulnerable populations suffer disproportionately.
As material and behavioral factors have continued to create opportunities for the spread of the virus, the herd immunity argument has collapsed, with the rapidity of the virus’s spread far outstripping humans’ ability to develop herd immunity. Gypsyamber D’Souza, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, has said that “because the variables can change . . . the number of people susceptible to a virus, herd immunity is not a steady state.” Marcel Salathé, an epidemiologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, has noted that “even once herd immunity is attained across a population, it is still possible to have large outbreaks, such as in areas where vaccination rates are low.”
According to Samuel Scarpino, of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, “most of the herd-immunity calculations don’t have anything to say about behavior at all. They assume there are no interventions, no behavioral changes or anything like that” (cited in Aschwanden, 2021). Epidemiologists have repeatedly shown that studying herd immunity takes time. “To understand the duration and effects of the immune response we have to follow people longitudinally, and it’s still early days,” says Caroline Buckee (cited in Aschwanden, 2021), an epidemiologist at the School of Public Health, Harvard University.
Today, most public health professionals favor herd protection over herd immunity as a tool in the absence of vaccines, because the former doesn’t actually confer immunity to the virus itself—it only reduces the risk that vulnerable people will encounter the pathogen.” In fact, “public-health experts don’t usually talk about herd immunity as a tool in the absence of vaccines, but the herd protection is an integral part of successful” (Aschwanden, 2021, p.7) D’Souza, cited in Aschwanden, 2021). D’Souza, a strong supporter of lockdown, points out that “there are a lot of reasons to be very hopeful. If we can continue risk-mitigation approaches until we have an effective vaccine, we can absolutely save lives.” Kuwait, for example, achieved notably high thresholds of herd immunity because its government adopted strict measures to control the virus, including curfews and domestic and international travel bans, says Kin On Kwok, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and mathematical modeler at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (cited in Aschwanden, p. 14).
Although during the early stages of the pandemic infection rates of some countries were lower than others, global infection rates continued to increase as transmission of the virus expanded across national boundaries, producing no evidence of herd immunity through exposure to the virus or of naturally immune communities created by genetic composition. What’s more, organic herd immunity arguments, which were made when testing procedures and the number of people tested were limited, overlooked the vast array of literature on past pandemics. The absence of a vaccine also gave credibility to narratives of the pandemic and treatments that have proven counterproductive to pandemic mitigation efforts.
For example, during the pandemic in Sri Lanka, we have witnessed the production of native/Ayurveda treatments (commonly known as syrups or pani) for COVID-19. Public enthusiasm for these treatments has been fueled by desperation for a cure, arguably bolstered by knowledge of the healing and immunity-boosting properties of traditional medicine. However, sensational media representations of Ayurveda products kept them from being evaluated by established protocols and experts, elevating producers of these products to the status of gods and national heroes, and thereby foreclosing opportunities for informed public dialogue. Opponents of Western lockdowns and politicians exploited the media representations to suggest that the Western pharmaceutical industry and imperial powers were conspiring to destroy native medicine, claims that resonated with ethnonationalist sentiment. Politicians openly sought out traditional COVID-19 treatments.
The euphoria over traditional medicine turned out to be short-lived as the virus continues to spread. Politicians who patronized traditional medicine contracted the virus, and traditional doctors opted for vaccinations despite public ridicule. The misguided and opportunistic media dialogue on traditional medicine, however, discouraged people from following social distancing protocols and epidemiological advice and set the stage for later waves of the virus as well as economic and political abuses of the pandemic, undermining the success of pandemic mitigation efforts as well as people’s trust in both traditional and Western medicine.
Unfounded and politicized conspiracy theories confused and conflated genuinely science-based knowledge with theories about how geopolitical interests and pharmaceutical industries were exploiting the pandemic situation. Short-lived claims about traditional medicine’s superior ability to safeguard people from the COVID-19 virus, seemingly founded on the naïve assumption that Western medicine is based on reason but traditional medicine on faith, ignored the fact that both systems require reason and faith and overlooked the different purposes of the two—and thus their potential to complement each other. Sensationalist media also popularized unfounded claims about lockdowns, often artificially assigning fixed certainties to specific aspects of evolving scientific opinion that no specialist of modern or traditional medicine could ever promise. Such opinions were immediately appealing in a country where anything framed as anti-Western is fodder for political exploitation.
Xenophobic and ethnonationalist interpretations of anti-lockdown arguments provide an excuse for authorities to ignore the well-founded scientific and behavioral realities of the pandemic, depriving often the most marginalized people of the benefits and care they might otherwise have enjoyed. Likewise, politicized reasoning overpowers epidemiological reason in pandemic-related decision making, undermining herd immunity by discouraging people from reporting their illnesses to the health authorities. Health care systems are scientific, cultural, and political, but scientific claims cannot be reduced to culture and politics alone. Healthcare knowledge must be doubted and questioned during a pandemic as any other time but dismissing lockdown without regard for evidence-based knowledge, given the urgency of the situation, is a crime.
Infection rates in countries such as Sri Lanka and India would have been much lower had these countries bowed to the case for lockdowns and prioritized science and evidence-based knowledge over narrow politics and conspiracy theories. Lockdowns reduce people’s exposure to the virus, lower transmission rates, and complement the ultimate herd immunity goal by buying time in which to implement a vaccination program (currently the only way of achieving herd immunity). Increasing the number of hospitals, quarantine centers, testing procedures, and vaccinations is no substitute for protecting people from exposure to the virus, especially considering emerging evidence of reinfection and long-term side effects.
Denying people’s entitlements to life by refusing to lock down.
In many of the countries reporting higher numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the need to keep the economy open has a strong moral and political appeal. Refusal to adopt comprehensive lockdown measures disproportionately affects the livelihoods of the most marginalized populations and further entrenches the forces largely responsible for their vulnerability, which predate the pandemic. Members of marginalized groups often work in essential sectors, making them particularly susceptible to contracting the virus, and these essential workers are frequently deprived of access to much of the wealth they generate that would allow them to meet basic survival needs. Instead, this wealth is appropriated by a minority whose members control the means of production and state power and can afford to live and work in places less exposed to risk. The opposition to lockdown by the privileged minority, although disguised as a policy beneficial to the masses, simply allows them to continue accumulating wealth by exploiting and dispossessing the actual wealth creators at the cost of those creators’ death and suffering.
Viruses originate in nature. The COVID-19 virus was first discovered in 1967 and has continued mutating into new forms. The potential of the viruses to move from nature to humans and infections’ potential to become a pandemic are both heightened within the current model of economic growth, which prioritizes profit over human well-being, resulting in two major vulnerabilities (Fernando, 2020a and 2020b). First, acquisition of land, deforestation, and profit-driven industrial agricultural and livestock production increase the potential for zoonotic transmission of viruses by bringing nonhuman and human species into proximity. The horizontal organization of agricultural and livestock commodity chains further increases the viruses’ capacity to spread globally, and a focus on profit manifests as the use of commodified inorganic methods in industrial and livestock practices and the consumption of unhealthy food, depleting human and nonhuman species’ adaptive immunity to viruses and increasing their mortality rates.
Second, the success of the neoliberal growth model is founded on the unending exploitation of nature and people and on preventing people from accessing essentials for their survival that nature once provided them freely. Mainstream economists indoctrinate society with the belief that shortages of the resources needed to meet the population’s health care and basic survival needs result from an abnormal situation created by the pandemic, concluding that these problems could be overcome if neoliberal economic policies were made more efficient through good governance. Thus, society does not realize that accumulation of profit itself creates scarcity of resources rather than shortages arising from the natural limits and inefficiencies of material resources, intellectual and technological endowments of the society.
The current economic crises have not resulted from some abnormal situation created by the pandemic but rather are rooted in an economic model that society takes for granted (Fernando, 2020a&b). Before the pandemic as well as during it, the economy benefits a small minority that controls society’s human labor and natural resources and the minority’s political, intellectual, and cultural patrons. Deforestation and corporate takeovers of land and resources are depriving people of access to these resources, with poorer nations’ loss of economic sovereignty poised to reach unprecedented levels of catastrophe. Delaying lockdowns exacerbates the ecological causes of pandemic, weakening society’s ability to recover and rendering it less prepared to face future pandemics.
The current stocks of resources and means of transportation are more than sufficient to sustain Sri Lanka through the necessary lockdown period needed to manage the transmission of the virus—but only if the government has the political will to prioritize human well-being above economic growth. The shortages in the world economy during the pandemic arose from a crisis of overproduction rather than of underproduction, and the disruption of the supply chains due to them being controlled by the private sector. Growth models cannot survive if products cannot be disposed of profitably, because profit, paradoxically, is predicated on lowering people’s purchasing capacity. The pandemic did not deprive people of their ability to provide the resources needed to meet human needs, nor did it destroy their means of making those resources accessible; these systems could have continued without exposing people to the virus. For example, Sri Lanka has ample natural resources: rice, vegetables, fish, and water. By 1977, it had developed a road and transport system and an institutional network capable of distributing produce to any place in the country. Before 1977 the primary purpose of Sri Lanka’s agricultural and livestock policies were to improve people’s well-being, but subsequent economic policies have prioritized profit over human and ecological well-being, dismantling and commodifying every component of formerly people-friendly production and distribution systems under the patronage of local and transnational monopolies.
The land use patterns during the pandemic have continued shifting toward crops that have export value instead of reflecting a desire to meet local people’s needs and mitigate climate change. Because the production and distribution systems are under the control of a few politically patronized businesses, the state is hesitant to implement countrywide lockdown and meet people’s survival needs by distributing the island’s natural resources. Crises of subsistence during emergency situations worldwide thus result from creating artificial shortages and wasting surplus produce that will not yield private profits, often under political patronage. The extent to which the state is willing to dismantle these monopolies, an essential perquisite for a sustainable lockdown, are indicative of the ideological and moral underpinnings of its policy priorities and how they are shaping the domestic economy and governance, and international relations exemplified by the states’ transactions and response to professional knowledge and advice during the pandemic.
Those opposed to a nationwide lockdown are in a comfortable position to maintain their previous work patterns and lifestyles during the pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic has often increased their economic fortunes even as the poor are forced to live and work in congested, more risky spaces. Distributing necessities to people during an enforced lockdown is a moral responsibility, and the current arguments to the contrary do not protect the economy and the livelihood of the poor but rather functions as an excuse to further deprive them of their rightful share in what nature provides for their survival. The poor as primary producers of wealth during normal times, have earned their entitlement to the necessities for their survival without engaging in work prone to contracting the virus: wellbeing of people during the pandemic must not be predicated on their monetary power.
Socially and economically privileged (and hence socially distanced) groups’ arguments against a nationwide lockdown are simply a moral justification for securing their own well-being by exposing the marginalized (and hence deprived of social distancing) to the life-threatening dangers of the pandemic. This neoliberal, sexist, and racist position justifies the transfer of responsibility of safety during the pandemic to individuals by relying on the exploitative market, and to legitimize the denial of people’s entitlement and access to a commonwealth of resources, disproportionately affecting the poor, women, and racially marginalized groups.
Fighting Pathogens and Terrorists
The Sri Lankan military is well equipped and experienced to play a vital role in managing emergency situations. However, during a nationwide lockdown, it is important to limit the duration of military involvement and to increase the efficiency of its unique capabilities, and more importantly to maintain health professionals as the primary driver of the responses. Doing so will minimize the unintended social and political consequences of prolonged military interventions in times of pandemics exemplified by the globally emerging links between militarization with health, particularly in situations of epidemics. (Thompson, 2018)
The military’s war with pathogens dates to at least the early 1800s following epidemics of yellow fever and smallpox. Also, military training has proven to be effective and indispensable in emergency situations. While the military is trained to understand and respond to emergencies, their engagement within a given situation must be circumscribed where the core subject and type of decision making are not the prerogative of the military. When entrenched in complex networks of social, political, and economic forces during peacetime, the military rationale could disempower the epidemiological approach and aid those who seek to weaponize the pandemic to suppress democratic freedoms, and in so doing, delegitimize the essential role the military could play during a pandemic. (Manekin D. 2017; Geyer, M. 1989)
Theaters of war and pandemics are not the same, although pandemics have been used as weapons of war and politics. The rationalities, tools, and experiences of war are effective for managing pandemics, but their role must not be stretched to drive epidemiological decisions. The threats posed by pandemics and terrorism are different, and they cannot be handled in the same ways. A virus is an invisible force that moves from person to person, unobstructed by physical or administrative boundaries, and armies cannot shoot it or regulate its behavior. Barriers between humans, and between humans and virus-carrying nonhuman species, are necessary to combat the spread of a virus. Counterterrorism strategies that involve closing and searching areas reported to have a high incidence of infected people and apprehending and isolating them, and then reopening the areas for civilian movement are not effective at restricting the spread of a virus. The roles of public health systems and the military, and society’s perceptions of the military, are thus different from each other. Control, manipulation, and modes of communication of information disclosures, a necessity to fight terrorism, are unhelpful in preventing the transmission of the virus, rather, such acts shape people’s behavioral perceptions and responses to the virus in ways that work against efforts to containing the pandemic. (Thompson, 2018).
A virus morphs into a pandemic through a social, cultural, and political process, and prolonged military intervention will entangle the military in all these areas. The resulting disorder and disruption of institutions, and frustrations and anxieties arising out of a failure to stop the spread of the virus, could provide further justification for expanding the military’s role, transforming the pandemic into a battleground where evidence-based, effective responses are suppressed and branded as anti-government and unpatriotic. Studies conducted in the wake of the Ebola outbreak have provided ample evidence of the militarization of pandemics and societal values and processes that Michael Geyer characterizes as the “contradictory and tense social process in which civil society organizes itself to produce violence” (Geyer, 1989), laying the groundwork for undemocratic forces to flourish (See also Kapiriri & Ross, 2020; Kiefer, 1992; Zwi, 1991).
Gwyneth Lim and Regletto Imbong of the University of the Philippines in Cebu, have, for example, chronicled President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s handling of the pandemic: at first, he said that “everything [wa]s well” and that there was no need for the people to be hysterical (Lim & Imbong, 2021).Without outlining any concrete plan for easing growing public anxiety, Duterte merely asked people to be resilient and “keep faith with humanity,” assuring the public that “even without the vaccines, [the virus] will just die a natural death.” Later he began using the pandemic to militarize the population’s political consciousness and create a fear psychosis. “We are at war against a vicious and invisible enemy, one that cannot be seen by the naked eye. In this extraordinary war, we are all soldiers,” he said, calling the public to “obey the police and the military” (ibid)and announcing that he expected society to function as a military platoon. In Duterte’s mind, COVID-19 related deaths are as tolerable as deaths that occur when physically eliminating those involved in the narcotics trade, because he applies the same rationality to civic governance. After all, in wartime military discourse, life is expendable through the chain of command, rather than democratic dialogue to safeguard the common good.
Instead of following evidence-based advice and protocols, Duterte created an interagency task force (IATF) headed by retired generals Delfin Lorenzana, Eduardo Año, and Carlito Galvez. Because the military was not trained in epidemiology or other health sciences, the IATF’s combat strategies and direction were “expectedly militaristic.” The roots of militarization in the Philippines predate the pandemic, beginning with Duterte’s militaristic approach to drug control. Since then, the militarized content of Duterte’s speeches has been translated into concrete institutional–legal responses, with the pandemic bringing “the normalization of repression, [in which] fundamentally and constitutionally guaranteed rights such as those of assembly and speech are curtailed if not altogether denied.” As the state’s failures, along with cracks in the ruling regime, have become intractable, Duterte has come to trust only the military and has accelerated the militarization of the pandemic, which according to Imbong and Lim has brought “lockdowns on welfare, freedoms, and peace.” In speaking of a lockdown on welfare, they refer to the government implementing a “response to the pandemic crisis that prioritized militaristic solutions at the expense of social welfare and support.” Likewise, the lockdown on freedoms is the “systematic repression of rights and the normalization of this repression” and the militarization of the governmental edifice. The lockdown on peace, by the same token, continues to intensify “the vilification and attacks on peace advocates and the general abandonment of the socio-economic reform agenda” (Lim & Imbong, 2021).
We must view pandemics periods of intentional configuration of economic and political agendas, not mere disruptions, or abnormal situations. Emergency situations are notorious for providing governments with opportunities to exploit peoples’ anxieties, trauma, and preoccupation with matters of survival to advance controversial and harmful economic, political, and ecological agendas that are normally untenable or unpopular. Lockdowns strengthen the effectiveness of epidemiological responses to a pandemic and lessen the social, economic, and ecological effects that disproportionately affect the societal groups already most vulnerable, restoring avenues for those groups to claim their rights and entitlements to secure their well-being from the forces responsible for the denial of those rights and entitlements. Lockdown and keeping the economy open are not opposed to each other: they are complementary, even though the economy itself is hostile to marginalized groups and the environment. Our justifications for locking down, however, must not be guided by instrumental reason; instead, they must safeguard people from the immediate threats the virus poses to their right to survival. Thus, an immediate lockdown is a moral imperative and a matter of justice.
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