Between Scylla and Charybdis

In a recent discussion on Facebook about the relative merits in the forthcoming US elections of a vote for Donald Trump versus one for Joe Biden, one of my university contemporaries posted pictures representing Scylla and Charybdis - a reference from Greek mythology to two opposing threats, in this case two legendary sea monsters described by Homer as endangering sailors passing through the straits of Messina between Sicily and Italy, one on each side. Any ancient mariner who plotted their course far enough from one of these mythical monsters to be safe from that threat was said to be in danger from the other.

But such an unenviable choice is not just a challenge for US voters this November. Every country in the world is faced with equally unenviable choices about how much priority to give to protecting citizens from COVID-19 and how much to preserving our economies, hit as a result of the coronavirus and the measures taken to control it with the worst recession for three hundred years.

And there is no right or perfect answer. 

I have lost count of the number of times I have had to resist the temptation to write on this blog or on Facebook words to the effect that if person X isn't criticising the government for doing too much harm to the economy then they're not doing enough to protect against COVID-19, and if person Y isn't slagging off the government for failing to do enough to protect against the Coronavirus they are in danger of doing too much harm to jobs, businesses and people's livelihoods.

You can define the "person X" or health libertarian camp as those who argue that because currently the number of people dying of COVID-19 is relatively small, and far less than the number dying from other conditions like cancer or heart disease, therefore the government's restrictions to control it are doing unnecessary damage to the economy and to people's liberty, wellbeing and health. (Covid-19 dropped from being the leading cause of death in England in April to the 24th in August.) 

The "person Y" camp by contrast are those who take the hardest line in favour of the strongest possible measures against the coronavirus. You can bet your life that if the "second wave" sends the COVID-19 death rate back up to anything remotely like the thousand deaths per day the disease was causing earlier this year, that camp will vociferously blame every one of those deaths on government incompetence, in the sort of words which Piers Morgan used earlier this year when he accused the UK government of being responsible for sixty thousand deaths (at a time when the highest remotely reputable estimates of excess deaths in Britain were some way short of that figure.)  

The reason I have resisted the temptation to write anything along the lines that the fact that the government is getting flak from both these groups means they must be getting it about right, is that we have a Scylla versus Charybdis choice. There is no course of action against which one or both of these groups will not be making some valid points. I do not agree with everything that either group says, but unfortunately neither is wholly wrong.

I don't agree with the "person X" camp in that I think they are seriously underestimating the harm that COVID-19 will do if as the PM put it, we allow it to "let rip."  He was also right to warn that if some people take risks it will affect not just themselves but others who may be more vulnerable: in Boris's words, "The tragic reality of having COVID is that your mild cough can be someone else's death knell."

Unfortunately however team "X" are absolutely right to warn that the measures being taken against the Coronavirus are having an enormous cost not just in money terms but in terms of lost livelihoods, mental and physical wellbeing, and indeed deaths (from the impacts of depression  lack of exercise and suicide among other things.)

The "Person Y" camp makes a lot of very good point, but I think the best answer to their propensity to go over the top comes, by an enormous irony, from someone with whose views on certain other issues quite a few of them would agree - the former Lib/Dem Leader Vince Cable. He wrote this week that

"Equally baffling are opposition spokespeople who act as if policy should be based on the premise that there must never be a single Covid-19 death. That is a recipe for lockdown forever and everywhere. As a “vulnerable” person in my mid-70s I think I would take my chances in Stockholm."

As the first two words of that quote should alert you, it's his answer to one side of an argument taken out of context and I don't think that in context his last sentence means what you would be entitled to think he meant if he'd said those words on their own. Click on the title of his article below to follow a link to the whole article to see the full context.

Although I disagree with many of the points in Vince Cable's article, 

"When it comes to handling coronavirus, were the political ‘bad guys’ right all along?" 

it was a very interesting article and particularly refreshing in that this was an example, sadly quite rare in these times, of someone who was willing to seriously consider and examine the possibility that people who he utterly and wholeheartedly opposes on many issues might be right on another subject. 

For what it's worth, although the two polar opposites of the "X" and "Y" camps are shouting loudest the majority of the public do not seem to have opted for either of these positions. A YouGov poll found support for the measures announced yesterday as follows:

Strongly support: 44%

Somewhat support: 34%

Somewhat oppose: 9%

Strongly oppose: 8%

Don't know: 6%.

The same poll found a large minorities for each of the positions that the UK government should have gone further, or had got it about right, while a smaller but still significant minority thought that the measures went too far. 

The one thing I am certain of in the debate on how to deal with COVID-19 is that no group, position of faction has a monopoly of wisdom and we will all be wise to continue to listen to one another - however dangerous we may think the ideas other people are putting forward may be.


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