In Praise of Unherd’s Coverage of Lockdown

According to a recent Sky/YouGov poll, trust in journalists is at an all time low. In the results of the poll, which surveyed 1652 British adults, journalists fared the worst in terms of public faith, with TV journalists receiving a net score of minus 40 and newspaper journalists, minus 55.

The issue of public trust in journalism is certainly complex. There’s clearly a massive debate to be had about the limits of this data (extent), where the data is and isn’t pointing in this direction (demographics), why people are thinking this way (cause) and why all of this matters (significance).

But in the face of this story, I want to focus on an example of journalism that I have greatly appreciated. In all of this, I have been most impressed by the coverage of the lockdown offered by the team at Unherd.

Unherd’s approach is deceptively simple and effective. They seek to give voice to views that one normally wouldn’t come across while also challenging ideas that have unquestioningly become de rigueur. There isn’t a single “line” that all their writers follow, even though there is a broadly (though by no means monolithically) post-liberal flavour to their authors and their contributions.

Here have been some of the pieces I have appreciated from the Unherd team on the subject of the Covid-19 lockdown.

To begin with, I have been immensely challenged by Freddie Sayers’ interviews for UnherdTV. For those who’ve missed it, Sayers has interviewed various kinds of scientists who differ on their approaches to the virus. He has written all of this up in a provocative piece that explores the different worldviews that underlie the various public health recommendations. He’s interviewed Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke who with bluntness and brevity advocates a policy of protecting the old and frail, while allowing social distancing measures for the rest of the population. He has also spoken with Neil Ferguson, one of the scientists responsible for Imperial’s Covid-19 report which has heavily influenced the strategy of the UK government thus far. Perhaps somewhere in between these two figures (at least in terms of the IFR or Infection Fatality Rate he has reached) is the German virologist Hendrik Streeck. He suggests that lockdown measures were introduced too soon and that, because the virus is endemic, we need to think about how we can live with it in the medium to long-term.

Tom Chivers offers a position that looks more favourably upon the lockdown. His piece today (Is the Lockdown doing more harm than good?) contains his usual combination of epistemological humility and careful reasoning. Chivers is broadly behind the lockdown now and in the near-future (“It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to”) but is open-eyed to the deaths and death-like existence for many suffering from unemployment and mental-health conditions. “Lockdown is coming at a cost”, he rightly asserts. It’s one of the more open-eyed pieces that backs the lockdown policy. Also in its favour is the emphasis on the uncertainty about our conclusions because of the lack of data (which, he stresses, isn’t the same as saying that we have no data). As he writes:

In short, we need to work out what the cost of the virus would be, if left unchecked; then we have to work out what the cost of our response to it would be; and then use those two factors to decide whether the lockdown is worth the cost. The trouble is, we don’t know either of those things

The one potential blindspot in Chivers’ piece is the lack of discussion around herd immunity, which I would have liked to hear more him speak more about (no doubt he has elsewhere). To be fair, it seems we don’t know enough yet to say how the virus will interact when we come out of lockdown and, in the absence of mass testing and tracing, whether or not one becomes immune having had the virus.

In addition to covering the lockdown, UnHerd has also featured articles that touch on a wider set of issues raised by the pandemic. In this vein, two pieces have provided some much needed realism surrounding our cultural attitudes towards risk and death.

With her characteristically dry humour and wry take on things, Timandra Harkness discusses the need for us to consider risk when it comes to our approach to lockdown. She questions whether the government should have spoken more of risk mitigation rather than risk elimination. She writes,

we would have done better to talk about Covid-19 more like road accidents, as a risk that can’t be eliminated altogether, but can be mitigated. Instead, the Government invoked the language of existential threat, in the face of which no measure is too great. Now, weighing the risks of resuming more normal life against the risks of continuing in suspended animation, they are struggling to coax a fearful population out of lockdown.

Instead of trying to frighten us all into staying at home, the Government should have harnessed our altruism, inviting us to join a grown-up conversation about risk. That would have left the door open to invite us all, now, to weigh the risk of Covid-19 against the lost opportunities of continuing to hide from the world.

Of course, there is a risk, to use that word again, that with all of this talk of quantification and QALYS (the measurement used to determine the value of a life) we become bean counters of souls. Giles Fraser wisely warns us about this approach. And yet, when push comes to shove, difficult decisions need to be made about whose lives are saved. If this seems cold and utilitarian, perhaps even libertarian, then we need to remind ourselves that the UK government is not, as is often asserted, simply trying to balance human lives and the economy. Chivers cautions against this comparison.

It’s really important, by the way, that we don’t get wrapped up in the idea that it is “the economy” vs “human life”. The economy consists of people’s lives, in a very direct way: if you stop people working, you make their lives worse; their businesses go under, they fall behind on rent or mortgages, they can’t afford to buy the things they want or need.

From attitudes to risk, we turn, lastly, to conceptions of death, where Mary Harrington makes a very important contribution. Harrington takes to task the implicit assumption among high-income societies that “everyone will live forever”. The title of Harrington’s piece, “Not Every Death is Tragic”, is rather unfortunate and I imagine will cause many not to read it. I’d recommend not making that mistake. It is a provocative read, but the title has little bearing to the article which is a sensitive, personal and realistic take on death. Her point about herd immunity is interesting and one wonders if this should be the way forward (“Unless a vaccine is discovered, any relaxation of lockdown will result in a new spike in infections, followed by further lockdowns, and so on until we reach — yes — herd immunity”). Perhaps less controversially, Harrington also discusses the fact that in less affluent societies where “death is already a familiar presence, the risk calculus of virus transmission looks very different”. This point has been repeated elsewhere in discussions of a “white collar quarantine” (and I discussed it in this piece over a month ago). Harrington’s comparative point is one that resonates with me, having spoken with family living in middle-income countries outside of Europe, as well as with friends working in blue collar jobs here in the UK.

Harrington delivers some hard-hitting truths on the way we as a society think about death (“our culture treats death as abnormal, even outrageous — not the inevitable fact it still is”). I suppose the only thing I would add is that while inevitable, death for the Christian does not have the last word (see my reflection on hopeful realism here). Regardless of whether it is someone dying at the peak of their powers, or after a long life, death is not how things should be, though we recognise that it is how things in reality are. It is something that we will all go through. Setting semantics aside, Harrington’s piece implicitly reminds us that we might wish to reconsider recovering a common vocabulary for speaking about death that draws on religious traditions in general, and Christianity in particular. I, for one, would welcome this re-development in our public discourse.

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