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.

CovidDiary Day 19 (Weds 8th April 2020)

What if this quarantine is just saving middle-class lives? That’s the question raised in this New York Times piece. The article runs with the headline: “white-collar quarantine”.

Sweden’s approach to the virus would appear to agree with this assessment. The Scandinavian country has famously taken a very different approach to the pandemic, with mitigation being preferred to a full-scale lockdown. One of the very interesting justifications given for this approach is equality—how could the government expect blue collar workers to “work from home” when their jobs required them to be out of their houses. Sweden’s chief epedemiologist, Anders Tegnell, put it this way:

Some people can work from home, but not everybody. How to maintain an equal society in that way? How can we maintain equality so that everybody has the same chance of staying well.”

Whatever we think of Sweden’s approach—and I happen to think it is certainly risky from a health stand-point—it at least acknowledges that economically vulnerable people are bound to be hit badly by a lockdown. Not everyone has the luxury of an office-based job that can be done remotely.

We are caught in a choice between saving lives now from the pandemic but storing up a range of economic and emotional problems in the future or losing a good number of lives now to help to balance this economic and emotional deficit. Sweden’s choice reminds us that difficult decisions have to be made. Some lose out, whichever decision is taken.

In light of such a bleak scenario, all this talk of “a year of jubilee” can stick in the throat.

I wrote about billionaires and footballers in my post from a few days ago. But what of me? I have a home office to work from, a job to go to, and a job that protects me from the elements and from interaction.

Of course, it isn’t quite true that this is a white-collar quarantine. Or at least, it isn’t true that those with means are left unaffected by the pandemic. We are all affected by the situation in different ways, some more hidden than others. Even the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has the virus and has recently been admitted to intensive care. As Theresa May tweeted a few nights ago, in many ways when it comes to health, this “horrific virus does not discriminate“.

Yet it’s certainly true that some are bearing the brunt more than others. I’m not a big fan of sociological theories that divide society up into various categories of difference. I often find them facile. But what I do believe to be incontrovertible is that some bear the marks of privilege—a steady home background, socio-economic security, health. All of these bring access to opportunities and, in a very real sense, open doors that for others are closed.

I enjoy these privileges.

What to do, then? I am not sure that responses of hand-wringing, or renunciation and guilt are appropriate, unless the privileges we possess are actually used for ill.

More profitable, I think, is to ask: what am I doing with these privileges? This question immediately turns us away from focussing on ourselves and has us centre our attention on others.

There are two proper attitudes to cultivate here, which are appropriate for Holy Week, that week where Christians remember Christ’s journey to Golgotha. These attitudes, or practices even, are generosity and lament.

  1. Generosity: we can keep others safe by avoiding physical contact. It is is strange how physical and spatial distancing have become forms of neighbour-love, but such are the times we are living in. But even as we are apart, we can support those worst hit by this virus and ensure that care is available for the most vulnerable. Organisations like Partners in Health are doing great work that is worthy of our support. The YourNeighbour initiative is linking local churches to the relief effort, mobilising volunteers to offer phone calls and deliver much needed shopping and medical items.
  2. Lament: we lament the tragedy of death and disease, declaring emphatically that this is not how things should be while hoping, waiting, praying and working for things to be different. We lament the hardship that many have fallen into, or now face even more starkly, as a result of being out of work. As Good Friday approaches, Christians remember how God in Christ went to the deepest and darkest place both in our place and also for us. God is therefore not aloof from our misery, suffering and hardship. Scripture is filled with examples of saints appealing to God to remember the suffering of his people. As Christians today lament, we too appeal to God for his mercy for all, on the basis of his character and covenant.

CovidDiary Day 6 (Thurs March 26th 2020)

LockdownTV from Unherd (Elizabeth Oldfield b-right)

A brief post to flag up the stimulating conversations happening over at Unherd on #LockdownTV. Today’s episode focussed on the virus and the environment. The climate is a fraught enough topic in normal circumstances without needing to throw in a global pandemic. In the anxious times we’re living in at the moment, it has been sad and frustrating to sometimes see the issues of the climate be handled so badly by some environmentalists. Take for instance the recent XR posters stating that “humans are the problem and Corona is the cure”. This is deeply disturbing, anti-human and frankly eugenicist stuff.

This was why I was encouraged by Elizabeth Oldfield’s strong contribution to the debate (see the video below). Oldfield rejected the approach outlined above but wisely cautioned against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can still use this moment to think about our personal individual decisions as well as the need for governments to re-think global capital’s reliance on fossil fuels.

On the point about individuals taking responsibility, I was encouraged and challenged by Liz’s bridge-building instincts (around 8:50) as she made reference to conservative doyen Roger Scruton’s writings on the environment (Liz makes reference to working transgenerationally and in local contexts that we call home). I also greatly appreciated her refusal to decide between the local and the global by making reference to the interdependence that has arisen so clearly in recent weeks between individuals within communities and between communities across borders.

Check out the video below and have a read of Liz’s most recent post on the issue here. It rightly avoids what she calls the “triumphalist crowing” from some in environmentalist circles just now, while still remaining faithfully and positively committed to the care of creation.

CovidDiary Day 5 (Weds March 25th 2020)

Today’s post is slightly more political so if you’re not into that kind of thing…then be sure to read it!

In the wake of Covid-19, libertarianism appears to be on the back foot. From tacitly enforced government social distancing and isolation, to top-down regulation and intervention in markets and business, it looks in many ways like we are witnessing the limits of the libertarian creed…

From my perspective, this marks a positive development. Before I go on, I want to state some of my premises and define my terms: I am wary of those who place unfailing trust either in the market or in the state—these two poles seem to have the common fatal flaw of misplaced trust and a poorly worked out anthropology. What usually functions as a spectrum moving from more statist solutions to more market-centric ones, on closer inspection appears to bend and meet where these two positions are concerned. And yet this is a broken world. The markets are broken, and the state is broken. Because people are broken. When all is said and done, that’s the baseline, the undercurrent of my thinking on the matter.

What sparked my thinking on libertarianism was seeing this piece from James Kirkup (of The Social Market Foundation) on Unherd today. Kirkup tackles the social elements of libertarianism and argues that it places too much faith in the human individual and, more particularly, errs by attributing too much rationality and kindness to the human agent. We have only to see the response of individuals, pre-lockdown, piling into pubs and ignoring government advice to remain socially distant and save lives. The cracks immediately begin to appear in the rational actor theory underpinning social libertarianism .

Libertarianism also reared its head in today’s first episode of Unherd’s new #LockdownTV, with Timandra Harkness and Tom Chivers discussing whether or not the government’s lockdown strategy is utilitarian (more on that another time…).

The other thing that got me thinking was an interesting virtual discussion I had today with a couple of friends today over the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly as it relates to economics and markets. Few topics make my blood run colder than economics (the maxim “man shall not live on spreadsheets alone” just about sums up my attitude on the matter at the moment). But I felt compelled to weigh in…

In the course of the discussion, my friends argued that the market operates as a super intelligence that should regulate itself. Why, they argued, is the government (particularly a Conservative one) intervening with high spending and borrowing when this will only lead to economic decline in the medium to long term? And surely this intervention will result in ineffective, bad businesses being kept alive through government aid when, if the markets were left to run their course, they would naturally and rightly die a death.

I want to engage in a bit of bridge-building here, first.

To begin with, I can agree and acknowledge that free markets have a way of showing up ineffectively run business. There might be some valid concerns here about who is being supported…should the whiskey shop or the boutique sunglasses store on my street receive the 80% government funding to cover wages, we might ask?

Then and again, these businesses (and many like them) are already facing difficulty as a result of being deemed non-essential. They might be able to pay their staffs salaries through the Job Retention Scheme, but the result of being shut for weeks, and probably months, will probably spell the end for them already. Are they to be punished for events outside of their control?

More gravely, Libertarian economics assumes that the market will unfailingly tell us what businesses should survive. But there are clearly some businesses that through no fault of their own have fallen into difficult times and require state intervention. The airline business is just one such example (though there are many). A halt on flights due to lockdown means that no one can fly; with no passengers due to the virus, airlines face severe losses. The UK government has unveiled £330bn of loans to airlines and has recently been considering buying equity stakes. The economic situation of airlines like BA is not the result of poor management but a freak virus.

So I have some practical doubts around the ability of the market to decide which businesses should survive.

But what about moral arguments that often circulate and have to do with liberty from state intervention? To be sure, I value liberty highly. We must remember, I think, that to place absolute faith in the state causes all sorts of problems, ranging from a loss of personal responsibility to more extreme forms of collectivisation that remove the dignity and individuality of the human person by apportioning to everyone the same product (usually having the quality of being equally substandard). I have family who grew up in the Soviet Union and believe me when they say they would rather not return to such a state of political economy.

But, as ever, there are two ways to fall off the horse. If we can place too much faith in the state, then we can also do the same with markets. The credo of economic libertarianism is the freedom of markets guided by the invisible hand. This is, of course, an overt reference to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

And yet, as Jesse Norman has powerfully argued, Smith is radically misunderstood when he is claimed as the father of laissez-faire economics (moreover, the invisible hand appears only once in The Wealth of Nations).

Smith, Norman argues, was a proponent of government regulation under certain conditions. In his thought (and in his time), markets operated differently, were embedded and embodied with a set of social norms rather than some calculating “super-intelligence”. As Norman puts it,

markets for Smith are very different to those of economists today. They are not the disembodied mathematical constructs of modern economics and policymaking, and his view of individuals is not that of a desiccated economic atomism. Rather — recalling his insights about language and ethics — markets are living institutions embedded in specific cultures and mediated by social norms and trust. They shape and are shaped by their participants, in a dynamic and evolving way. They often have common features, but they are as different from one another as individual humans are: markets for land and labour and capital, asset markets from product markets and all the innumerable rest of them. Yes, markets typically generate economic value, and they are unmatched in their ability to allocate goods and services and encourage innovation and technological improvement. But…what matters is not the largely empty rhetoric of “free markets”, but the reality of effective competition. And effective competition requires mechanisms that force companies to internalise their own costs and not push them on to others, that bear down on crony capitalism, rent extraction, “insider” vs “outsider” asymmetries of information and power, and political lobbying.

One of the biggest problems I have with libertarian absolute faith in the market, then, is that it’s lost what markets are for. To coin a phrase, markets are for people and people are not for markets.

Pre-Covid, I would have said that I am in favour of capitalism with safety nets (of course we need to define what we mean by capitalism—this article is a good place to start). I did, and still do, advocate greater regulation of companies like Amazon, Uber and Facebook.

But if governments should regulate free markets in “peace time” then a fortiori should they do so in extreme times such as ours, where perfectly good businesses are rent asunder by circumstances beyond their control.

Rather than placing all my faith in the state or in the market, I would want to espouse a realism that acknowledges the inadequacies of both, precisely because both are ultimately human, which is to say socially embedded, institutions. There is much to say here about a constructive view of the relation between market and state. I have already discussed one example above, but here and here are other, albeit different, attempts that are worth engaging with.

If I was to go one step further, and venture beyond economics and into theology, I would want to say that absolute faith is best placed in One who does not fail us. Even when market and state forsake us, He will take us up.