The effects of lockdown have caused far more damage than the virus ever could
“Maybe there is a beast… Maybe it’s only us,” pondered Simon, in William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies.
In the book, a group of juveniles are stranded on a tropical island. Without the constraints of grown-up civilisation, primitive terrors break free from the subconscious and drive the boys hysterical. “The sleep of reason produces monsters”, as Goya wrote. A dream of a terrifying beast lights up the boys’ imaginations and has them jumping at shadows. A fanatical tribe emerges, comprising those most afraid of the island’s invisible enemy; they wear masks which free the id further (“The mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness”), and, crucially, they develop superstitious rituals which they believe will keep the beast at bay.
It doesn’t end well.
The Simpsons is a little more light-hearted. In the classic episode Much Apu About Nothing, the residents of Springfield are terrified by reports of a brown bear roaming the town. The citizens, angry and afraid, demand the mayor do something. Later, as a Bear Patrol van rushes past and a jet flies overhead, Homer sighs contentedly and remarks that there isn’t a bear in sight.
“That’s specious reasoning, Dad,” replies Lisa. “By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away… It doesn’t work… It’s just a stupid rock. But I don’t see any tigers around here, do you?”
Homer buys the rock; cum hoc ergo propter hoc.
In the real world, back in May, a JP Morgan report found that, in the vast majority of cases, a country’s coronavirus infection rate actually decreased once the lockdown had ended. In fact, looking at COVID-19 deaths, there is a consistent distribution over time in every country around the world, despite their differing approaches and environments. Coronavirus, as with many things in nature, has followed the distribution of the bell curve.
We were told that totalitarian measures were necessary to flatten this curve. Now, there is no curve, and yet here we are a few months later, in much the same place, with mandatory face masks to boot.
Whether you believe that the government’s measures worked or not is beside the point: ultimately, they will have caused far more damage than the virus ever could. The cure is worse than the disease.
We are seeking refuge in a fox’s den
A report by Her Majesty’s Government predicted that 200,000 people would die from delayed healthcare and economic recession caused by the response to COVID-19. Globally, the UN has estimated that 10,000 children every month are dying from hunger due to coronavirus measures; Oxfam has warned that this could kill 12,000 people per day by 2021. Looking at current data, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield recently explained, “We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose…”
Like Chicken Licken, irrationally fearing that the sky is falling down, we are seeking refuge in a fox’s den.
The sad reality is that the state’s response to COVID-19 is having a disastrous effect on mental health – the even sadder reality is that there is no way this could have come as a surprise.
Research stretching back decades has indicated the damaging effects of isolation and confinement. For instance, research has even shown that social isolation among laboratory animals has induced depression and aggression (Bourke & Neigh, 2011; Martin & Brown, 2010; Mathews et al., 2008; Parmigiani et al., 1999). A study with chicks found that being separated from the others resulted, likewise, in depression (e.g., less pecking, less mobility, less exploration) and more distress vocalisations and escape attempts (Rajecki et al., 1977).
Among humans, the findings are much the same. Exploring the effects of isolation and confinement during simulated space exploration, typical symptoms have included fatigue, sleep disorders, stress, neurocognitive changes, and immune system deficits (Pagel & Choukèr, 2016). Those confined to an Antarctica research station over winter have likewise exhibited depression, hostility, sleep disturbance, and impaired cognition (Gunderson, 1974). A review of research concluded that feelings of loneliness heighten sensitivity to social threats, impair executive function, disturb sleep, and lower mental and physical wellbeing (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2014). A laboratory experiment found that social isolation was associated with higher levels of: stress, restlessness, hostility, depression, worry, regret, hallucinations, vivid dreams, daydreaming, feelings of unreality, and difficulty thinking and speaking (Zuckerman et al., 1968). On that last point, some studies have likewise found evidence that isolation produces deficits in cognitive function (Arranz et al., 2009; Garrido et al., 2013; Huang et al., 2011).