Britain’s ‘Professor Reopen’: The experts are said to insist lockdown is necessary to combat coronavirus. Epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta dissents

From the WSJ: What if the prime minister had called her on March 22 to seek her opinion? “I would not have recommended lockdown,” she says emphatically. “I’d tell him, ‘Let’s try and protect the vulnerable. Let’s pump as much money as we can into the health-care system. Let’s put all our efforts into testing the population to see to what extent it’s already spread through. And let’s design a policy that doesn’t imperil the economically underprivileged and the economy in general.’ ”

She then imagines Mr. Johnson’s hypothetical response: “He’d say, ‘Look, I don’t know what’s going on. The worst-case scenario is not absolutely improbable. So it’s my duty, as the government, to go by the worst-case scenario. So I’m going to lock down.’ ” Ms. Gupta concedes that’s not a crazy response. She’d have countered: “OK, how long can we afford it before the costs of the lockdown are going to surmount the costs of the death toll? And after two or three weeks of lockdown, can we please focus on trying to figure out whether the worst-case scenario has legs?”

Even so, she says that by lockdown day, it was “pretty clear . . . that the people who were dying everywhere were those who had very serious predisposing conditions or were very old.“ She underlines the point by citing the case of New York, which has seen more deaths from Covid than anywhere else in the U.S. “It’s very important to remember that when we speak about infection fatality rates, that this isn’t a fundamental property of the pathogen,” she says. The infection can be “very virulent in a fraction of the population that’s vulnerable, and almost not at all virulent in the general population.” The overall mortality rate on infection will “vary from place to place, depending on what fraction is vulnerable. It would seem that New York City does have a pretty large segment of vulnerable people.”

Ms. Gupta’s concern about the harm of lockdowns isn’t confined to the U.K. She also worries about the impact on such countries as her native India. “I’m reading about migrant workers walking home over hundreds of miles, dying on the way. It seems the costs are not in proportion.” She stresses that her push for a reopening doesn’t rest on a “libertarian rhetoric of entitlement.” Instead, hers is “an entirely communitarian position,” driven mainly by the plight of the economically disadvantaged.

The lockdown has taken on a moralistic dimension, which explains why Ms. Gupta is being treated as a heretic. People feel that “lockdown is a worthy state of being,” she says, because of “this sense that this is a sacrifice they’re making to protect the vulnerable.” But the burden falls unevenly: “It’s not that difficult to stay at home in a nice house on full pay and the assurance of a job afterwards,” she says. “It’s not the same order of sacrifice as others have had to make.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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