COVID-19: When is the cure worse than the pandemic?
How have different countries have dealt with the pandemic? What is best for society when we do things with shared interests in mind, versus looking out for individual needs? Featured voices include Swedish physician Johnny Ludvigsson, who is against lockdowns, and British economist Noreena Hertz.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
This is Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and in this season, season two, we’re focusing on polarization. For me, it is the big problem of our time. And I bet you feel it, too: This overwhelming sense that none of us agree on anything.
In each episode, I’ll explore a topic that’s dividing us. I’ll talk to people on both sides of the issue, and I’ll try to challenge myself to understand positions that aren’t necessarily comfortable for me. I’m stepping outside of the echo chambers we’ve all grown so used to. And my hope is that by interrogating problems from multiple angles, we’ll come up with solutions that work better for everyone. And honestly, I think the best way to deal with polarization is to remain curious and open to changing your mind.
Now, most of the interviews I’ve done have been at home, staring at my laptop. Lockdown has been hard for all of us, but from time to time, I actually do manage to leave my house in central London — like this winter, when I ventured out to north London.
[SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS]
NELUFAR: OK, here you go.
NELUFAR: I know, visiting the outside. It felt scandalous, because we were midway through the harshest lockdown in London’s COVID-induced reality. I came here to start my journey trying to understand why we’re so polarized when it comes to the pandemic, and what the cost is. I found myself in a launderette.
This launderette is nothing fancy, and you’d likely walk right by the big posters on the storefront advertising service washes.
I’m not here to wash my lights and darks, but to speak to the manager. And like a good citizen during these times of the pandemic, before we start the interview, I wash my hands.
NELUFAR: …five, six…I’m counting! Washing my hands for 20 seconds.
NELUFAR: I adjust my mask and make sure it’s fitting snug. And then I take off my coat and sit down in front of a man in his mid-60s, kind-faced and clearly handsome when he was a 20-something. But years of smoking had hardened that.
NELUFAR: How are you, Dad? [SPEAKS FARSI]
NELUFAR: That’s my father, Nazir Ahmad. Nazir came to England around two decades ago, fleeing a bitter civil war in which he was conscripted into the Afghan army. He’s a well-educated man with a Ph.D. in mathematics.
For the last six years, Nazir — I have to get used to saying his name like that — he’s been working six days a week in this little launderette. It’s hard work: Constantly fixing his cantankerous machines, dealing with detergents and bleaches all day in the coldest of cold in winter, and the hottest of hot in summer. But he loves it.
My dad hands me a cup of traditional green Afghan chai.
NELUFAR: That’s enough, thank you. That’s more than enough.
NELUFAR: When COVID first became a reality, my dad closed the launderette almost half the year — through various lockdowns, tier systems and more. But in the autumn of 2020, he opened it back up, spending his time in one spare room that’s separated from the coin-operated washers and dryers by a thin piece of drywall. There’s one table, one chest of drawers, two chairs, and a tiny radio and heater.
NAZIR: As you see, I am stuck in here. The place I can walk is about three meters.
NAZIR: But still, I keep myself moving, you know. I can’t, I can’t sit all day. It’s difficult to sit in one place.
NELUFAR: But that doesn’t seem to bother my dad too much. What really upsets him is the huge drop in customers he’s seen — first after Brexit, when a lot of the foreign renters who lived nearby left the country, and then the pandemic dealt a bitter blow.
NAZIR: I lost, to be honest, more than half of my customers. Lots of people who are vulnerable. They mostly don’t — try not to come. Even if they come, they do a quick job and run away. That’s why my business is affected a lot.
NELUFAR: And that loss in revenue has been really tough on my dad and my family.
NAZIR: I pay rent and I pay my bills. After that, until now, I was not able to buy even one bread for my home. It’s that hard. So thanks God, you know, government — they help some, and I can eat that one. And I can survive.
NELUFAR: But even though he’s figured out how to physically manage this period, the mental challenge has been just as bad.
My dad loves people and he’s a happy-go-lucky guy, so people love him. He’s made the launderette a pillar of the local community, and I know that the months of self-isolation has taken its toll on him. So much so, that coupled with a serious loss of earnings, the mere thought of meeting people is what gets him out of bed each morning to open the shop.
NAZIR: At least I have fun here. I can see people from behind the window.
NELUFAR: The window he’s referring to is a big plexiglass shield that has always been there, but was now covered in signs saying “NO ENTRY.”
My dad even constructed a homemade wooden payment box [COINS SCRAPING AGAINST WOOD] so nobody has to hand him money directly.
When the launderette is empty, he collects all the change from the machines, and he’s developed a routine to keep himself safe.
NAZIR: I have to wash my hands. Usually when it is — when I collect money from the machines, I wash them with the Dettol. I leave them there for about 10 minutes, then I wash them with the soap because I touched them.
[COINS SCRAPING AGAINST WOOD]
And that’s it. Now a person has his change, and I didn’t have any contact with him.
NELUFAR: If this all sounds over the top, you have to understand how terrified my dad is of this pandemic. He’s been a heavy smoker for 45 years, he’s pre-diabetic and his blood pressure is criminally high, so yeah — he’s high-risk. Just facing the outside world fills him with dread.
NAZIR: When I go out, I feel it’s — very wild lions outside, and they will attack me. And I try to run to sit in my car and run home.
NELUFAR: And yet despite having to live like this for months on end, my dad still believes he’s doing the right thing — not just for himself, but also for his community.
NAZIR: The lockdown is the right thing to do. You can check the numbers on the news. The infection rate is coming down; mortality coming down. Government do the best job, but we have to support and we have to help.
NELUFAR: After chatting for about 15 minutes it’s time to go. Even though I still haven’t finished my tea, I don’t feel comfortable being inside for too long, for his sake. But also, I know that it would bother him if I removed my mask. It would contaminate his safe little cave away from the lions.
As I leave, I stop and take one more look at the door. [STREET NOISE] Outside, my dad has posted a sign telling people about safety protocols of masks and distancing. But on the bottom he’s also included this line:
NELUFAR: “We thank you in advance in helping us keep you safe. We love our community and we will get through this together.”
NELUFAR: We’re all in this together. Of course, there’s a collective pain that’s being felt — not just here, but all over the world.
Some are suffering from this pandemic worse than others, whether they themselves are sick with the disease, or they have loved ones who are sick or even dying. Or the effects of the cure — the lockdowns — are causing others immense mental health issues, economic hardship and, frankly, extreme loneliness.
So this episode we ask, “Has the cure been worse than the pandemic?” Talking to my dad was a great place to start but now for my challenging conversation, I’m due to get on a Zoom call with a doctor who disagrees with me completely. Later, I’ll get on the line with a bestselling economist that puts everything into perspective again.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING:
It was one year ago this month that the first symptomatic cases of COVID-19 were reported. As the pandemic swept across the globe, more than 65 million people have been infected and more than a million and a half were killed by the virus.
NELUFAR: It’s crazy to think that it’s been more than a year since all our lives were turned upside down. Thankfully we now have vaccinations that are rolling out, though not fast enough. We all want life back to normal — but who should pay the price for that?
COVID is a pandemic defined by numbers. At times of spikes in transmission and death rates, the response from governments all over the world has been quite draconian. I can’t help but be moved by the collective sacrifice that has saved tens of thousands of lives from COVID-related deaths as we all work to flatten the curve of infections.
But despite these successes, some have questioned the cost of drastic measures. After speaking to Dad — er, Nazir — I can see both sides. It feels to me like everything we do is covered in a layer of risk.
Over the winter, when COVID was spiking almost everywhere and the vaccines still had yet to roll out, I talked with Dr. Johnny Ludvigsson. His background is pediatric oncology — basically dealing with kids with cancer. He’s a prominent Swedish physician, who has published countless articles over the years. In May 2020, he was the lead author of a paper that dared to question whether lockdowns caused more harm than good. It took him five months to find a journal that would print it.
DR. JOHNNY LUDVIGSSON:
It was surprising for me that an opinion couldn’t be published, but OK. I can’t say anything about that.
NELUFAR: Sweden has been in the news for bucking the rest of Europe. The Swedish government sided with individual freedoms, and took a more hands-off approach to the pandemic. While Swedes were encouraged to wear masks and social distance, restaurants and other businesses stayed open, even as neighboring countries went into complete lockdown.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING:
In Sweden, life is just a little quieter than normal. Many businesses and schools are open, and there are no internal travel restrictions. Swedish health officials…
NELUFAR: At first, it seemed like the strategy was working, but by the summer, cases were spiking leading to one of the highest death rates in Europe relative to its population size. The contrast in infections was even starker when compared to other Nordic countries.
NEWS CLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING:
A second wave of COVID is sweeping through Stockholm. It didn’t escape, as authorities predicted it would. And now Sweden is marching to different orders.
NELUFAR: Dr. Ludvigsson stood by his government and said the risk was proportional.
JOHNNY: You have to balance what you do so that you don’t make it worse with what you do than what the virus leads to.
I remember how dramatic the reactions have been when the swine flu came in 2008. And just the economic turbulence, 2008, 9, caused a rather serious health problems. Not to speak of, of course, in the 1930s, when the serious depression was. And therefore it’s also important to try to keep society going, because otherwise you cause a lot of difficult health problems.
NELUFAR: And do you think that the scientists behaved irrationally when they projected these catastrophic numbers unless we had these extreme lockdown measures?
JOHNNY: There were experts with different views. I mean, there are those who thought that it will not be so extremely dangerous. And then they started this — mainly very old people, not only, but mainly.
NELUFAR: Does that make a difference, the age?
JOHNNY: Ja, ja, ja. That makes a difference, absolutely. I agree with people when they say that a life is a life. But then it is a big difference because, you know — I must admit that if I have somebody who is 85 years old — or like me, 77 — and compare that life, and the value of that life, with somebody who is 10 years old, or 30 years old with small children. That is a big difference, because I am looking upon quality years. And nobody has discussed that.
NELUFAR: I hear what you’re saying, but I have a mentor, and my mentor is in her, in her 70s. I don’t know what to say. It’s very hard to say these words because they just feel wrong in my mouth as though I’m, I’m saying that her life is more valuable than yours, or yours is more than hers.
JOHNNY: You know, you have to look upon expected quality years. In Sweden, we actually came out with, the authorities came out with priority who to put into respirator, if it were so that you didn’t have respirators enough. Then they got formal stages — one, two, three — who should be put into a respirator. And it was very clearly written that if you have somebody with expected length of life of less than one year, and they have also other comorbidities, then they should wait.
NELUFAR: One thing was clear to me, the conversation I was having with Dr. Ludvigsson — it was incredibly hard. I never hear anyone on TV or online speak about the value of one life over another like this. But with a global pandemic of outstanding proportions, should we be having more of these conversations?
NELUFAR: I just want to speak to you personally for a moment. I’m fairly confident that in late December I got COVID. My boyfriend got COVID, and I was in his house, in his presence. I didn’t feel anything — not so much as a lost taste bud.
NELUFAR: That’s because I got COVID — I didn’t get that COVID. I didn’t get the COVID that takes a father away from his children in three days. I didn’t get the COVID where people are still dealing with long-haul issues. I just got COVID, and I don’t particularly care or worry about it. I guess my point is, Dr. Ludvigsson, is it possible to have a discussion about COVID when the experiences of it, when the meaning of what it is to have COVID, is so vastly different? I guess I’m talking more about the discourse, the discussion about COVID.
JOHNNY: That’s — it’s reasonable. I mean, the majority who gets COVID-19 have no symptoms at all or very little symptoms. And that’s it, I mean, it’s nothing peculiar. Not even my older brother, 84 years old, and his wife, 82 — they had COVID-19, and they had slight symptoms for the one to two weeks. Some people, they won’t react very much at all. And the most young people — children and the teenagers — they don’t notice this. This is less of a problem for them, either.
NELUFAR: Now I’m, now I’m completely confused — because when I turn on the news, all I hear is, “1,500 dead, 1,400 dead, 50,000 people…” I mean, what’s going on? What’s happening here? You’re telling me something that’s vastly different to what I’m hearing when I turn on the news.
JOHNNY: Yeah, but that is a problem, because it is confusing to all the day, every day, report number of deaths. Because it leads to a feeling among people that everybody is going to die, more or less, if they get COVID-19. The absolute majority will have very, very slight symptoms, if any symptoms at all. In that way, I think it’s a bit exaggerated to all the time talk about the number of deaths. It leads to panic. People have behaved as if they were in prison, more or less, and what happened? One million children have already died in the developing countries — not of COVID-19, but because of the consequences. And a hundred million, according to United Nations, calculated to have drawn back into poverty. And a hundred million children are supposed to not have got their vaccinations, which will lead to disaster with a lot of diseases. And 11 million girls are supposed to —
NELUFAR: OK, OK. That’s enough, that’s enough. I can’t, I can’t — I literally can’t hear anymore because…
JOHNNY: It’s just the consequences of the way the Western world have, you know, to save the lives. OK, I understand that. We all want to save lives, but I can discuss how that should be done. Evidently, a lockdown has not necessarily been the best way.
NELUFAR: If the lockdowns are not beneficial, what do you prescribe?
JOHNNY: Strong recommendations of isolation, physical distance, wash your hands. Keep your older people, especially those with the vulnerable groups, with problems of the lungs or immune system, keep isolated from others. Try to avoid to get this virus until vaccination has become a possibility.
NELUFAR: Aside from the fact that you suggest that the elderly should perhaps shield, that sounds exactly like a lockdown, Dr. Ludvigsson.
JOHNNY: No, no, no. It’s not a lockdown. Lockdown of society — that is not letting anybody go out. I mean, you had rules in certain countries, they were not allowed to take a walk. Why? I’m taking a walk every day. And why shouldn’t I take a walk? Why shouldn’t I go to the park? Why couldn’t I go out swimming in the summer? Why should I sit with a mask for my face when I am walking outside or going to swim in my lake? It’s crazy. That didn’t influence at all whether I got COVID-19 or not.
NELUFAR: I understand. You’ve given me so much to think about, Dr. Ludvigsson. I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for sharing the stories of your family with me, too. They’re very precious.
JOHNNY: Thank you. Thank you.
[PERCUSSIVE SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: I have never stopped thinking about this mind-altering conversation with Dr. Ludvigsson. He made a compelling argument and was practicing what he preached. The cure for him is much worse than the disease, because it takes away something in short supply these days: Hope and agency.
With the pandemic creating such extreme situations, as we’ve all been facing, it’s no wonder we’re all having to question everything we believe and think. I wanted one more perspective on this whole question of whether or not we, as a society, have approached this pandemic in the right way. Rather than turning to another scientist or even a politician, I decided to speak with an economist.
Dr. Noreena Hertz is a world-renowned British economist. She has been writing about the cost of social isolation and trying to think through how that impacts society. She’s spent her career trying to connect the practical ways that people live their lives to the numbers she’s finding in her research. That’s one of the themes of her latest book, The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart.
My plan was to challenge her with Dr. Ludvigsson’s views — which I was beginning to agree with day by day. But we started somewhere else. So much around the COVID-19 pandemic is like living in different realities, where one person’s set of facts and ideas don’t match with someone else’s.
NELUFAR: I want you to change my mind. So someone has convinced me of something, and I don’t like it, because I’m like a wishy-washy liberal, right? So I’m all like, we have to protect everyone and love everyone, and — I’m that kind of a person. But I spoke to a doctor, Dr. Ludvigsson, based out in Sweden. Seventy-seven-year-old man, sibling’s older than him — 84, who did catch COVID — survived, thankfully. And he’s convinced me that, in fact, the problem with the way we’re dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Noreena, is wrong because we are sacrificing the young for the needs of the boomers — for the needs of the older generation, yet again. And I think he has a very fair point.
You’re an economist, you know this better than I could ever really understand it, really. Who pays the price? Is it the young people? Are we choosing to shield in the wrong ways? Should we be reassessing who has the burden of being isolated, and saying that this is your responsibility? And who has the right or the responsibility to go out and work and make sure that the economy is going?
NOREENA: These are questions that, you know, hit at the heart of some kind of big questions in philosophy and ethics that people have argued over for centuries. You know: Who is more valuable? Who is worth more: the person in their 50s, with wisdom, with knowledge, with family? Or a baby, who’s just born and has their whole life ahead of them? Who is worth more? You know, it also touches upon what should we, as a society, value more? People in mental pain, maybe terrible mental pain? People in economic pain, maybe terrible economic pain? Or is death, with its finalizing quality, you know, so final that that overrides everything else?
I mean, these are all kind of big questions. And questions that there’s no — unfortunately, I can’t give you a definitive answer. But maybe the way to help you think about it, to try and push back against your new friend, this Swedish doctor, [LAUGHING] is — well, firstly, let’s look at some of the facts. We know now, in a way that we didn’t know when the pandemic first struck, that it’s not just elderly people who are being affected. And if you hear, you know, testimonies from doctors who are on the front line — are talking increasingly about young people who they’re seeing on their wards: teenagers, people in their 20s, people in their 30s.
And what we’re increasingly learning about long COVID is that even if you are young and you had COVID quite mildly, you could still be ill in considerable ways that will affect your livelihood, your mental health, your physical health, for years to come. So I think this idea that we’re kind of like making some erroneous choice between choosing the old over the young, you know — firstly, is factually not true, especially when we take into account long COVID and its lingering effects. But I think it raises the much bigger question of what kind of a society do we want to be?
NELUFAR: But we do live in a society, Noreena, where doctors make the choice of who gets a ventilator. We do live in a society where there is a guide, a best practice for doctors, in terms of who they should save, and what value of life will that patient get, and should they be resuscitated? We make these decisions all the time, but this is the first time where we’ve had to make them together. And that’s what COVID-19 has done: It’s brought us face to face with our own mortality — and we refuse. It’s as though we think we have the right not to die.
NOREENA: I think you’re framing this in a really misleading way. Because this isn’t about us not acknowledging our own mortality — this is about us, as a society, being able to make a choice right now of what kind of a society we want to be. Do we want to be a society that helps and puts first the most vulnerable amongst us? Do we want to be a society that puts life — because it’s so finite, yes — right before death, which I think is an absolute fair and rational and right choice — or not? But also, that doesn’t mean that at the same time, we shouldn’t be fighting hard to get resources put into mental health. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t — at the same time — be fighting hard to make sure that those who are suffering most in economic terms are being helped through this.
NELUFAR: Every time I try to have this conversation, the left — in this polarized kind of debate — has a very, like, rich, complex language to be able to talk about community and local issues and a sense of collectiveness. The minute you kind of go center or center-right, you sound like a eugenicist! Like there’s no language, there’s no kind of like discourse that exists on the right where you can have this discussion. I want to understand a little bit, in your experience, because you’ve done a lot of work in the idea of economics and psychology and human behavior: What role does language and messaging play when it comes to talking about making sure you do the right thing collectively?
NOREENA: Well, one of the things that I find fascinating in my research on the point of language is — as neoliberal capitalism became the kind of dominant form of capitalism throughout — from the 1980s onwards, a form of capitalism which is much more selfish and self-interested — so too did language change, with words like “duty” and “care” and “share” being used increasingly little in discourse.
And even — you see this even in pop song lyrics, where from the 1980s onwards, what you see is pop song lyrics became steadily more individualistic, with words like “we,” “us” and “our” being supplanted by words like “I,” “me” and “myself.” So language, of course — the way we shape and frame things — has a huge role in how we see, how we’re able to communicate with each other.
But on this point, and again, this idea that we are fractured, polarized, with opposing views — coronavirus has, you know, really amplified again what were preexisting fissures. And there was an experiment, there were some journalists in Germany who got very concerned about political polarization. They’re really concerned that in Germany, there are increasing numbers of people who are, you know, really locked in their own echo bubbles, and in their own silos. And they thought, “How about we try and match — put people together — with radically opposing views?” You know, why don’t we try and put together today the anti-vaxxers or the anti-maskers with those who actually are for it? And they did it: They created what they called in-house a “political Tinder.” And they matched up people of radically different views. OK, it was an opt-in process, but thousands of people across Germany took part. And they met up in beer gardens, in cafes, in bars. They had to meet up for two hours and just speak to each other. And what was fascinating was that just two hours — only two hours — they had radically different views of each other. They saw much more what they had in common, rather than what kept them apart. If we are to come together in a world that is more fractured now than it has been at any time before, we’re going to need a whole plethora of such initiatives moving forwards.
NELUFAR: I want to leave with just one more question. Doha Debates — everything that we’re about, Course Correction — is about solutions. We want to find ways to solve these problems. I don’t think we’re going to solve it all now. But what is one thing that I can do, that my audience listening to you right now can do, to try and have that better, more cooperative post-pandemic world?
NOREENA: So first: Sounds very simple — it is — put down our phones more. I mean, be more present with each other, like when you’re in — especially when we’re able to be back in rooms with our friends and our families and our loved ones — really be with them, be present with them.
The second thing I think is so important to do: Value kindness, care and compassion more in each other, whether it’s in our friends, our colleagues or our family. The past few decades, qualities like competitiveness and selfishness have been valorized at the expense of these other qualities. And yet they’re absolutely essential if we are to come together again.
I think the third thing we can do — and really important to do — is to nurture our local communities more. Unless we water our local neighborhoods, our roots will never be able to flourish and grow. And the final thing: Really think, is there anyone in your own network who might be feeling lonely, who might be struggling? And reach out to them, just showing that you care. Pick up the phone, send them a text — could make a huge difference to how it is they feel.
NELUFAR: Noreena Hertz, thank you so much for talking to me.
NOREENA: Thank you so much for having me on.
NELUFAR: Speaking to Dr. Hertz had brought me full circle. I thought of those wild lions my dad was facing every time he left home and went to manage the launderette — at great risk to himself, but to avoid the heavier price of isolation and financial strife.
I’d like to think that Dr. Ludvigsson would look at my dad and commend him for trying to keep his local economy alive, and the individual responsibility he was taking for doing so. And that Dr. Hertz would warmly regard my dad’s efforts to keep his community together in these tough times. In one little launderette, the fears, hopes, rights and wrongs of this global pandemic were playing out.
When the COVID pandemic, as we have lived it in 2020 and 2021, is over, there’s going to be countless books published and articles submitted on how we all handled it. My hope is that with the worst of it in the rearview mirror, we can learn from the mistakes we are undoubtedly all making right now and come together in ways we couldn’t this pandemic round.
In the coming weeks, we’re going to tackle more issues that divide us, more that challenge our beliefs of what’s right and wrong, and what policies are the best for society and best for ourselves and our families. It’s my hope that as you take this journey with us this season, you too keep an open mind. I also hope that hearing my conversations with people I don’t necessarily agree with will encourage you to do the same. Because the problems we as a world face today are enormous, and if we all hide in our own little bubbles, we’ll never get anywhere.
NELUFAR: That’s our episode! What do you think? Tweet us at @DohaDebates, or me, I’m @nelufar. And I always love hearing from you.
If you like what you hear, please write us a review. It really helps spread the word about what we’re trying to do. Course Correction is written and produced by me, Nelufar Hedayat.
Editorial production assistance comes from Foreign Policy, with producers Sarah Kendal, Sofia Sanchez and Rosie Julin. The managing director for FP Studios is Rob Sachs.
The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta.
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