How did we get into this mess and how do we get out of it?

The following is a guest post by Tomaž Slivnik. He grew up in communist Yugoslavia. After his visits to the USA in the 1980s, his dream of living in the free world and working with computers came true when he got to study and complete his MA, MMath and PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a postdoc and an assistant professor and spent time at universities in the UK, USA, Australia & Singapore before becoming a technology entrepreneur and then an active angel investor. He is an investor in many technology startups and a member of the board of Cambridge Angels.

Quarantine. The idea that those with contagious diseases should be kept away from those who are healthy dates back at least to the Biblical book of Leviticus, written in the seventh century BC. During the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665-1666, the inhabitants of the village of Eyam, infected with the plague, quarantined themselves, in an act of self-sacrifice, in order to stop the spread of the plague to neighbouring towns and villages.

During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, American Samoa and Western Samoa fared very differently. American Samoa had zero fatalities from the disease, while in the immediately adjacent Western Samoa, 22% of the entire population and 30% of all adult males succumbed to the disease. The difference? American Samoa, while they were still disease free, imposed an immediate and total quarantine so that nobody could come in without going through quarantine, while Western Samoa didn't. A single "plague" ship, the Talune, brought the flu to Western Samoa and devastated it. In the USA, San Francisco and Philadelphia experienced similarly contrasting fates, and for the same reasons. Today, the island of Sark has had no cases of the coronavirus, nor has the Spanish town of Zahara de la Sierra. The reason? Before they had a single case, they imposed a requirement on every person coming into their jurisdiction to go into quarantine before entering. The United Kingdom has been rabies-free for 100 years. How? Quarantine.

So the idea that when there is a pandemic of a serious disease, the way - the only way - to protect yourself, is to impose a total quarantine on everyone coming into your jurisdiction, is not new. I am pretty sure I was taught it at school before I reached my teens.

The British government's failure to impose such a quarantine in January, before the UK had any cases of the coronavirus, and it was already known what a terrible disease it was, is incomprehensible. Had they done this, the UK would not have had any coronavirus cases, no one would have got sick, no one would have died from the disease, there would have been no need for any draconian measures, there would have been no need to turn the UK into a police state, and there would have been no economic damage bar some disruption to the airlines and the tourist industry. But ironically, the quarantine could have lasted far less long than the more draconian lockdown measures that have subsequently had to be imposed will in the end last, even the tourist industry would have been less affected, and there would have been no risk that the virus becomes endemic in the UK and takes a death, health and economic toll every year in the future. This was all obvious to me, and most of the people I know, back at least in early February. The sooner you take your bitter medicine, the less of it you have to take, and the sooner you come out the other end. For my thoughts as to what the motivation of the British civil service might have been to fail to act in this apparently self-harming way, you may want to read my other article at here

The more important question now is: how do we get out of this mess? Some are calling for an early end to the lockdown, as soon as possible.

Firstly, it would, in my view, be a mistake to get "back" to "normal" too soon. When you start on a course of antibiotics, you kill the bacteria which are making you sick, but you often suffer side effects. You don't stop taking the antibiotics when you start to feel a little better. You don't stop taking the antibiotics as soon as you feel well. You stop taking the antibiotics when you have finished your course - that is usually a few days after your symptoms have fully disappeared, to ensure that the pathogen really is gone, for good. Otherwise, the pathogen can recur, possibly more resistant and more virulent than before - you have suffered the side effects completely in vain. Measures intended to eradicate the coronavirus can safely end only once there have been no active cases of the disease for 14 days - the incubation period.

Secondly, all these measures are completely pointless unless every person coming into Britain is put into a mandatory 14 day quarantine before they are allowed to start circulating in the country. The virus, even if eradicated, will simply return via immigration. All the draconian, economy-crippling measures will have been completely pointless and for nothing. Remember, this pandemic started with only one infected person - there is scientific evidence that the transmission to a human from whatever earlier source (an animal or a lab) occurred only once. It could easily start all over again from just one person. The government has still not adopted this measure. This is incomprehensible. This measure needs to be implemented, and maintained thereafter in perpetuity against all countries except those which also rid themselves of the virus and adopt similar quarantine rules. Hopefully, this will soon be every country.

And finally, it's not really clear to me that measures as drastic as have been imposed are necessary. If everyone wore a mask in public, followed some basic distancing rules and washed their hands religiously, it is quite possible that the reproductive rate of the disease could be reduced to below 1 - i.e. to the point where every person infects less than one other person on average. Masks primarily protect other people from your expelled aerosols. They also protect you from others' aerosols, though that effect is not that great with the basic surgical masks. They apparently also make you touch your face less, though personally I find the opposite. If the reproductive rate could be reduced below 1, the virus would die out naturally, in time. Rather strangely, again, the British government advice to the public has been the opposite: rather than requiring everyone to wear a mask, they have been discouraging people from wearing them. Sometimes you really do have to wonder whether the degree of idiocy exhibited by the bureaucrats can really be explained by stupidity, or is always sabotage.

This last requirement - to wear a mask - as well as some others - need to be enforced. This outbreak has exposed some interesting anomalies in the laws which I believe need to be corrected. If a country attacks another country with guns, we say this is bad, but the attacker is not ostracised in the international community. But if it attacks the other country with biological pathogens, this is considered a war crime, a crime against humanity, possibly genocide, and totally beyond the pale. Yet, if an individual shoots another individual with a gun, or just walks around with a gun and it sets off accidentally, injuring another, we consider this a serious crime. But if the same individual "attacks" the other person with biological pathogens (we have seen plenty of that - people spitting in the faces of nurses, people licking elevator buttons or hand rails on the underground, etc.), such a person virtually never faces any consequences beyond perhaps being deemed a nuisance, and it's not even clear to me if the law provides any remedy - yet such behaviour can be extremely lethal - to many people. Even slapping someone's face is going to land you in more legal trouble than infecting them with the coronavirus, or even just the flu, which may kill them, and will almost certainly make them sick for many days or weeks. Our right to enjoy our life, limb, liberty and property undisturbed is limited by the right of others to enjoy the same. By infecting others with potentially deadly pathogens, we impose an involuntary cost on them, which may cost them financially, damage their health, or even cost them their life. The law needs to be updated so that there are adverse consequences to those who infect others with biological pathogens, especially if they do so deliberately. This needs to be enforced. And we need to take this seriously. This will encourage people to adopt behaviours and measures which will make them less likely to spread disease - be it wearing masks, staying at home when sick, not licking elevator buttons, not spitting in people's faces, or even some other things we have not thought of - and thus limit the outbreak, without imposing any police state measures.

All views expressed in contributions by named authors are their own and may not reflect the views of The Freedom Association.

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  • Adrian White
    commented 2020-04-24 11:10:55 +0100
    Those who are restricting our freedom, preventing us exercising our rights to freedom of association, freedom of movement and freedom to demonstrate, while curtailing our right to free speech, do so on grounds of public health as does Professor Slivnik, who has various questionable opinions about the benefit of wearing masks, the virulence of the disease, the leniency of the law and the correct exit strategy, but hardly mentions freedom.
    What I should like to know is what the Freedom Association has to say about freedom in these difficult times, both in Great Britain and overseas.

    Adrian White