Everything and nothing
The subtle key to Covid
Zero has variously been revered and banned.
Religions have looked less favorably at the number. “The whole concept of nothing actually was quite a difficult idea for a lot of people, especially Christians,” explains mathematician Hannah Fry. “Their idea was sort of ‘eternity’ and there’s no beginning and no end of God. So the very concept of nothingness made them feel quite uncomfortable.”
In his book Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife says the Greeks banned zero, the Hindus worshipped it and Christians used it to fend off heretics. Much like so many high school students, Aristotle dismissed it because you can’t divide by zero and get a wholesome, nice and sensible number.
Mathematicians hail zero for what it has done to expand their field. they speak harshly of anyone that equates zero with “nothing”. The latter is a related thing, but more of a philosophical abstraction. For current purposes, I’ll compare zero with “everything” for one similarity.
Like zero, everything can befuddle us. We can’t touch either. I don’t think we can sensibly picture either as concepts. And they have ways of tricking us. Asymptotes can “tend towards zero” but never get there. Our minds can look towards everything, but can’t get there.
In the context of our responses to Covid-19, we can’t possibly imagine all of the great many results. I suggest that, to this extent, we can equate all of the outcomes from lockdowns with “everything”. If you shut down the world, “everything” is impacted.
Of course, you might say the same about the virus itself. I’d disagree. We know roughly the rate of illness and death it causes. All of the knock-on effects are beyond our calculation. But this is not sensibly comparable with the unthinkably many outcomes of locking down the world.
Lockdowns heavily impact mental health, childhood development, economics, bridge maintenance, culture, climate, supply chains, every human relationship, political power dynamics, sleep schedules, exercise routines… and.. Well, I’ll stop there. I can’t hope to imagine, let alone deal with, all of these.
In sum, we have a good idea of the terrible impact of Covid. We cannot possibly have anything like that grasp of the “everything” that lockdowns make worse.
Couple this with two things. First, the burden of proof is on those demanding lockdowns to show the benefit beats the costs. Second, we know these non-pharmaceutical measures have limited ability to prevent spread.
Why did we lockdown? Why are we still doing it?