Coronavirus and a Short, Sharp Shock
The upsurge in rates of Covid-19 infections across the world is resulting in many countries implementing what is being called a ‘circuit breaker’. The personal, social and economic hardship caused by these measures is likely to be extreme, so much so that in some jurisdictions they are being referred to as a ‘short, sharp shock’.
In criminology the phrase ‘short, sharp shock’ is famous or perhaps I should say infamous. It is used to refer to the implementation and use of Detention Centre sentences for children who committed very minor offences, often for the first time. Detention Centre regimes were built around military-style drill and strenuous physical exercise that was explicitly designed to be unpleasant. The purported aim of such treatment of children was to expose them to sufficient hardship that they would not wish to have it repeated and, therefore, would not commit further offences.
Whilst it is clear that such a manner of treating children could only emerge from the twisted thinking of a senior Tory politician (in this instance, the then, Home Secretary, William Whitelaw), the problem with the short, sharp shock was not only that it was ineffective in reducing or preventing recidivism, it was actually counter-productive: producing fitter, stronger and angrier children who so resented their treatment that they were more likely to re-offend.
To be sure, there are clear differences between the short, sharp shock of the Detention Centre and the short, sharp shock of a circuit breaker (notably it is not the virus that directly feels the personal, social and economic consequences) there are also some parallels: notably the extent of the hardship felt by the population may be extreme enough to produce an abreaction that is ultimately counter-productive. In this scenario the harms done by the short, sharp shock are severe enough in themselves to judge that the approach is ineffective and the short, sharp shock itself is ineffective in reducing or preventing the spread of the virus ultimately leading to a greater spread of the virus.
One is forced to ask: why are politicians ‘forced’ into taking such drastic and risky measures to respond to the ‘crisis’ of Covid-19 infection? The problem, it seems to me, is the way the problem is being framed. On the one hand there are the extreme personal, social and economic hardships caused by excessive responses (stay at home orders, restrictions on freedom of movement, closure of economic activity etc) and on the other hand the government is being advised by epidemiologists to impose more restrictions. Politicians, therefore, are being asked to choose between the polar opposites of hardship vs control as if the choice is one or the other.
To be sure, the epidemiologists advising governments are highly educated, very sincere people. So too are those railing against the hardships caused by increasingly repressive measures. Both sides are, in fact, right but they are responding to an artificial distinction hardship vs control, Scylla vs Charybdis. What is missing from the advice being given to politicians is experience of policy implementation supported by what may be termed a ‘sociological’ understanding of the way societies function. Civil servants are ill-equipped to provide such advice (such is the aversion to actual decision-making amongst this class), epidemiologists are limited to the ‘science’ and politicians are spectacularly ill-equipped and unprepared (by dint of education or experience) to make such reasoned, rational choices and decisions. The UK, for example, is led by a cadre of journalists whose flip floppery in opinion is led only by the pursuit of daily readership not reason.
Covid-19 is real. It is here and it is here to stay. A vaccine will not eradicate Covid-19 in the short or long term. We must, therefore, adapt to a world under Covid-19 conditions. We cannot do this and prosper if our only choices, the only policy responses, are vacillating between doing nothing and a series of short, sharp shocks. Governments need to broaden the scope of the advice they receive. Governments must listen to the scientists, but not only to the scientists. Governments must listen to those whose voices are raised to minimise the personal, social and economic hardships of lockdowns — but not only to these people. We are all in desperate need of finding a consistent, coherent and competent middle way of navigating the personal and global challenges presented by Covid-19.
Professor Kevin Haines
Head of Social Policy, Bedford Row Capital PLC