Talkradio host Julia Hartley-Brewer drew fire and fury online by injecting some statistics into the incendiary ‘lives v the economy’ debate. “Just 377 healthy people under 60 have died of Covid. That's not a typo. There are no zeros missing,” she tweeted, sharing a post by columnist Paul Embery.
The figure is accurate, if outdated. The latest weekly update from the National Health Service (NHS) England, up to December 23, puts the number of people under 60 who have died from Covid-19 in hospitals, and had no prior conditions, slightly higher – at 388.
Despite the difference, Hartley-Brewer’s point still stands, which is: “help the millions of old & sick to shield while allowing the young & healthy (& our economy) to carry on living.”
The take was met with much rage online, including from people who seemed to ignore her ‘no, I am not saying let the old and sick die out’ disclaimer and rushed to topple the straw man. Hartley-Brewer pushed back against some of those comments, calling them “disingenuous or wilfully stupid” and sharing a few personal attacks made against her.
She didn’t seem as ready to reply to more nuanced criticisms, however. Covid-19 creates problems on many fronts. For example, hospital cases drain the limited reserve of medical resources and labour. “Flattening the curve” to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system was the initial rationale for social distancing rules and lockdowns, before both issues got highly politicised in some Western countries. At the moment, over 18,000 hospital beds in England are occupied by Covid-19 patients, who have their own pool of beds that are separate from other patients.
There is also an argument to be made that protecting the economy by allowing less vulnerable people to take the risk and go on with their lives may not be viable long-term. Many survivors develop lasting ailments from the coronavirus, and they will be less productive and more costly to society for years to come. So, straightforward comparisons of lives lost and percentages of GDP shrunk for various scenarios may be misleading.
That said, the Boris Johnson government doesn’t seem to have done a good job of convincing the public that its response to Covid-19 was justified and necessary. Between doom-laden death projections, top officials getting caught flouting their own health guidelines and a broken promise for a relief for Christmas, one can see how some people think that the people in power are simply messing with their lives without a good reason.