After months of lockdowns, border closures, and inconsistent injunctions issued by local authorities to protect some of their constituents by severely limiting everyone’s freedom not only to move, but also to act, and even to speak, the time has arrived for a robust discussion of the proper scope and role of government. The range of “emergency laws” being imposed by authorities all over the world in order to stem the tide of COVID-19, or to prevent so-called second waves of the illness in countries where it has already taken a steep toll, is amazing to behold. I imagine that more and more of these laws will be overturned in Western liberal democracies as lawsuits force judges soberly to confront the mountain of statistics being amassed. One hopes that they will find ways to objectively assess the real danger of the disease (relative to other causes of death) rather than continue to permit government administrators to base their abrupt and arbitrary policy changes on scary-sounding “case surges,” which have not been followed up by surges in deaths, thankfully. It is unclear to me why anyone would ever have worried about a second wave of deaths to begin with, given what we now know about the discriminate targeting of the disease, which at the outset the hard-hit Italians certainly did not. But, alas, fear acts as a powerful vise on the minds of even intelligent beings.
It is surprising that so much emphasis has been placed on cases, rather than deaths, because nearly everyone now does seem to know that many “infected” persons show only minor or no symptoms at all. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) itself included a text to that effect in all of its early reports on the new coronavirus, back when no one really understood what was going on, and it seemed a matter of simple prudence to do whatever “the experts” decreed. Hardly anyone seemed to wonder at the time why, if COVID-19 was a genuine pandemic, the CDC would be stating, almost in passing, that “most people” would not be adversely affected by it in the least. So is it a pandemic? Or is it not a pandemic? Here is the definition of pandemic in the Merriam Webster dictionary:
pandemic = an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affects a significant proportion of the population
In war theaters, those running the show have always hedged their bets, and the same thing is happening today in the theater of COVID-19. Better to err to the side of caution! appears to be the thinking, as at least some politicians must have believed when in October 2002 they granted President George W. Bush the authority to wage war on Iraq whenever he pleased, with no further need to consult the legislature. Once war has already been waged, the citizenry tends to line up behind leaders in a show of solidarity, even when it becomes indisputable that they have no idea what they are doing, as in the cases of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, to list only a few of the many catastrophes in recent U.S. military history. Sadly, the same seems to be true in the “war” on COVID-19, as some have characterized it, and not without reason.
When authoritarian measures are implemented in the name of national defense, we are right to examine whether those measures actually promote rather than undermine our own interests, as in the case of the twenty-year War on Terror. The summary execution of U.S. citizens without indictment (much less trial) was carried out under the authority of President Barack Obama before the not-so-critical eyes of the populace, most of whom did not even blink. Mass surveillance of all U.S. citizens—and, indeed, anyone, anywhere in the world—was justified in the minds of government leaders because of the danger supposedly posed to “our way of life” by violent terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. “They hate us for our freedom” became an oft-parroted trope, despite the ample evidence that, in truth, they hate us for our bombs, which leaders continue to this day to lob, killing innocent people while disrupting and degrading societies in lands far away.
The ever-proliferating “emergency laws” penned in response to the COVID-19 virus reflect a similar sense of urgency among bureaucrats. When persons are swabbed and then effectively punished (quarantined) for having “failed” the COVID-19 test, some among them are understandably baffled. One anecdotal case among thousands is that of my uncle, who needed to have surgery for the removal of a painful kidney stone but was forced to wait two weeks as a result of his positive COVID-19 test, despite exhibiting no symptoms whatsoever of the dreaded disease and personally suffering only from his kidney problem. There are much worse cases, of course, which involve potentially fatal illnesses: cancer, stroke, heart attacks, and the like. Nevertheless, asymptomatic patients continue to be denied access to treatment until they have first survived a quarantine intended to protect other people from death.
Making matters worse, there appear to have been many instances of false positive tests for COVID-19. Indeed, by some estimates, a large proportion of those who test positive but do not exhibit symptoms are not even contagious. A bit of inactive COVID-19 debris (or “dust,” as it might be termed) may lead diagnosticians to red-flag patients who are not dangerous in the least. The testing of people varies from place to place, with local authorities determining not only who should be tested but also what the threshold test sensitivity should be. These judgments are made on the basis of whatever strikes them—in consultation with their local “experts”—as relevant at the time. All of this makes it very difficult to know what any of the case surge reports actually mean. Many of the abrupt increases in new cases are obviously accounted for by the implementation of robust testing programs, particularly in places where no or very little testing was being done before. Yet government administrators continue to craft new quarantine, lockdown, mask and social distancing requirements based on The ScienceTM, because they do not know what else to do. Border restrictions on people hailing from countries with unacceptably high infection rates (in England, the magic number is 20 or more cases per 100,000 inhabitants) continue to be used to prevent entire populations from entering other countries. In this way, all people of such nations are being effectively punished as though everyone living there were infected.
The government of Spain, no doubt viewing itself as taking extra precautions to protect its population, has gone one step further, refusing entry even to Americans residing in so-called corridor countries (deemed safe) and who have not been in the United States since the crisis began. So what is the health pretext in that case supposed to be, exactly? It is also worth noting that the tit-for-tat restrictions being implemented by countries (where one slams down a quarantine requirement, and then the other follows suit, preserving reciprocity) would seem to be based purely on politics, not public health. It makes no sense whatsoever for a country with a higher rate of infection to bar entry of people from a country with a lower rate of infection, who, by coming, would lower the host country’s rate of infection, would they not? No, I am afraid that the numbers do not bear this out, for any changes in infection rate would be on the magnitude of rounding errors. If in a given country 21 people out of 100,000 are COVID-19 positive, even assuming that they are contagious (which many may not be), then what is the probability that any one person on a 200 passenger plane originating from that country will be a carrier? I leave this calculation as an exercise for the reader.
Having recently watched a few pandemic movies (Contagion, Outbreak, 93 Days…), I have come to suspect that the primary problem with the new COVID-19 czars is that they are basing their policies on such apocalyptic portrayals, under the assumption that a pandemic is a pandemic. It has become abundantly clear that many of these people are altogether devoid of basic statistical analysis and critical thinking skills. As a result, they are indeed hedging their bets by waving their “Science” flags, under the assumption that anything bad enough to be labeled a “pandemic” by the World Health Organization (WHO) could kill us all. Thus we have, on opposite sides of the planet, the prime minister of Australia and the governor of Michigan proclaiming that emergency measures will be necessary until such time as an effective vaccine is readily available. The hubris of such a pronouncement is awe-inspiring. These leaders seem to believe that by wishing hard enough and pouring enough resources into labs all over the world—whatever it takes!—we can and will eventually defeat The Evil Enemy with a manmade vaccine. Alas, reality does not always conform to our wishes, and hoping for a safe and effective vaccine is one thing, while developing and testing one is quite another. There have, in fact, been attempts in the past few decades to come up with vaccines against other coronavirus and SARS variants, with no success.
The movies in which pandemics are The Evil Enemy present truly existential threats to humanity, unlike COVID-19, which specifically targets the aged and the infirm (usually both at the same time). Proponents of lockdowns and severe restrictions of movement and activity are reacting to COVID-19 as though everyone has a 99% chance of dying if they become infected, when in fact that is much closer to their chance of surviving. So if COVID-19 is nothing like Ebola (which does kill nine out of ten people it infects), then why are policymakers acting as though it is?
Consider Victoria, Australia, where the government has imposed one of the strictest lockdowns on the planet in response to an outbreak of cases in Melbourne. The people in that city are living under martial law, with police storming the homes of “criminals” who “incite” illegal behavior by encouraging others to attend public gatherings in order to protest the lockdown, mask mandate, curfew, and social distancing requirements preventing them from living their lives with any semblance of normality. How did the Australian government know that people were “inciting” such “criminal” behavior? Because the “perpetrators” posted their views on Facebook. In the United States, Northeastern University suspended eleven students for violating social distancing dictates by partying at a nearby hotel (Note: they were not on campus). The recalcitrant students will not be refunded their tuition and fees and are barred from returning for the year.
Some may protest that I am making trivial objections. ‘World travel is a luxury and a leisure activity. Better to stay home and play it safe than to die! College students do not need to party! They should stay in their rooms and hit the books, helping others to survive!’ But many businesses have also been fined or shut down for violating an ever-mutating array of regulations and requirements. Small business owners and contract employees have suffered enormously through the lockdowns in places where they are ineligible for government assistance, and thousands of small businesses will never recover. Perhaps it will seem impolite to point this out, but it is nonetheless true that the individuals laying down the new laws have salaries which will never be disrupted, no matter what they do. They will not be losing their jobs and will not be rendered homeless, no matter how long the lockdowns remain in place, and no matter how often the rules for businesses are changed.
As an indirect result of political measures implemented to combat COVID-19, suicides are on the rise (including among people who are retired), and cancer deaths will soon be, too, thanks to severely restricted access to medical care especially during the first months of the crisis. Some of the measures taken by governments to combat the dreaded disease have directly ended rather than protected their citizens’ lives. Consider the recent raid by Peruvian police of a Lima night club in violation of curfew and social distancing edicts. In the rush to leave the place rather than be arrested, thirteen people were stampeded to death. Assuming that the people at night clubs tend to be on the younger side, their chance of dying from COVID-19 is much less than 1%. There were about 120 people at the nightclub, more than ten percent of whom are now dead.
Six months into the crisis, many of the multi-million dollar facilities constructed to accommodate the expected flood of critically ill patients have been shuttered (some having never been used). Nonetheless, many citizens seem to be thoroughly convinced that the extreme measures which continue to be implemented worldwide—even in places where much of the populace depends on tourism to survive—suffice to demonstrate that the danger is real. Just as in the case of war, the harsher the means being used, the more fervently the people paying those in charge to do whatever they decide to do come to believe. What is the alternative? To accept that one was completely and utterly duped? There is a lot of conspiracy mongering going on, no doubt an effort to understand the massive, concerted, global apparatus erected to combat a disease less dangerous to most people than is the seasonal flu. Conspiracy theories have swept in to fill the epistemological void because, some are convinced, there must be some reason, some agenda, some plan (“Plandemic”) devised by a cabal of evil and mercenary geniuses (think Dick Cheney, the consummate war entrepreneur) who stand to profit and gain control of the ignorant masses at the same time. Otherwise none of this makes any sense.
Certainly there are agents involved (Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, the CEOs of pharma firms, et al.) who have self-interested financial motives to create, produce, and distribute 9 billion doses of a vaccine. Suppose, further, that COVID-19 mutates, making it impossible for a person’s natural immune system to provide protection for more than a few months at a time. What if, like the common flu, COVID-19 presents new variants each year, and governments decide (as some have hinted) to require everyone everywhere to line up not only for flu shots but also the latest and greatest COVID-19 vaccine? As improbable as that may sound, the State of Massachusetts decreed in August 2020 (amidst a flurry of new “emergency laws”) that all schoolchildren and university students (both undergraduate and graduate) are now required to have seasonal flu vaccinations, despite the fact that the CDC itself reports an efficacy rate of 19% for the 2019 vaccine (the five-year range is from 19% to 48%). Imagine, then, that this requirement were expanded to include a jab for flu and a jab for COVID-19 for everyone. That would obviously be the biggest Big Pharma coup of them all—far surpassing the medicalization of ordinary troubles to which human beings have always been susceptible and which, since the U.S. launch of Prozac in early 1988, have been increasingly addressed through the popping of psychotropic pills. The lockdowns alone are likely to cause a huge surge in patients seeking a bit of help from their doctors to allay anxiety and stress in this ever-more uncertain world, where it has become nearly impossible to make any long-term plans involving anything beyond the perimeters of one’s own home. Or tent.
The reason why conspiracy theories are flourishing is not only that people have too much time on their hands and nowhere to go. The truth is that the experts do not agree. Some maintain that shielding children from all germs will make it difficult for them to develop hardy immune systems; others deny that this is the case. Do lockdowns help, or do they not? (See: Sweden and South Dakota.) Is herd immunity possible, or is it not? If it is not, then why would anyone hold out hope for a safe and effective vaccine to be developed, tested, produced and distributed before the virus, of its own accord, turns into something else or runs out of steam? Does anyone truly believe that the virus is going to exhaust its source of elderly and infirm targets and then mutate, in an unprecedented display of viral intelligence, so as to be able to target toddlers? In a climate of fear stoked over many months, The Evil Enemy comes to seem much bigger and more powerful than it is.
Once again, the case is not unlike recent foreign policy initiatives rationalized on the grounds that we must take the battle to the enemy before they have the chance to come to U.S. shores. I suppose that one positive consequence of COVID-19 is that nearly nobody fear-mongers about terrorism anymore, as there is a new, bigger, badder bogeyman in town. Which is not, however, to say that the Middle East is not being bombed on a regular basis, just that even fewer journalists talk about it than before. In fact, there is not a lot of non-COVID-19 talk going on at all among media pundits. Across social media, people have already picked sides and spend their time denouncing as stupid anyone who happens to disagree. Again, this may have much to do with the fact that, having once invested in something, having been true believers, it becomes very difficult to admit error in the face of even overwhelming evidence to that effect. Politicians will continue to uphold their policies even as they destroy the lives of countless human beings. It happened in Vietnam, and it is happening today. To save the village, must it be destroyed?
There is no question that vulnerable people incapable of protecting themselves should be protected from COVID-19, because vulnerable people incapable of protecting themselves should always be protected by decent societies. But there are rational limits to the forms which that protection can take. Are terminally ill patients being helped by being denied the right to spend the last days and hours of their lives with their loved ones? Are independent seniors forced to live like recluses being helped by policies which prevent them from having any visitors? I think not.
What is being overlooked by policymakers is that there is much more at stake than simple existence. The “village” currently under siege is the social sphere. We are asked to wear masks, stay away from each other (no hugs or kisses!), avoid interacting with people beyond our “bubble,” and not go anywhere unnecessarily. From the perspective of lockdown proponents, all of these measures are minor inconveniences in the face of a much worse consequence, should we fail to comply: death. So we see children in schools wearing masks and sitting at Plexiglas-shielded desks to avoid the horror of anyone’s tiny drop of spittle hitting anyone else in the eye. In fact, hardly any of those children would die, even if all of them were exposed.
‘We will do anything necessary to prevent even one death!’ proclaim some of the COVID-19 czars, apparently oblivious to the fact that human beings die all the time. They want to protect the grandparents of the children, when in fact, the grandparents are perfectly capable of deciding what are and are not acceptable risks to themselves. For some, interacting with grandchildren is a primary source of joy. Being retired, they look forward to nothing more than spending time with their extended family. That is a choice which they can and should be able freely to make. And, lest we forget, children are vulnerable, too, not to the dreaded disease, but to the climate of fear in which they are currently being raised. Schoolchildren forced to wear masks do not see their peers’ smiles and frowns, and hear only their muffled words and laughs. Some of them may avoid socializing at all because it is has become not only so strange but also prohibitively difficult to do. They have less reason than ever before for putting their iphones away.
Before COVID-19, people who washed their hands a hundred times a day and avoided contact with others for fear of contracting diseases were diagnosed as germophobes suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Human beings who scrupulously avoided social gatherings were said to suffer from social anxiety disorders. Now, however, social distancing requirements in venues as banal as grocery stores are causing people to behave as though their fellow shoppers were suffering from the Black Plague. In some places, store clerks upbraid customers for violating one-way arrow requirements when they run back to pick up a forgotten carton of milk before returning to their place on one of the circular floor stickers at the checkout line. (Yes, that happened to me. Yes, I was wearing a mask.)
Many people have accepted all of the new restrictions on behavior as “the new normal,” and two weeks of this sort of thing may not cause lasting harm to anyone. Six months, however, is a significant portion of a child’s life, and we have experts today forecasting that emergency measures will persist well into 2021 or beyond. But should the existence of a virus, which may or may not ever go away, be used as the pretext for dictating how conscious, intelligent, free creatures should live?