Many Western governments failed in a grotesque manner in their preparation for this or any other pandemic:
1) They failed to stock up on (or build production capacity for) the medical equipment (eg ventilators) and capacity, as well as personal protective equipment (eg face masks) that would be needed in almost any pandemic
2) They did not set up an even remotely effective testing & tracking system
3) They failed to provide the public early on with some very simple but (see below) highly effective guidelines individuals, businesses and organizations can use to protect themselves and the people around them (frequent & thorough hand washing; not touching your face; no handshakes; frequent disinfecting of surfaces)
If you’re gonna have a government then pandemic preparation would seem to be one of its key functions.
Yet they failed, spectacularly. In fact, they barely even tried.
And now as everybody is panicking, these same governments —as a reward for their catastrophic failure perhaps— are busy handing themselves vast new authoritarian powers we would not have thought possible in a peacetime situation: Cities are put on lockdown; millions are ordered to stay home; businesses told to keep their doors closed; and as people are losing their jobs by the millions it has now de facto become illegal for them to go out and protest these measures.
But what measures are actually effective in containing a pandemic? Is it the voluntary, decentralized actions of individuals, businesses & other organizations, or the authoritarian centralized actions of government?
A full discussion of libertarian approaches to preparing for and containing a pandemic will have to wait for another time, but here are some relevant observations from influential Stanford University Professor of Medicine/Health Research & Policy/Biomedical Data Science/Statistics, John P. A. Ioannidis:
Extreme measures: Under alarming circumstances,extreme measures of unknown effectiveness are adopted. China initially responded sluggishly, but subsequently locked down entire cities.(9) School closures, cancellation of social events, air travel curtailment and restrictions, entry control measures, and border closure are applied by various countries. Italy adopted country-level lockdown on March 8 and many countries have been following suite. Evidence is lacking for the most aggressive measures. A systematic review on measures to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses found insufficient evidence for entry port screening and social distancing in reducing epidemic spreading.(10) Plain hygienic measures have the strongest evidence.(10) (11) Frequent hand washing and staying at home and avoiding contacts when sick are probably very useful. Their routine endorsement may save many lives. Most lives saved may actually be due to reduced transmission of influenza rather than coronavirus.
(9) Chen W, Wang Q, Li YQ, Yu HL, Xia YY, Zhang ML, et al. Early containment strategies and core measures for prevention and control of novel coronavirus pneumonia in China. Zhonghua Yu Fang Yi Xue Za Zhi. 2020;54(3):1-6.
(10) Jefferson T, Del Mar CB, Dooley L, Ferroni E, Al-Ansary LA, Bawazeer GA, et al. Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD006207.
(11) Saunders-Hastings P, Crispo JAG, Sikora L, Krewski D. Effectiveness of personal protective measures in reducing pandemic influenza transmission: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Epidemics. 2017;20:1-20.
Another interesting read is this overview of effective ways for society to prepare for and respond to pandemics, created by Cassidy Nelson’s research group. Nelson is a medical doctor and research scholar at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. This overview could also serve as a basis for a future discussion on libertarian approaches to the problem of pandemics. Could individuals, businesses and civil society take care of the things mentioned by Nelson, or even come up with effective alternative solutions?
12 things her research group think urgently need to happen if we’re to keep the risk at acceptable levels. The ideas are:
1. Roll out genetic sequencing tests that lets you test someone for all known and unknown pathogens in one go.
2. Fund research into faster ‘platform’ methods for going from pathogen to vaccine, perhaps using innovation prizes.
3. Fund R&D into broad-spectrum drugs, especially antivirals, similar to how we have generic antibiotics against multiple types of bacteria.
4. Develop a national plan for responding to a severe pandemic, regardless of the cause. Have a backup plan for when things are so bad the normal processes have stopped working entirely.
5. Rigorously evaluate in what situations travel bans are warranted. (They’re more often counterproductive.)
6. Coax countries into more rapidly sharing their medical data, so that during an outbreak the disease can be understood and countermeasures deployed as quickly as possible.
7. Set up genetic surveillance in hospitals, public transport and elsewhere, to detect new pathogens before an outbreak — or even before patients develop symptoms.
8. Run regular tabletop exercises within governments to simulate how a pandemic response would play out.
9. Mandate disclosure of accidents in the biosafety labs which handle the most dangerous pathogens.
10. Figure out how to govern DNA synthesis businesses, to make it harder to mail order the DNA of a dangerous pathogen.
11. Require full cost-benefit analysis of ‘dual-use’ research projects that can generate global risks.
12. And finally, to maintain momentum, it’s necessary to clearly assign responsibility for the above to particular individuals and organisations
COVID-19 is a very serious problem that should be taken very seriously by individuals, organizations, businesses and governments but there are ways in which the public may get an exaggerated sense of the threat:
1. In general: Once a dominant narrative is formed (in this case: Covid-19 as huge threat) reporting will be more inclined to cover things that fit that narrative & ignore/dismiss things that seem to contradict it: The evidentiary standards for reporting that fits the narrative will be lower than for reporting that contradicts it.
2. Reporting focuses on *expected* problems rather than currently existing problems: Most hospital capacity reporting is about expected problems.
3. Ordinary events are now portrayed as evidence for the threat, eg:
a) Many hospitals run at near capacity in normal times and will routinely be over capacity but now this problem may be attributed to COVID-19.
b) Rare cases (eg of young people suddenly getting violently ill & dying from COVID-19) that in normal times are ignored (such rare deaths also happen with eg the flu and other viruses) now make the front page & are portrayed as more common than they are.
4. A large increase in the number of cases sounds scary but becomes much less so when this is because of an increase in the number of tests rather than an increase in the number of cases.
5. Death rates can seem very high when everybody who died from other causes but also had COVID-19 is counted as a COVID-19 death (to be sure, this problem is not that widespread, but it is what happened in Italy).
6. The extent of the problem is not put into context by comparing it to other problems. So while e.g. 500 COVID-19 deaths may sound very scary, if in that same period 10,000 people died from the flu it may seem less so.
7. Exponential growth rates are assumed to continue at that rate instead of quickly levelling off.
8. An excessive reliance on models that are only as good as their assumptions.
9. Relying on experts whose past pandemic predictions were way off.
10. Governments taking enormously far reaching steps to fight the problem give rise to a “Well, they wouldn’t take such extreme measures if the problem weren’t that extreme” attitude.
The Covid-19 crisis is fueling a race to find solutions for the problem while also shutting down large parts of the economy and giving governments enormous economic powers. Except for wartime mobilization, this situation is unprecedented. In this article I discuss fifteen major potential negative consequences of the crisis.
1. Small, independent businesses will decrease as a share of the economy
Small, independent businesses will tend to be the first to collapse because:
· they typically have smaller reserves than big companies
· they typically have less access to stimulus funds
· they and/or their customers remain on (partial or complete) lockdown while giants such as Walmart & Amazon remain open (especially online) & take over their business
2. More people become dependent on government
Meanwhile, millions or tens of millions of people will lose their jobs or encounter great economic difficulties, and will turn to the government for help.
3. More businesses become dependent on government
Many smaller or medium sized businesses that do survive will have had to rely on government assistance. Dependence on aid and other privileges may persist for some time and to some extent, and government loans will have to be paid off.
4. Public-private partnerships benefit big business
The technological and institutional solutions to the Covid-19 problem will involve lots of ‘public-private partnerships’ that benefit well connected businesses and that will create new industries or transform existing ones. Through government contracts and regulations these businesses may come to form de facto cartels, keeping out or crowding out independent competitors.
5. A public-private surveillance industry and control system emerges
To keep track of virus spread governments need data. Businesses will develop new, more advanced and comprehensive tracking and collection systems that can be used by governments. Said governments will use those new tools to not just contain and control the virus but also the people.
6. Revolution through crisis
For decades governments, businesses, NGOs, voters have been talking about economic measures against climate change. These talks are slow, the negotiations tense and difficult, the changes small & incremental— lots of talk, little action. But now with Covid-19 we are fundamentally restructuring the economy in a matter of weeks, with little to no talk and all action.
7. A supply crunch followed by a demand crunch = not good
Due to the virus’s first confirmed cases happening in China and due to the drastic measures the Chinese government took to contain it, supply chains to Western economies were severely disrupted. These seem to be recovering but now Western economies are shutting down, causing a huge demand crunch. In a hyper-leveraged economy and a very uncertain economic environment, this is a recipe for disaster.
8. Borders become a thing again
The problem with viruses is that they spread. Border controls of people and goods can slow or halt that spread. So borders —both between countries and within countries— will become a thing again, and trade and travel will become less free.
9. The world economy becomes more protectionist, less free
Western countries —especially under pressure of a pre-existing anti-China lobby that is seizing its opportunity and is painting China as the Great Enemy that brought this plague upon us— will erect more barriers to trade with China, will try to decouple more, start making more goods (especially pharmaceutical & medical) at home or in other countries.
10. Protectionism creates a more dangerous international situation
A reduction in trade and the further politicization of existing trade cause political tensions between countries. With less economic interconnectedness the direct economic and social costs of conflict decrease which means there are lower barriers to war and war-like actions.
11. A big geopolitical shift away from the US and toward China could take place
If the US keeps its economy shut down for much longer and if China’s economy continues its recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, and if China continues to assist other countries in dealing with the pandemic, the US will lose economic and political power while China gains it. Expect the US to put up some serious economic, political and military resistance to this development. Few empires go gentle into that good night.
12. Anti-China rhetoric and policies will go up by a lot
For several years now politicians, media and think tanks have been increasing their anti-China rhetoric. Now faced with an economic collapse and looking for scapegoats the Trump administration will pull a Hillary: Blame a foreign power for his own failure.
China and China alone will be blamed for the Covid-19 crisis, despite the lack of evidence for the accusations, the considerable evidence to the contrary and ample evidence for the Trump administration’s own mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis and the disastruous effects it has had. Those people and special interests with a pre-existing hatred of China will seize the opportunity this climate provides them with.
Like Russophobia, Sinophobia will soon become a key part of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus.
13. High unemployment & high economic uncertainty create a volatile domestic situation
Institutions will come under pressure; scapegoats will be sought and found; demagogues find willing audiences; people become more open to radical solutions; people’s and businesses’ increased dependence on government means those governments will have more power to wield; divisions within the country can be created or fueled and exploited; war against perceived domestic or foreign enemies may come to be used as a tool to unite a country, give its people a sense of purpose and a way to channel their anger & frustration.
14. Emergency work and life changes become permanent
To contain the virus, protect themselves and the people around them, a lot of individuals, families and businesses are making big changes: Working from home, home schooling and online education, various forms of social distancing. After the virus threat has receded and life has gone back to normal, some of these changes will endure because more people will now have experience with these practices and because a better infrastructure will have been built up to facilitate them.
15. A new narrative rationalizing the transformed political economy emerges
There was no public process of discussion, analysis, reflection and justification that formed the intellectual basis for the fundamental changes made to the political economy. The public was not given an opportunity to vote on whether they want this new system or not. Instead, these changes came in the form of direct emergency actions taken in the middle of the crisis or as a result of more indirect macroeconomic developments that the crisis and the measures taken to combat it gave rise to over time.
But although there was no prior process of deliberation and justification of the new system, the public will have to come to see the new system as legitimate. And so a new narrative or framework that rationalizes the new system will form and be communicated to the public by politicians, media, economists, social scientists, think tanks, schools and other major influencers of public opinion.
A populist pro-peace movement could end the empire without even trying.
The US foreign policy establishment has inflicted unspeakable horrors on the world. And it has done a remarkable job of rationalizing these horrors or — even more effectively — directing the American public’s attention away from them.
Foreign policy horrors are
simply not an important issue for most American voters. Voters care
about issues that directly impact their own lives.
to overthrow an establishment you need a populist movement. None of the
special interests within the establishment stand to benefit from radical
changes that drastically reduce its power. Instead of reforming from
within you need to attack from without. But to accomplish that you need
the support of the masses.
So this seems to be an
impossible situation: To end the US empire you need the support of the
American public, but the American public doesn’t know enough or care
enough about the millions of lives around the world that are ruined by
Sure, you can try to educate voters, plead
with them, get them passionate about this issue, convince them that it
is the morally right thing to do. Make them care.
Or you can try to appeal to their self-interest, pointing out the enormous costs of the empire and the risk of blowback.
But the institutions that are most influential in shaping the opinions of the American public — mainstream media, universities, think tanks, popular culture — are either very much part of the foreign policy establishment, or have also mostly simply ignored its horrors.
On the other hand, there have
been successful examples of populist revolts in Western countries.
Donald Trump, for example, came from outside of the political
establishment and was widely loathed by them and their media allies. At
least initially. But Trump appealed directly to the voters, breaking
through the barriers the political and media elites put in his way.
How did he do it?
Most Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the establishment. Many loathe it. That’s what Trump tapped into.
Trump focused on the issues that voters cared about, in a way
that voters care about. Issues such as immigration, corruption,
national pride, and even wasteful wars had been ignored or made taboo by
the elites. Sure, sometimes the elites would pay lip service to these
concerns, but they were never really serious about addressing them in a
way that would satisfy voters. And voters knew it. So Trump attacked the
Not by trying to persuade them,
reasoning with them, working within the establishment. No, Trump
launched a frontal assault on that establishment. He exposed them,
ruthlessly mocked them and called them out.
liked that. Some of them truly believed Trump was on their side, others
just enjoyed the show. The establishment had never experienced anything
like Trump. All their usual defenses failed.
And so Trump won.
course, Trump was never a serious person or politician. He had no
principles to defend, other than himself. He had no organizational
apparatus behind him. And he needed constant adoration. And so, once the
Republican nominee, Trump was swiftly and comfortably absorbed by the
establishment, or at least by certain influential factions within it.
now, Trump is not much more than the populist figurehead for a
thoroughly establishmentarian class. But he did beat them, at least
initially. And that’s the lesson there. The establishment can be beat.
And if, unlike in the case of Trump, it is done by a candidate or movement that actually is
principled and that does not need the institutional, financial and
social support of the establishment, a movement that has its own ideas,
its own organization, the long term outcome may well be much better than
what we saw with Trump.
Where, though, does that leave
those of us who want to end the empire? Sure, we loathe the
establishment too, and we are more than willing to attack them head-on.
But Trump campaigned on issues voters cared about and voters don’t care
about the horrors of the empire.
The thing is: They don’t have to.
the fact that voters don’t sufficiently care about foreign policy
horrors it does not follow that they will not support a populist
movement that wants to end those horrors. It’s just that ending those
horrors will not be the primary reason for their support.
pro-peace populist movement that focuses on issues voters care about
and that are ignored or only paid lip service to by the existing
parties, and a movement that is passionately anti-establishment, and
willing and able to attack the elites head-on can succeed for those
If that same movement also happens to be pro-peace and anti-empire, then OK, good, so what?
all, we just established that voters don’t care about foreign policy.
But this works both ways: Voters don’t care enough about a pro-peace
foreign policy for that pro-peace policy to be the deciding factor in
who to support. But voters also don’t care enough about foreign policy
for the pro-peace position to be a reason not to support that movement!
situation is even better than that: It would be difficult to get voters
to support a foreign policy that requires them to make sacrifices. If
the core of that foreign policy is to actively do good in the world, by
offering aid and other such things, that will be a hard sell. You have
to convince voters to care about people far away, people they will never
meet or even see on a screen.
But a pro-peace foreign policy is not a policy that wants to start doing good. It just wants to stop doing bad.
does not require voters to make sacrifices. Voters were never
benefiting from the aggressive foreign policy of the empire anyway. It
costs voters nothing to end it.
In fact, the empire exists to exploit
those very same voters. The empire takes massive amounts of the
American public’s money and redistributes it among a wide variety of
corporate special interests: Weapons producers, big energy, consulting
companies and so on. What’s more, the empire gets tens of thousands of
Americans killed or wounded or traumatized.
the beauty: A pro-peace movement that focuses on the issues voters care
about and that is passionately anti-establishment reverses the burden
of proof: If you want to campaign on peace and ending the empire you
have to educate the voters and convince them the empire is not just
morally wrong but also bad for them.
If instead you
are pro-peace but you primarily campaign on the populist issues voters
do care about, the empire can’t compete with you on the populist issues
and now they would have to actually convince voters that it is in their
best interest to support the empire that exploits them!
that is an even more impossible situation to put the establishment in
than the situation the pro-peace movement was in when it thought it had
to make voters care about peace.
Peace, after all, was
at least beneficial to the voters. That intellectual case was easy to
make. The difficulty was in making voters care enough about it to change their votes.
But the empire doesn’t even have an intellectual case for its position. And now it also has the burden of proof.
So in short: A populist pro-peace movement can succeed. But it can only succeed by focusing on other issues that voters care about — issues the establishment actively ignores, trivializes or only pays lip service to — and by being passionately and proudly anti-establishment. The pro-peace position just comes along for the ride, and can and will be easily defended when attacked, and then implemented if we win.
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