For the ‘There Are No Libertarians In a Pandemic’ Crowd

by | Mar 24, 2020

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



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