It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my previous Corona-related piece. Since then, there has been good news and bad news. We have seen an increase in cases in the United States, Brazil, Mexico and some other nations. That is obviously bad. However, it has been very much in line with the patterns seen elsewhere, and there is nothing to indicate that these countries will display different curves than experiences in countries where the outbreak occurred earlier.
This is a fundamental issue that is not being sufficiently recognised: all countries are displaying very similar infection (and subsequent death rate) curves. There is of course a range; with a country like Spain harder hit than, say, Germany, but the flattening of curves has occurred roughly at the same time everywhere. Why is this so important? Because it means that there are clear limits to the damage the virus causes, regardless of the measures taken.
You wouldn’t know it from most of the media, but there is no conclusive evidence whatsoever with respect to some of the essential claims that underpin the devastating measures taken these past months: no evidence for lockdown effectiveness, no evidence for face mask effectiveness, and there’s not even any clear evidence that Covid19 is significantly transmitted by touching surfaces (we know it can survive on surfaces, but not that it is a source of transmission as such). In other words, we have shut-down the world based on a set of assumptions that still have not been proven true and that- at this moment at least- seem to be contradicted by the observed statistical patterns.
Why is there no debate about any of this? Well, largely because of three interrelated issues:
Firstly, the middle classes (i.e. those with political power) are mostly fine. They believe that it has been sensible to take precautions- even if not backed up by evidence- as they have not been hurt particularly badly by any of this. Those who have been hardest hit are the ones least visible, the poor and the already vulnerable. They don’t form part of the media; thus, they don’t form part of political considerations. There is something very dark about middle classes feeling comfortable with having sacrificed hundreds of millions of vulnerable people worldwide. Then again, what else is new, right?
Secondly, the media and politicians have turned this into a purely political argument. Madrid is filled with anti-government protests at the moment, but not of the kind that is actually helpful. It is opposition parties playing their habitual antagonistic role, while those sympathetic to ruling parties defend the government to no end. Political tribalism at its worst, from both sides.
Thirdly, the media- dominated by what they themselves believe to be the “reasonable centre (left)”- have turned this into a fight between, on the one hand, a supposedly obvious, rational truth (“lockdown and all these measures were necessary because they save lives – case closed”) and on the other, one of conspiracy theorists and right-wing ideologues. It is supposedly a fight of Jacinda Ardern versus Donald Trump, one of medical experts versus Plandemic. It is portrayed as a battle of narratives. Why? Because a content-driven conversation about facts and reality fits neither side and would require taking responsibility for the destructive mass psychosis that has gripped our world in 2020.
A particularly egregious example was this article published by the Guardian and written by editors of openDemocracy (oh, the irony). Below is the letter I wrote to one of the authors after reading their words.
Dear Mr. Geoghegan,
It is with a certain sad resignation that I read your article, co-authored by Mary Fitzgerald, in The Guardian on the lockdown sceptics. I have no affiliation, nor much in common, with the political right, I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I am a great believer in following expert opinion, especially when backed-up by some scientific consensus. Living in Madrid, and as a professor of international relations, my lectures tend to have few kind words for the likes of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and the destruction that their foreign policy is causing. In other words, I am none of the things you list in your article, except for one thing: I am absolutely sceptical of our societies’ reaction to Covid19 these past months. So I guess you could call me a “lockdown sceptic.”
The way you portray any structural criticism of lockdown- you paint it as right-wing, conspiratorial, anti-science- is in line with most of the mainstream media. Given that the moment one goes against current dogma one is portrayed as siding with Trump, Bolsonaro, or other such shady characters, hardly any airtime is given to voices that point to the terrible destruction that we have inflicted upon the world in these past few months. While the imposed changes to our societies are, to put it mildly, exceptional, there has been very little to no debate about the actual impact of lockdown and related policies. It genuinely confuses me that authors from openDemocracy are willing to go along with this lack of serious conversation about the content of arguments, and rather make this about “reason” versus “conspiracy”.
Let’s look at the facts: thus far, over the period of roughly five months, a confirmed 330 thousand people have died from Corona. This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a very serious worldwide challenge (“crisis”, if you will) that obviously required a response. That is not the issue here. The issue is “what response”, exactly? And based on what criteria exactly? How far are we willing to go to minimise Corona fatalities? Saving lives has never been the only factor we consider in policy making, so why is it now, all of a sudden outrageous to point that out? Let us not act as if it is completely clear that governments incarcerating entire populations for months on end is obviously the only normal thing to do. It is not. Especially since lockdown and related policies are also causing the deaths of many, possibly even millions worldwide.
Hundreds of millions of people have become unemployed these past months. The hardest hit groups are those already at the economic precipice: workers in the developing world at the bottom of the global supply chain; people in Europe working in the informal sectors, easily let go and with no direct way of receiving government support; freelancers without any guaranteed income, the list goes on. Last week my local grocery store opened again. The shopkeeper literally cried when telling me about how he had no idea to pay the bills after months of not having any income. How many deaths are caused by the resulting extreme poverty levels? With perhaps as many as two billion people locked inside their homes, how many of them are facing mental distress, agony? Those already with depression, or living in an abusive marriage, how are they coping? How about immigrants who often live in tiny apartments- rooms even- together with their children, what is the impact on them? What about the health effects of having to stay inside, the impact of resulting obesity and other such issues? How about the millions of people who now postpone a visit to the doctor, possibly leading to very serious long-term impact?
And finally, how about the health of open and democratic society? The fact that governments have been able to take these measures with little or no pushback from the media or other political parties? Here in Spain, the police have handed out almost a million fines (starting at a very steep €600 euros) for breaking the incredibly complex and rigid lockdown rules. There is no serious legal recourse to challenge these fines. Is that in line with what you believe to be a healthy, open democracy? Even if you believe that lockdown is the right thing to do, aren’t you at all concerned about the precedent that it sets for future abuse?
You don’t have to be a libertarian or a conspiracy theorist to believe that there is a problem with all of this. The complete lack of serious debate during these profoundly important times should be deeply disturbing to anyone who believes in the principles of open society. Our lockdown in Spain started all the way back in February. I, and like-minded colleagues, have since desperately tried to get our criticisms published in the main media outlets, including Spanish newspapers and The Guardian. No such luck. Instead, there has been a continuous stream of opinions all reaffirming that there are only two sides: the one of Donald Trump and the one of, say, Jacinda Ardern. A clearer contrast between insanity and reason cannot be found, thus closing debate, right? Because of this, we have not been heard. Unimaginable, worldwide human suffering has been the result.
At the very least, there should be a serious, content-driven debate about all of this. One based on expertise, absolutely, but the full range of expertise, and not just that of the medical world. If the arguments are so strongly in favour of lockdown, what is there to fear? Why not have the conversation, rather than simply dismissing those who have a different perspective as either right-wing ideologues or conspiracy theorists?
Final note to our readers: as with many, many attempts by me and colleagues, there has been no reaction to this letter and we have not been able to get this point published in the usual places. This despite many of my colleagues having regularly published in those very same places in the past. The idea that there is a middle ground- criticizing lockdown and other measures without being an extremist- does simply not fit the mindset of these troubled times, apparently. This is disturbing and dangerous.