For those old enough to remember the world in the years after 9/11, it is easy to remember the panic and obsession in Western countries with respect to jihadi extremism and the fear of terrorist attacks. Day after day, week after week, frontpages were filled with stories about psychopathic murderers lurking in our midst, ready to strike at any moment. If you were a young Muslim man, especially with a beard living in, say, Europe at the time, life was tough. Outrageous discrimination was rife. Personal freedoms were dramatically curtailed. Destructive wars were started.

Now, in hindsight, this seems an outrageous overreaction. But many still, now in 2020, perceive Muslims somehow as a potential threat. Fundamental rights- essential in any democracy- still have not recovered: much of the panic-based legislation from those times is still in place today. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were killed because the West lashed out in fear and the violence caused by them is still ongoing, causing new victims non-stop.

Terrorism does exist, of course. There have been dozens of attacks since those early years. It is also, however, completely obvious that our society’s reaction was destructive and caused much more harm than good. So, what led to such a monumentally flawed response which led to so many innocent victims? Three reasons stand out:

  • 1. Partial and flawed information. Time is a precious thing, and in the short-term, there is simply insufficient data and understanding to base good policies on. In such circumstances, our uneasy relationship with uncertainty biases us towards horror scenarios, even if there is no significant reason to do so.
  • 2. A Western population gripped in fear. Europeans and North Americans turned out to accept causing hundreds of civilian victims elsewhere as long as it made them feel marginally safer. Now we know, of course, that the violent Western response actually made its own populations significantly less safe. But in those days, it was all about feelings, not rational analysis.
  • 3. The complete dominance of security experts in overall policy making. Because terrorism in those years was seen as an existential threat to (Western) humanity, consultants and analysts specialising in terrorism were the true makers of both domestic and foreign policy for a while. Politicians followed their advice to the letter and were reluctant to overrule any suggestion coming from this security sector. Political leadership was only nominally in charge, while true power resided with specialists who promised to keep us safe from nightmares, to paraphrase Adam Curtis.

This final point above may not be an obvious problem for those who believe that its population’s security should be a priority for any government. Moreover, any sensible person should advocate for politicians deferring to experts whenever possible. But there’s the problem: politicians didn’t defer to “experts”, they deferred to “a small subset of experts”. A subset specialised in one part of society’s challenges, namely anti-terrorist measures. All kinds of other security-related issues- including building a healthy and resilient society, long-term foreign policy implications, and internal stability and economic prosperity- were mostly ignored. Those experts weren’t listened to.

The role of politicians is to look at all segments of society, counselled by experts representing the full array of challenges countries face. And yet, for a short period of time, the West was effectively ruled by an anti-terror-obsessed “Terrortocracy”, with only those fighting terror in charge. The world is still dealing with the destruction that that informal governance system caused.

The current corona-based panic displays all three of the problematic patterns described above:

  • 1. Available information and analysis is at best partial, and worst deeply flawed. There is no scientific consensus yet about its exact nature, the best methods to contain it or the long-term implications. As a result, worst case scenarios are given excessive weight in policy making.
  • 2. A world population gripped in fear. Headline after headline, bad news after bad news (while any good news is buried), medical expert after medical expert, tweet after tweet, and politician after politician are feeding the intense anxiety and fear that already exists in global society. A virus has many commonalities with stereotypically portrayed “terrorists”; you don’t see it till it strikes. People are terrified. They demand dramatic action. That is not an environment conducive to good policy making.
  • 3. Just like anti-terror experts ruled society in 2001 and 2002, now medical experts and practitioners are the only game in town when it comes to governmental policy making. No other experts are heard and, once again, politicians have completely surrendered their responsibility to look at the bigger picture. They are held hostage by the medical world. We are currently going through a Medicaltocracy.

Just like with the War on Terror, that may seem like an obviously good thing. Corona is killing thousands of people, with hundreds of thousands infected. ICUs are overwhelmed, resulting in horrendously difficult scenarios for doctors and nurses to deal with. Why not give the medical world control of domestic and foreign policy making? After all, they know what’s best.

Yes they do, within their limited field of expertise. They know best on how to contain the spread of corona. They know how to best treat it, and what its peculiar challenges are. 

They do not know what’s best, however, for the mental welfare of the population. For that we have psychologists. They do not know what’s best for socially vulnerable groups. For that we have sociologists and social workers. They do not know how to ensure economically marginalised groups do not fall off a cliff. For that we have economists. They don’t even know how to interpret the bigger picture of the virus, for that we have statisticians and other academics.

While in a world filled with fear the above points may seem irrelevant, they most certainly are not. Ignoring them means causing many more deaths than Covid19 will ever be responsible for. It means doing long-term harm to social resilience and national wellbeing. It means causing stress-related deaths and illnesses, including people who are already on the edge. It means making life near impossible- sometimes literally impossible- for those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. The politically powerful middle classes now live in temporary fear because of corona, but the poorer classes live in permanent fear of not being able to survive because of basic economics. We- not corona- have just become their worst nightmare.

It is clear that during a serious global health challenge like the current one, medical experts will always be elevated to a special status. And they should. But that does not mean that nothing else matters. With lockdowns and other such extreme measures, politicians abdicated their responsibility to wider society by only listening to this very specific subset of experts. They are essentially saying that nothing else matters anymore and that corona victims are the only game in town. Even if it means many more deaths and victims as a consequence, no other expertise is desired right now. Everyone else just needs to shut up and stay at home. Doctor’s orders.