In past publications I have outlined the terrible cost we are paying for our corona response. The figures have only gotten worse since. Millions of lives lost because of our societies’ reactions, hundreds of millions of people unemployed, and countless other types of agony and human suffering. These are objective facts; no one challenges those as they are demonstrably true. That makes it even more astounding that people seem to be ok with all of this. There is extraordinarily little political backlash.
One thing that I did get some criticism about was my analysis that we are likely inflicting irreparable damage to open, democratic society because of the hysteria. The criticism is usually in the form of “the actions are legitimate to protect society,” “there is no conspiracy behind this,” “democracy and open society are too strong for serious long-term damage,” “these are unique circumstances that will not happen again,” and “governments will go back to normality soon.” When all else fails, people exasperatedly exclaim: “What else could we have done?”
Let me deal with all those issues separately below. Next week I’ll then provide a reasonably likely scenario of what decay to authoritarianism in a 21st century democracy might look like.
“The actions are legitimate.”
By what metric or set of criteria? What conditions are sufficient for a government in an open, free society to lock up an entire population without legal recourse? To fine or even incarcerate people for going for a walk outside or meet friends- or to protest- surely some of the most fundamental human freedoms we previously held so dear?
A fundamental principle of open society is that the government can only take dramatic action against an individual if that person either breaks the law or if they are a clear and immediate danger to their surroundings. In both cases, due legal process is essential. Such legal process needs to be based on careful and transparent political deliberations before creating the relevant laws. Without these processes, the government becomes totalitarian and the individual becomes subservient to authorities, rather than the other way around.
There is only one legitimate justification for sporadically using emergency powers. That is when there are extraordinary circumstances that threaten society to such an extent that without them it would face ruin. War or nuclear accidents spring to mind. Corona is not such a circumstance.
Corona is a natural phenomenon, a virus, of the kind which humanity has had to deal with for as long as we exist.
Is this one particularly aggressive? Yes. But that is about it. There is nothing extraordinarily special about corona compared to all the other viruses that have attacked our bodies throughout our existence. In fact, it is striking how similar its pattern is to what we’ve become used to over the millennia:
It threatens the elderly and those already physically compromised. Check.
Many people carry it without even noticing much. Check.
Transmission is through known methods, which means that the usual measures of washing hands and disinfectants in public spaces already help a great deal. Check.
Crucially, it shows clear flattening of curves after a couple of months or so, exactly as you would expect from a normal virus. Major check.
Corona is aggressive but not extraordinary by any means.
Just a few statistics to further make this point: At this moment in time, there is nothing indicating an extraordinarily different medical threat compared to other viruses from the past or other causes of death in current society. A typical and nicely detailed data set is that of the New York City Health department. What do we see? If you are a child, there is no statistically significant chance of you dying because of corona. In fact, for the much wider age group of 0 to 44 years old, the share of total deaths is only 4.5%. Just to avoid confusion: that does not mean that you have a 4.5% chance of dying, but that of all recorded corona deaths, only 4.5% are aged 44 or under. The 75+ age group accounts for nearly 50% of all deaths. Indications are that if you are 75+, you have anywhere between a 5% and 10% chance of dying if you contract Covid-19. Similarly, less than 2% of all deaths had demonstrably no pre-existing condition such as diabetes or immunodeficiency. These numbers are similar to other studies available so far.
It turns out that it is dangerous to be old or physically unwell, who knew?
With this being the case- with the threat not being extraordinary- how can we justify extraordinary measures by governments, essentially suspending the most basic of human rights? The most basic things that generations have worked for, that make us “us” and that over centuries we’ve come to define as essential to our societies? The reality is that there is something greater than simply avoiding extra deaths at all costs. Otherwise we would have outlawed cars, alcohol and tobacco a long time ago with the millions of deaths they cause annually. Or we would go on lockdown during flu season every year. If death rates are all that matter, we would live life very differently. What makes corona any different? Nothing. Except for our current reaction,
“There is no conspiracy.”
That is correct. There is no conspiracy behind corona. That does not mean, however, that it has not opened the door to abuse and government overreach of the worst kind. We do not assess the damage of action by predicating it on intent. No one intended for Corona to happen. But it did. And governments jumped on it like flies on dung, laying their authoritarian eggs wherever they could.
“Democracy and open society are too strong for serious long-term damage.”
The fact of the matter is that open and free society is very brittle. Power corrupts, and throughout history we have seen over and over again political, military and economic elites destroying social balance and individual rights. Almost every time that this has happened, they had significant support from fearful or angry masses. Ordinary people have a responsibility to remain aggressively protective of their hard earned rights and not open the door to abuse by authorities.
Keeping authorities in check is absolutely essential if you want to keep on living in a non-authoritarian state. It might be difficult if you have always lived in an open democracy and take the status quo for granted, but you need to stay focused and aware if you’d like to keep your freedoms.
Now we have allowed authorities to curtail individual rights to the most extreme levels imaginable: keeping us locked up for weeks and months on end, closing down free enterprise and collapsing our economies without any serious regard for the most vulnerable groups in society. Beyond organised violence like genocide, it literally cannot get more extreme than that.
Without any serious political backlash and holding the responsible leaders accountable, this will set a deeply damaging precedent. It will make future authoritarian steps look like peanuts, thus opening the door to government overreach at all levels. Laws enacted during Corona times will not be rescinded but used over and over again.
How do I know this? Because it happened exactly like that with the War on Terror and other such moments of crisis. The reason is logical: once power is given, it is very difficult to take it away again. This is why open society needs to treasure red lines, fundamental principles at all costs. When the line is crossed, their relevance quickly fades.
“These are unique circumstances that will not happen again.”
For that to be the case, one of two things needs to be true: either the event in question has objectively extraordinary criteria that will not be repeated. As argued above, Corona is not special. It does what viruses do. It is not an existential threat to society. The second condition would be tremendous backlash against government actions. Currently there is no sign of that whatsoever. According to opinion polls, most people still agree with government measures taken in most countries.
On a side note, just because this is also often erroneously repeated: the fact that most people agree with government policy does not make it democratic or the right thing to do. An open and free society has fundamental principles that do not depend on majority consent. Governments get chosen by majorities to protect those fundamentals.
So, given the fact that neither of the above conditions applies, what will stop governments to enact similar measures next time when there is a flu wave, or a terrorist attack, or air pollution? The potential for authoritarianism is endless and might even be popular. More than 10 thousand deaths because of the flu this year? Lockdown! Two bombs found in London? Lockdown! Lung disease affecting commuters because of smog? Lockdown!
The relationship between individual and authority has fundamentally changed: I can now be punished for being a potential threat (going outside, even if there is no evidence for me carrying corona) rather than an actual threat. Taking that further: anyone could be a source of potential violence, potential crime, etc. Are we really confident that authorities will not start using this corona precedent for other such fears?
Slowly, as time goes by, without us treasuring fundamental principles, we lose our freedoms and open society becomes a slogan rather than reality. Next week I’ll show this in greater depth.
“Governments will go back to normal soon.”
I have two words for you: “New Normal.” Orwell has been forgotten; doublespeak is thriving. Just think about that term that is currently on every politician’s lip. Think about what that means. They are warning us that for months and possibly years anti-corona measures will be in place, curtailing individual freedoms semi-permanently and continuing to give authorities extraordinary powers, yet without extraordinary justification to do so. Anyone who believes that the world in 2021 will be politically similar to that of 2019 is not paying attention to what leaders are saying.
We are entering an era of radical changes to society without anyone explaining what the objective criteria are to legitimise those changes. Without any accountability, governments have assumed the powers to impose drastic restrictions on the freedoms of normal, law-abiding citizens. Society seems to be alright with vague and unsubstantiated metrics to justify such power-grab. Given such extraordinary leeway, governments will hang on to it as much as they can. It is how governments work.
So what should have been done?
Finally, an often-heard comment is “what else could we have done?” I wrote a piece that essentially argued that “doing nothing” is often the best option. If we do not understand the implications of action, we should embrace inaction. This means that social distancing might be justified, as the consequences are easy to assess, but lockdown clearly is not. But our psychology doesn’t like inaction. Therefore, just to show some constructive goodwill, here’s something productive and reasonable we could have done:
We could have provided all the means and laws necessary to strongly encourage vulnerable groups to self-isolate. We could have ensured that if you are older, or if you have pre-existing conditions, you have the financial, legal and practical support necessary to sit-out the corona wave. We could have ensured that no-one who chooses to stay at home loses their job for staying at home, that everyone still gets food deliveries and medical support.
Sounds costly? Nothing compared to the costs we are paying right now.
The above would have allowed people to make their own decisions. Many would have made the choice to go out anyway but then that would have been their responsibility and freedom. This is exactly what you want in a free society and it is what we do with almost every other threat. We are allowed to smoke, we are allowed to be obese, we are allowed to drive cars and go free jumping. We roughly know the risks, and in an open society, authorities are respectful of that.
So what makes corona different from all these other causes of death? Nothing, except for a surreal Orwellian hype that has changed our world forever.