This will be the final In Focus before taking a bit of a summer break. When I return, I will return to analysing foreign policy in general. This is not because Covid19 is no longer relevant, but because most of the important points have been made for now. Time will have to show what choices the world makes going forward. Over these past months, I collected questions I received from students, readers, colleagues and friends about my perspectives. Below I answer a small selection of those.
Q: What do you mean that we didn’t have criteria for lockdown? We have hundreds of thousands of deaths.
A: This question is about my claims that governments have not had to justify their actions, i.e. not need to show what metrics have been used to legitimise lockdown in the case of Covid compared to other threats, past and present. The problem is, of course, that if a government can take extreme measures without objectively verifiable justification, we enter a very dangerous world open to abuse and power grabbing.
To answer: yes, we have hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. But how does that differ from other sources of death? There are diseases, even viruses like the flu, that have caused more deaths. We never went into extreme measures because of them. So numbers of mortal victims cannot be a valid reason. What other criteria/metrics can be used?
Well, there are potential deaths. The problem with those is that there has been no scientific consensus in that regard. Simply the fear of millions of potential deaths is not enough, we need something more concrete than that, otherwise it is not an objectively verifiable criterion.
Then there is the nature of Covid. Again, it doesn’t work as a metric. There is nothing unnatural or particularly out of the ordinary about the virus. In fact, it follows a very similar pattern to other, past viruses.
Finally, the type of victims. Again, no help there. The fatalities follow an incredibly natural pattern: the elderly and those with serious pre-existing conditions are by far the ones who are most at risk. It is by no means an existential threat to humanity, it simply does what viruses do. If we had a virus that had killed half a million children these past months, all of this would have been a completely different story.
On a side note: Western sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s killed that many (half a million) children. Not a virus, but human action led by democratic countries. Have you ever been deeply upset about those? No? Then please stop going on about what a historic, earth shattering drama Covid is.
Q: You don’t seem to care about old people, you write as if they are second-rank citizens. Aren’t you uncomfortable with that?
A: Short answer: don’t be ridiculous. By recklessly accusing people of immorality you undermine any chance to have a constructive debate.
Longer answer: Human beings become more fragile over time. This is how nature works. When you get older, you become more vulnerable to a whole host of dangers. These include viruses but also mundane things such as crossing the street. This does not take any moral value away from the lives of elderly people, nor from our imperative to protect the elderly. But recognising that natural condition we all face when get older is important to put things into perspective.
We, in general, do not believe that a 95-year-old passing away is of the same level of tragedy as a 5-year-old child dying. Often, in the case of a 95-year-old, we focus on celebrating a beautiful and long life, while also mourning their future absence in our lives.
When a 5-year-old dies, it typically leads to a sense of almost unbearable grief. Our emotions in that case become chaotic, difficult to place and it is difficult to take positives from it. This is because it feels to us like an unnatural event, something that should never happen. The child should have had many more years to live life, and to share their existence with us.
We often measure that as “years of life lost” rather than just “lives lost.” An additional tragedy of the current debate around racism in the US (and elsewhere) is not only that the US police has killed many innocent people, but also that these murder victims are typically young. This adds to our pain and grief.
We make this distinction when choosing who gets a heart transplant and who does not. That is not because we believe that “elderly lives don’t matter,” but that there are degrees of tragedy. Someone who is likely to die in the next few months because of other causes should probably not receive a new heart that could give someone else another 60 years of life.
It is fundamental that we protect everyone in our society and that we value all life. However, it also important to recognise our humanity and everything that comes with it. This should furthermore inform our perspectives on what is an existential threat to society, and what is not.
On a side note: one of the worst things that can happen to you when you’re older is society no longer taking you seriously and no longer listening to your choices. Infantilising the elderly is consistently one of the main sources of frustration and grief among this group. And yet, that is exactly what authorities have done this year. Rather than giving them a choice with respect to lockdown, we forced them “for their own protection.” I certainly hope authorities will let me make my own choices when I’m older.
Q: You argue that the government has locked up innocent people through lockdown, but the point is that everyone could carry the virus and thus be a threat for their surroundings. Surely that’s a good justification for lockdown?
A: If the government claims that I am a danger to my surroundings, then the burden of proof is on them. If they test me and I have Covid, they might have a case. Perhaps. But the possibility of being infected cannot be enough to call me a threat. Otherwise there is no limit to government power. It would allow them to make any accusation without needing to show evidence. You are a 25-year-old man? Then we believe you may be prone to drunken violence. Better lock you up until you’re 30!
This is a fundamental principle of a free society.
Q: For all your criticism, isn’t saving lives always a good thing? Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?
A: That would only be automatically true if “saving lives” and “being safe” is without cost. If there is a cost involved, we need to weigh benefits against costs. That’s what we have always done. If the argument is that the benefits of lockdown outweigh the costs, then fine, let’s have that debate. There exist no currently available metrics to convincingly defend that position, but sure, you can try.
I would start by arguing that we have always accepted a trade-off between possible death and other benefits (freedom, quality of life, etc.) and that saving lives has never been the only priority in our societies. Then I would continue to show that lockdown is causing tremendous psychological, social, and economic suffering. And then I would point out that the number of deaths because of our measures might well outstrip all Corona victims combined. What do you have?
Has any politician or media outlet seriously clarified this? Clarified the criteria they have used to assess this? I can show a very long list of costs. The benefits of lockdown have not been made clear at all, we do not even know if it has significantly reduced the spread of Corona. Some recent studies desperately try to argue otherwise, but without leading to any type of scientific consensus. So: clear costs, unclear benefits. What would you like leaders to base their policies on?
Q: In your preferred situation, ICUs would have been even more swamped. Surely that needs to be avoided?
A: Perhaps, and that is a serious problem. But does that justify everything else? Is swamped ICU’s a sufficiently large problem to completely overhaul society in the way we have, with all the resulting victims as a consequence?
Q: You are siding with Trump and other such characters. Doesn’t that give you pause?
A: I’m not siding with anyone, let alone Trump. The reasons for his actions are not in any way similar to my analysis. They are two completely different angles, with different starting principles, values and concerns. It is true that Trump has made it much easier for mainstream dogma to put any criticism in his corner, and taint both Trump as well as legitimate anti-lockdown voices with the same brush. That way, anyone not conforming is easily dismissed as either insane or extremist. This is unfortunate, and something that the media and politicians really should stop doing.
Q: What is your problem with The Guardian?
A: Those you love the most are the ones that can hurt you most. I have been a big fan of The Guardian for all of my adult life. They have always had their issues, for example, an overly comfortable middle-class perspective on the world. This tends to lead to faux outrage over symbolism, thus distracting from the real issues the world faces. Overall, however, The Guardian has great journalists, interesting angles and mostly a good approach to world affairs. It has been, very consistently, one of my standard reads every morning.
This has made it so much worse for me that the Guardian is one of the main engines behind the Corona hysteria that has led to so much damage over these past months. Day after day, week after week, month after month, The Guardian has been engaged in fear mongering of the worst kind. Emphasising wildly inaccurate (and often simply untrue) predictions and numbers, writing story after story about the dangers of Covid and selectively choosing experts who fit this narrative. Their obsession with portraying Swedish policies as immoral has been deeply disturbing. They have done nothing to stimulate open and constructive debate about how we should have approached this virus outbreak.
In short, The Guardian has not engaged in journalism these past few months. Instead, it has been a propaganda machine of the worst kind. Given my previous admiration for this publication, it’s been a painful and messy process in my mind. That’s how it always goes when you break up with a long-term, genuine love.
More generally, the intellectual centre left -of which The Guardian is an important voice and which is usually pretty reasonable- has been in a deluded bubble when it comes to Corona. Hundreds of millions of innocent victims are paying the price.