Many people are eager to put all things pandemic behind them, and move on with their lives. And understandably so. But much like personal traumas, the collective experience of the Covid pandemic is a trauma that we need to process carefully, if we are indeed to “move on” and not repeat the errors of the past. In that spirit, I offer this catalogue of lessons that we might draw from the collective trauma we have just lived through. Hopefully these lessons will serve as a sobering reminder of the fragility of the great achievements of a free and open society, and the need to renew our commitment to freedom with each new generation.
The Covid-19 pandemic, whether man-made or natural, was much less surprising than the authoritarian response it elicited in Western nations. While disease and death are not pleasant things to come to terms with, the suppression of ordinary life and the erection of a police State seemed like an utterly disproportionate response to a respiratory virus that only marginally affected average life expectancy, and carried an estimated Infection Fatality Rate under 0.3%.
Watching such a dramatic, unreflective and knee-jerk response unfold across most of the Western world was like watching a predictable train wreck in slow motion. The use of brute force, coercion, and top-down edicts to combat a public health threat was a dangerous and reckless experiment in social engineering and flew in the face of the tried-and-tested principle that public health measures are most effective in the context of a relationship of trust and voluntary cooperation between public authorities and citizens.
In the heat of the public panic, there was very little openness to rational discourse. Critics of Covid policies were often depicted by mainstream journalists and politicians as “nut-jobs,” “conspiratorial,” or borderline insane. However, that may be finally changing, now that the dust is settling, and the pandemic “emergency” has been officially called off across the world. Even mainstream media like The Guardian and The Telegraph have finally come down hard on the excesses of pandemic policy. So it seems like an opportune time to review the big take-home lessons of the pandemic, in light of all of the available evidence.
Many of these lessons contain perennial wisdom that was already available from the start of the pandemic to those who were not intoxicated by the empty promises of social engineers, and were humble enough to recognise the limits of science and public policy. But to those who were swept up in the fear and panic, and caved in to the mind-numbing idolatry of “Science,” these lessons may be extremely difficult to embrace. For together, they expose the fragility of the official Covid narrative that many “experts” were pushing with all their might, and many citizens seemed to believe in almost religiously. As Mark Twain is said to have remarked, “it’s easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.”
Here are some of the main take-home lessons of this sorry episode in pandemic “management”:
1. The emotional and cognitive salience of risk should not be confused with the objective gravity of risk.
It is normal that after the outbreak of a pandemic involving what is widely perceived to be a novel pathogen (let’s put aside for now the degree to which this novelty may have been exaggerated), the threat of that specific pathogen is foremost on almost everyone’s minds. It is normal that in the wake of what is widely reported as a big wave of Covid deaths, death from Covid would be salient in people’s minds and would be a leading source of anxiety and fear.
But this cognitive and emotional salience should not be confused with an objective, rounded assessment of the risks involved. Sadly, politicians as well as public health scientists allowed themselves to be guided by the cognitive and emotional salience of risk, rather than by its real weight. That emotional and cognitive salience replaced objective analysis is abundantly clear from the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, at no time during the pandemic did governments committed to lockdown policies publicly commission a comprehensive expert assessment of the societal, economic, and health costs and benefits of their heavy-handed public health interventions.
2. The precautionary principle requires attention to the risks of interventions, no less than the risks being mitigated.
In applying the precautionary principle, public health authorities and government ministers apparently forgot that the potential collateral harms of any precautionary measure for the physical and mental well-being of citizens and the sustainability of hospital services must be carefully evaluated, and that the principle that one may take far-reaching precautions to avoid great harms does not excuse one from assessing the potential risks of precautionary interventions themselves. Otherwise, the precautionary principle ends up subverting itself, by licensing any intervention, no matter how extreme, to avert a salient risk.
3. We should no longer tolerate the weaponisation of fear, or its use as a form of psychological warfare.
The stunning success of governments’ use of fear as a means of “nudging” citizens into compliance demonstrates how extraordinarily vulnerable citizens of constitutional democracies are to emotional control and manipulation. The almost obsessive coverage at government press conferences, for months and months on end, of Covid statistics, deaths, and hospitalisations, often with no sense of proportionality or context (e.g. little or no explanation of the difference between death with Covid and death from Covid), was extremely successful at inducing in citizens a permanent state of fear and anxiety.
Citizens were clearly more tolerant of draconian, authoritarian interventions because of their artificially enhanced anxiety and fear than they would otherwise have been. It was dismaying to see how quickly large segments of the populations of Western democracies, including many thoughtful and intelligent people, were successfully manipulated by media- and government-driven propaganda into accepting the swift dismantlement of civil rights and the implementation of scientifically dubious methods of disease control such as vaccine apartheid.
4. Citizens need to diversify their media sources, and proactively include independent media in their information and news feed.
One of the biggest losers in this pandemic was journalistic integrity. Bastions of the mainstream media such as CNN, PBS, and BBC aligned themselves quite unabashedly with official government narratives, were unwilling to ask the hard questions, and often gave very little airtime to government critics. Large public protests against lockdowns and vaccine mandates were often ignored or given minimal coverage by mainstream media outlets. Government press conferences that spoon-fed the public with scary stories on a daily basis received little critical scrutiny from mainstream media.
Thankfully, some independent journalists provided a more critical perspective and did not swallow government propaganda as enthusiastically as their mainstream counterparts. Sadly, those independent voices were often censored and rarely got access to mainstream audiences. Nonetheless, were it not for those brave dissenting voices, the monopoly exerted by the official narrative over the public sphere would have been even more complete. This demonstrates the vital importance of independent journalism in a free society. Responsible citizens should make a point of including responsible and well-informed voices from independent media in their news and information feed.
5. Scientific advisory counsels must be made up of a plurality of relevant disciplines and a reasonable diversity of perspectives.
Governments recruited medical advisors that tended to approve highly intrusive and interventionist measures, and that were drawn from a very limited breadth of disciplines. While public health advisory committees must have had significant internal differences, they tended to project consensus and unanimity, and tended not to give any oxygen to publicly known dissenting voices.
The essence of good science is rational debate and evidence-based contestation among competing theories, hypotheses, and arguments. Yet public health advisory committes were overwhelming dominated by a single, quite radical perspective on pandemic management, and if there were other voices, they seemed to be either marginalised or silenced. Official scientific advisors enthusiastically endorsed lockdowns, community masking, the vaccination of children and teenagers, and the closure of schools, while other, profoundly neglected voices in the scientific community warned that these policies would be ineffective and counterproductive.
Besides the artificial homogeneity of opinion on advisory committees, there was also a lack of disciplinary breadth. In particular, doctors and epidemiologists were given a disproportionate influence over the public debate over pandemic strategy, an influence that often drowned out the voices of ethicists, political and social scientists, psychologists and psychiatrists, and legal analysts. In future, scientific advisory counsels must be composed of a reasonable plurality of disciplines and must be open to scientific perspectives that dissent from what appear to be the prevailing views of the scientific community, or those parts of the scientific community that currently have the ear of government ministers.
6. Population-stratified risks must be taken seriously in responses to public health threats; otherwise, needless and potentially catastrophic costs may be imposed on society.
For some reason, from early on, most Western governments almost completely disregarded the fact that Covid risk was extremely age and health stratified, a fact that was known from very early on in the pandemic, given the typical profile of patients who were hospitalised with Covid or died with Covid symptoms. Most Western governments applied preventive measures like lockdowns and travel restrictions indiscriminately to children and grandparents, young and old, healthy and immuno-compromised.
Striking examples of the failure to adjust risk management to the stratified character of risk are universal mask mandates, the closure of hospitality venues, the indiscriminate testing of travellers, and the insistence that everyone, without regard to age, health status, or personal circumstances, receive a vaccine whose risks were not yet well understood.
By adopting a scattershot approach to risk management, in which children, far, far less susceptible than the elderly to Covid-19, were tested incessantly and schools were closed for months on end, and young people, also far less susceptibleto Covid-19 than the elderly and frail, were forced by government policies to put their jobs and lives on hold, and governments expended precious resources and man-power in controlling disease in social contexts in which risk was negligible (such as schools or football clubs), detracting from their ability to devote adequate resources to protecting those who actually needed to be protected, such as people in hospitals and care homes.
Any future public health threat must be addressed in a way that takes seriously the stratification of risk. Scarce resources should not be wasted protecting people at minimal risk, and people at minimal risk should not be needlessly inconvenienced, exposed to unnecessary medical risk, or restricted in their activities with no clear and proportionate benefit.
7. Public emergencies call for responses that engage with and empower grassroots organisations and populations, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all “solution” from the top down.
Social reality is bumpy and unpredictable, and does not submit easily to central planning. Viral dynamics are too complex and intertwined with social life to be susceptible to rigorous manipulation and control on a large, society-wide scale. In addition, the competent management of risk requires detailed knowledge about the susceptibility of different populations to the virus, and this sort of knowledge is best understood and interpreted at the local level, in consultation with local actors and institutions.
Hyper-centralised decision-making and heavy reliance on coercion reduced local actors’ capacity to adapt their response to Covid-19 to local knowledge and conditions. A classic example is the decision by governments to by-pass the doctor-patient relationship by making it difficult or impossible for local doctors to prescribe cheap and safe drugs already on the market to treat Covid-19; or to advise patients on a case by case basis on the wisdom of vaccinating.
Another example is the centralised management of nursing home outbreaks, which resulted in many instances in the premature return of elderly Covid patients to care homes, allegedly (at least, so we are told) in order to free up hospital beds. This top-down policy seeded the virus in nursing homes and almost certainly made Covid outbreaks in care homes far worse than they needed to be.
8. We must restore a trust-based philosophy of governance, including governance of public health.
Western pandemic policies in 2020-23 were based on an adversarial relationship between government and citizens. While government frequently employed the rhetoric of “solidarity,” “care,” and “responsibility,” in practice they treated citizens like children, policing their most intimate choices, from the number of people they could invite into their homes to the number of kilometres they could travel, whether they wore a cloth over their face in their day-to-day life, and the types of medications they inserted into their bloodstream. By applying sanctions to behaviour that deviated from government-recommended courses of action, governments sent a clear message that citizens were not to be trusted to do the right thing.
This approach alienated many citizens from their governments and robbed public health authorities of much of their moral authority. Indeed, public officials came to be viewed by many as power-hungry tyrants. The only way to restore a relationship of trust between government and citizens - an essential foundation for sound and effective public policy - is for governments to win citizens over through respectful, rational engagement, and to keep coercion to an absolute minimum in future responses to public health challenges, or indeed to any public policy problem, including global warming or any alleged climate “emergency.”
9. Citizens must reject the efforts of public authorities to infantilise them or intimidate them into compliance.
Governments treated citizens like wild little children who needed to be intimidated into compliance, adopting aggressive campaigns of censorship, fear-mongering, and mass coercion against their own citizens in 2020-22. The US government actively collaborated with social media companies to have their critics’ voices shut down; the UK government appointed a team of experts to manipulate citizens by striking fear into their hearts through “nudge” techniques; and many Western governments coerced their own citizens into masking, staying at home, or even taking experimental medications with known and unknown risks attached to them.
Too many citizens went along and blindly accepted governments’ assuranced that it was absolutely essential to shut down society, make life intolerable for the unvaccinated, impose masks in restaurants, and close schools and churches for months on end. They were understandably frightened by the prospect of a deadly virus sweeping through their communities, so their willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt to those in charge was not crazy. But people continued to comply, long after it became apparent that the risks of the virus for the general population had been greatly exaggerated, and long after it was quite evident that vaccines were not blocking transmission, and masks were not working to stop viral spread.
Governments were put to the test and found wanting. We can no longer submit our lives to their edicts in a blind or uncritical manner. Citizens must get in the habit of demanding solid evidence in support of government policies with the potential to do great harm, or government policies that involve large measures of coercion. We must never trust our governments blindly again: rather, they must earn our trust.
10. Scientists, journalists and public officials must be required to declare any potential conflicts of interest.
Bill Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has significant investments in the pharmaceutical industry, is one of the leading donors of the World Health Organisation, which in turn is advising the world on the wisdom of mass vaccination. Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer provides valuable advertising revenue to major media outlets like CNN and Fox News, and these Pharma-dependent media then report on the safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical products. Many scientists obviously rely on pharmaceutical companies to finance their research, and then make public statements about the safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical products.
These sorts of relationship between media, scientists, public health regulators, and the pharmaceutical industry generate disturbing conflicts of interest that put in question the credibility of the statements coming from Pharma-dependent scientists and journalists about pharmaceutical products. Journalists, scientists, and public regulators must be politically pressured and, whenever possible, legally obligated to declare conflicts of interest that may jeopardise their impartiality as witnesses or expert observers - and not just on matters of public health, but on other matters, such as global warming, city planning, and digital currencies.
* * *
We cannot completely shield ourselves from future pandemics; but it is imperative that we shield ourselves against public and private actors who might seize on a public emergency to expand their power over citizens’ lives and suspend civil and human rights willy nilly. Of course, it is one thing to make observations and draw conclusions on paper; and quite another for a society to take the full measure of what just happened, and make necessary changes to ensure it does not happen again. Only time will tell if we prove more morally and politically resilient the next time we face a public emergency, whether real or perceived.