The precautionary principle may have emerged from within environmentalism, but it now pervades all areas of life. It encourages us to feel fearful and insecure before the future. And it has led to safetyism – that is, the establishment of safety as the foundational value of Anglo-American culture.
We can see the deleterious impact of safetyism and worst-case thinking in the sphere of childhood. Indeed, childhood has been increasingly organised around the anticipation of the worst possible outcome. Parents are now reluctant to let their children out of their sight. And children have come to view themselves as fragile and vulnerable. During the pandemic, this fearful view of childhood and children intensified. Children’s mental health was said to be at risk, and their physical development threatened. This worst-case approach actually incited children to feel hopeless about their future.
So, fear is socially dominant. But this is not fear as an emotion, which arises when we instinctively feel threatened. Rather, this is fear as a perspective, a cultural orientation towards the world. It provides the prism through which we interpret everyday experience. It feeds risk-aversion, a heightened sense of vulnerability, a preoccupation with safety, and a lack of confidence towards the future.
The prevalence of this fearful perspective is turning lockdown into something approaching a permanent state. Policymakers and commentators talk of ‘the new normal’ – a post-pandemic world in which freedoms and customs we once took for granted are no more. And public-health professionals frequently hint that social distancing between people will be in place for years to come.
The CDC paper argues that the mandates were a success. In particular, the paper claims that “the increasing trend in COVID-19 incidence reversed” in the Kansas counties with mask mandates.
We noticed, however, that this conclusion is incorrect. As our paper shows, the trend did not reverse in those counties. Moreover, the growth in reported case incidence (and mortality) was, overall, virtually indistinguishable in counties with and without mask mandates.
It turns out that the CDC paper made an incorrect assertion because the authors used data that was later updated. As statistical studies go, this sort of mistake is surely forgivable.
However, the CDC’s refusal to publicly acknowledge this incorrect assertion – we corresponded with the main author, as well as several editors and an associate director for policy at the CDC – is inexcusable. There simply is no room in legitimate scientific study for refusal to admit mistakes.
Our experience, sadly, is not unique. Even in those rare instances where government public health officials yield to scientific evidence and revise their recommendations, they seldom admit error.
Molly Kingsley argues that “Forcing children to wear masks in classrooms when no one has bothered to calculate the risk is unconscionable.” She’s correct. Here’s her conclusion:
However, as increasing numbers of published papers emerge it becomes clearer still that masks are anything but a de minimis intervention: they are nothing short of violence against children’s emotional, physical and educational health.
Exposing children to a risk of this nature – a risk no one has bothered to calculate – is unconscionable. Children must be able to take off the masks, immediately, and they must be able to do so without being accused of putting others at risk. It is children, not adults, who are in danger now.
It is still a criminal offence in England to meet people from outside your household indoors, other than for specific permitted purpose, or to meet more than five others outdoors. We were pathetically grateful to be allowed to have a pint outside a pub in the sleet of early April, but also risked prosecution for sitting in a group of seven for a picnic on days when the sun shone. I have written elsewhere about how this arrangement is fatal to the rule of law and invites arbitrary policing and a managerial, Big Brother state.
But most of all it seems that the Government has forgotten that freedom is (or used to be) our default setting, and any restrictions need to be justified. Laws preventing freedom of association, freedom to carry on business or to enjoy family life, should have to be assessed and justified for every single day that they continue in force. Instead, the opposite seems to apply – the restrictions are to continue until ministers are satisfied that there is no risk (the official timetable remains contingent). Risk of what seems unclear; we’ve come a long way from flattening the curve and protecting the NHS from being overrun. Many libertarians and free market conservatives were willing to accept emergency laws during the pandemic on the basis of the harm principle and remediation of externalities. I now think that was wrong, but even if you accept that justification it is hard to argue it still applies.
When seeking historical analogies for Covid-19, commentators have referred more often to the catastrophic 1918-19 “Spanish influenza” than to the flu pandemic of 1957-58. Yet the later episode deserves to be much better known, not just because the public health threat was a closer match to our own but because American society at the time was better prepared—culturally, institutionally and politically—to deal with it.
The policy response of President Dwight Eisenhower could hardly have been more different from the response of 2020. Eisenhower did not declare a state of emergency. There were no state lockdowns and, despite the first wave of teenage illness, no school closures. Sick students simply stayed at home, as they usually did. Work continued more or less uninterrupted.
With workplaces open, the Eisenhower administration saw no need to borrow to the hilt to fund transfers and loans to citizens and businesses. The president asked Congress for a mere $2.5 million ($23 million in today’s inflation-adjusted terms) to provide additional support to the Public Health Service. There was a recession that year, but it had little if anything to do with the pandemic. The Congressional Budget Office has described the Asian flu as an event that “might not be distinguishable from the normal variation in economic activity.”
Brilliant humor from the Babylon Bee. (HT Ian Fillmore)