Back then, hundreds of professors associated with Yale University organized a letter with signatures to send to the White House. The letter was dated March 2, 2020. It was signed by 800 credentialed professionals largely from the fields of epidemiology and medicine. It was not what I would call a treatise in market liberalism, to be sure, and I did not agree with parts of it.
Still, it might have taken us in a different direction than the one in which governments took us soon after it was published. The letter warned that the crackdowns, shutdowns, travel restrictions, sweeping closures, and work restrictions could be counterproductive and not produce the results people hope for. This echoed the concern expressed by Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis and his soon-after published work that warned that we are taking extreme measures with low-quality information with little interest in costs. The letter foreshadowed themes in the Great Barrington Declaration.
Two decades ago, when I was 4 years old, my parents immigrated to Canada from India in search of greater freedoms, autonomy and economic opportunities. They’re core Canadian values — enshrined in our national anthem, which gloriously heralds “The True North strong and free.”
However, the past two years have seen a near complete erosion of the foundational liberal values that have attracted millions of immigrants like myself to this country.
Under the once-righteous guise of COVID safety and online protections, the Canadian government has taken its power to extreme levels once only imaginable — let alone permissible — in a dissent-stifling authoritarian state.
The control has extended to nearly every element of Canadian society, but nowhere more so than in our everyday personal lives.
actually having had covid was a near useless predictor of “long covid” symptoms but “belief that you had had covid” was a strong predictor of PASC, even in those who were antibody negative. those who had never had covid but thought they did were more likely to claim to have long covid than people who had actually had covid and this held for every symptom except for loss of smell/taste.
But in the end, they did not get away with it. The Prime Minister remains guilty – most explicitly of misleading the House of Commons when he denied that any parties took place. He has shown a serious failure, too, in not learning from his mistakes. It is no use him or anyone else in government complaining about the triviality of the charges. His government put the lockdown laws on the statute book in the first place, framing them in such a way as to criminalise everyday interactions.
Now the Prime Minister’s allies plead for clemency. It is in human nature, they say, to gather to bid farewell to a departing friend or colleague, to offer friendship and succour. Quite so. Johnson’s allies further argue that, as he raised his glass in a toast, he did so in a work capacity – as evidenced by the presence of his red box. This Jesuitical defence would be more plausible if the government’s laws had not seen ordinary people dragged to court and found guilty of far milder offences.
A variation on this theme is the utility of moral panics — spiritual warfare — for pursuing top-down projects of social transformation, typically by administrative fiat. The principle of equality under the law, which would seem to be indispensable to a liberal society, must make way for a system of privileges for protected classes, corresponding to a moral typology of citizens along the axis of victim and oppressor. Victim dramas serve as a permanent moral emergency, justifying an ever-deeper penetration of society by bureaucratic authority in both the public and private sectors.
This is one front in a larger development: an intensifying distrust of human judgment when it operates in the wild, unsupervised. Sometimes this takes the purely bureaucratic form of insisting on metrics of performance and imposing uniform procedures on professionals. “Evidence-based medicine” circumscribes the discretion of doctors; standardised tests and curricula do the same for teachers. At other times, this same impulse takes a technological form, with algorithms substituting for individual judgment on the grounds that human rationality is the weak link in the system. For example, it is stipulated that human beings are terrible drivers and must be replaced in a new regime of autonomous vehicles. The effect, consistently, is to remove agency from skilled practitioners on the grounds of incompetence, and devolve power upward toward a separate layer of information managers that grows ever thicker. It also removes responsibility from identifiable human beings who can be held to account for their decisions. Such mystification insulates various forms of power, both governmental and commercial, from popular pressures.
Once this pattern of government by emergency snaps into focus, one experiences a Gestalt shift. The self-image of the liberal West — as based on the rule of law and representative government — is in need of revision. Our society’s response to Covid brought this anachronism to mass awareness.
How are we to understand the dramatically different responses of our society to the Spanish flu of a century ago and to Covid today? There is an inverse relationship between the severity of these pandemics and the severity of measures to control them. Clearly, Covid acquired some of its emergency energy from the ambient political crisis dating from 2016, which put the establishment on a war footing. But it also slotted nicely into the more general politics of emergency that is the unacknowledged core of technocratic progressivism, and is further advanced today than it was in 1918.
In 2020, a fearful public acquiesced to an extraordinary extension of expert jurisdiction over every domain of life, and a corresponding transfer of sovereignty from representative bodies to unelected agencies located in the executive branch of government. Notoriously, polling indicated that perception of the risks of Covid outstripped the reality by one to two orders of magnitude, but with a sharp demarcation: the hundredfold distortion was among self-identified liberal Democrats, that is, those whose yard signs exhorted us to “believe in science”.
In a technocratic regime, whoever controls what Science Says controls the state. What Science Says is then subject to political contest, and subject to capture by whoever funds it. Which turns out to be the state itself. Here is an epistemic self-licking ice cream cone that bristles at outside interference. Many factual ambiguities and rival hypotheses about the pandemic, typical of the scientific process, were resolved not by rational debate but by intimidation, with heavy use of the term “disinformation” and attendant enforcement by social media companies acting as franchisees of the state. In this there seems to have been a consistent bias toward scientific interpretations that induced fear, even at the cost of omitting relevant context.
Let us acknowledge that many of our hygiene maximalists are acting, not out of fear for themselves, but in the name of the common good, and this is attractive. Indeed, maybe deep-blue Covid culture was prompted by dissatisfaction with liberal individualism. We have unsatisfied longings for belonging; for anything that could pull us out of the liberal mindset of rights and recall us to duties. The pandemic provided an opportunity to rise above the selfish concerns of the bourgeois and discover a public-spiritedness in oneself. Zero Covid is a heroic battle, to join which requires a literal effacement of the individual. As in any war, those who have answered the call recognise one another, not by their faces but by their uniform, the N95.
This is inspiring but it is also a little creepy, at least for those of us leery of mass movements. There is a cult-like quality to public spaces in the Bay Area. One may efface oneself, not out of fear, but out of identification with the Vulnerable One who is currently elevated, the immunocompromised. How many of these are there, really? It doesn’t matter. Note that in this Hobbesian dynamic, the politics of emergency is intimately tied to victimology.
The good invoked by our hygiene maximalists was that of health. But not health considered broadly, which would require an accounting of the health costs of lockdowns. There is a lively empirical debate about this in the back channels of the Internet, as well as about the efficacy of lockdowns in controlling the course of the pandemic, quite apart from any rise in non-Covid mortality they may have caused.
My point here isn’t to litigate these factual questions, which are contested. But I do want to register the lack of curiosity about them in officialdom, and note that among those who identify as liberals, there seems to be little interest in such an accounting, though it would seem to be crucial. The real attachment seems to be, not to actual health, but to a source of collective meaning that floats free of the empirical: the Covid emergency itself.