Human history is largely a record of the destructive power of religious beliefs held by autocratic rulers, but 2020 has starkly demonstrated to the 21st-century’s generations of rationalists and atheists that scientific beliefs held by democratically elected leaders of liberal democracies can also be the driver of untold social destruction and human misery.
The authoritarian junta that we call the UK government is (like most of the world) in the thrall of one such scientific belief: that the stringency of restrictive government measures correlates with lower Covid mortality rates. It’s almost as if they see it as a dial. If you turn it ‘up’, then you increase the number of lives you’re saving. It sounds so reassuringly simple doesn’t it? But there’s a problem. There is no scientific evidence to support this belief. The dial does nothing (nothing good anyway). If you were to look at the Covid mortality rates for all the countries, then you would not be able to pick out which ones imposed lockdowns and which didn’t.
But if lockdowns do save large numbers of lives, as advocates believe they do, then we should be able to see it in the data. But we can’t. So we must conclude lockdowns don’t control the virus in the ways governments claim they do. Sweden and Belarus’s favourable covid outcomes, despite not imposing lockdowns, further evidence this. As do those of US states that didn’t lockdown.
The spread of a virus through a population is a natural process that, like the weather, cannot be controlled – it can only be mitigated. If people in government claimed to have the power to control the rain you would think them mad. But they would point to the times when the rain stopped after they issued a decree to close restaurants and claim this was evidence that it worked.
This is essentially what people in government have done for the last several months regarding lockdowns. When hospitalisations and deaths decreased soon after the first lockdown, they wrongly concluded or at least claimed this outcome was because of the lockdown. But it wasn’t. This was a case of confusing correlation with causation. It’s one of the most basic rhetological fallacies. If people in the highest levels of government are making such fundamental reasoning errors, then they aren’t nearly as smart as we might assume or hope they are.
The pandemic had already peaked. The lockdown just happened to occur at the same time it was already starting to come down. All the lockdown did was push a whole bunch of infection cases months into the future by keeping apart healthy adults and children, which served no purpose because the virus wasn’t a danger to them. Since then, Johnson’s Cabinet has happily laboured under the delusion that they are controlling the virus with their edicts and their complex tier system. But its complexity is really just a mask for its stupidity. One that is slipping further by the day.
Eugenics was a scientific belief at the core of Nazism. It drove educated and intellectual men to do untold evil to millions of people. It drove ordinary Germans to support the horrors of the holocaust. The belief in lockdowns has done something similar. It has driven a committee of highly educated and well-meaning people, men and women of science in the employ of the government, to advocate policies that have done untold harm to millions of people; policies that have led to the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of cancer patients and others requiring life-saving medical treatment. Deaths that ordinarily do not happen in our society because hospital resources aren’t under a dictatorship of control by politicians and bureaucrats who aren’t bound by any ethical principle of first doing no harm. The belief in the virtue of lockdowns also drove common folk to fear each other and snitch on each other – some even became voluntary members of the police state. Love thy neighbour became lockdown thy neighbour.
The moment it all went wrong in 2020 wasn’t when the coronavirus crossed UK shores, it was months later when MPs collectively decided the government must ‘do something’ about the coronavirus pandemic. They hastily concluded this was the one time in the history of British democracy that the government should be granted unlimited power over people’s lives. That reckless decision, based on Imperial College’s wildly wrong covid modelling, ignorance of how liberal democracies have dealt with pandemics over the past century and a general lack of regard for the principles of free society, precipitated an overnight tsunami of legal decrees and bureaucracy, unlike anything the British public had experienced before, which smashed through society and wrecked the economy and millions of people’s lives.
As the year draws to a close, we’re all left surveying the wreckage of our lives or the general sorrowful state of society and thinking ‘what the hell happened’?
Government happened. That’s what. As soon as politicians forcibly took over the managing of society’s response to the pandemic, the pandemic became politicised. It became just another way for politicians to win the favour of special interest groups and popularity with the public. Because politicians are always doing politics. They don’t stop doing politics just because there’s a public health emergency going on.
When the pandemic became politicised and people in government naturally began acting in their own self-interest, any hope of reasonable policies based on a holistic view of public health was lost. That’s why, instead of doing the right thing in terms of public health as a whole, as a good leader should do during a public health emergency, Boris Johnson changed course at the last minute and did what he thought would make him popular. This was Lord Sumption’s assessment and, in the absence of evidence that this was all part of some grand political plan, I find myself inclined to agree.
Like a bad doctor, Johnson gave his terrified patient what he wanted and told him what he wanted to hear. Johnson’s actions may have earned him favour with the political and intellectual classes for now, but when eventually the full terrible human, social and economic cost of his covid authoritarianism becomes clear and public opinion becomes reasonably aligned with the truth, he will likely go down as one of the worst Prime Ministers in British history. If not the worst. And the intellectual and political classes will cast him unto the flames of historical hell.
Our society had the resources, the expertise and the compassion to cope with the pandemic in a civilised and dignified way; in a way that would have disrupted the normal functioning of society as little as possible and minimised deaths from the coronavirus. But that outcome was made impossible when all decision-making power over how society’s resources should be used and how everyone should adapt their behaviour was concentrated into the hands of a few people in government. That centralising of decision-making power happened when MPs hastily passed the unscrutinised Coronavirus Act with barely any debate or deliberation. And that too may go down in history as the most disastrous decision a British parliament has ever made.
If parliament had rejected the Coronavirus Act, as it should have done, then it wouldn’t have mattered what mistaken beliefs people in government had about the science of pandemics or the Coronavirus. They wouldn’t have had the legal power to force the entire population to act according to those beliefs. That would have left every individual free to act according to their own conscience and according to their own unique knowledge of their circumstances, thus rendering our society’s response as a whole much more intelligent. And infinitely less damaging.
As a dreadful year enters its final weeks and we wish it good riddance, we should add ‘manage pandemics’ to the very, very long list of things governments do badly (actually, the only thing not on the list is ‘killing people’). And we should also reflect on how easily science was used as the moral justification for totalitarian control over people’s lives.
The global lockdown of 2020 was like a massive oil spill in the human eco-system that is our global market society. It did great damage, but capitalism showed itself to be remarkably resilient. Markets were still able to supply hundreds of millions of people with what they needed when they needed it. Maybe, just maybe, capitalism is too well established to be destroyed by even the most draconian and reckless government action. And that’s one reason at least to be optimistic about the future.