Wednesday 23 March 2022

Daryl McCann's article in the Salisbury Review, Spring 2022


Here is "Australia: A Nation Banged Up": 

An image that sticks in my mind is police helicopter, search light ablaze, sweeping over the lower socio-economic suburbs of western Sydney to enforce a nightly curfew during a lockdown. Australia, which had mostly turned itself into a virus-free Hermit Kingdom through 2020, took on a different feel in 2021. A roll back of Covid-19 restrictions is now underway in Australia, but there was a time when some feared we were on the verge of metamorphosing into a medico-tyrannical state. Is there some other way to contain a pandemic?            

Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, argues our reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic: “We were mesmerised by the once-in-a-century scale of the emergency and succeeded in making a crisis worse. In short, we panicked.” Lockdowns in the United Kingdom followed a different rhythm from those in Australia, or in America, Canada and New Zealand for that matter. The latter is probably the most extreme of all, with Prime Minister Jacinda Arden recently imposing the toughest lockdown so far after the discovery of a cluster of just nine Omicron cases, a knee-jerk reaction described as “ludicrous” by some. Nevertheless, all these places have more in common with each other than with the far less strict emergency conditions introduced in Sweden. The time has come, as the pandemic finally begins to recede, thanks to the advent of the Omicron variant much more so than the efficacy of lockdowns, social distancing, vaccination, mask-wearing and all the other accoutrements of the Age of Covid, to re-assess the success or otherwise of the lockdown strategy.

Woolhouse, in The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir (2022), makes the important point that the lockdown as we experienced it during the pandemic would not have been a feasible strategy even a few decades ago. Before the advent of our digital age, he notes, a protracted lockdown would have risked starving the population and provoking a revolution of sorts. Now many can work from home, with food and other necessities of life sourced from online services while a virtual education can be provided to (most) schoolchildren. All of this might doable but not necessarily agreeable. Woolhouse writes of the long-term damage likely to have been inflicted on the younger generation in the UK: “We did serious harm to our children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, as well as suffering damage to their future prospects, while they were left to inherit a record-breaking mountain of public debts.” 

Ann Hollands, Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner, has spoken of implications for mental health amongst young Victorians: “We have seen over the last two years of the pandemic that whilst schools have been closed in some locations for very extended periods, I think in Victoria kids lost something like 200 days of school, that is associated with some major health effects and I’m talking major health effects here.” Our school days, as Hollands reminds us, are as much about socialisation as education, and faces on the screen are not the same as a real faces or real people, whatever the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world would have us believe. In many of the more socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Australia, the UK, America and so on, young people have been prematurely and permanently removed from institutionalised education.     
Woolhouse gives the British example of Michael Gove who, during a No 10 briefing back in March 2020, warned the SARS-CoV-2 did not discriminate: “Everyone is at risk.” On the contrary, as Woolhouse points out, the virus turns out to be decidedly discriminatory: “People over 75 are an astonishing 10,000 times more at risk than those who are under 15.” The inequitable nature of Covid-19 was confirmed by none other than Rochelle Walensky, director of America’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in January 2022. Walensky disclosed that 75 percent of Covid-19 deaths occurred among those with four or more comorbidities. As conservative pundit Roger L. Simon wryly noted: “Four or more? What would the percentage have been those with a mere two comorbidities? Eighty-five? Ninety-five? Ninety-eight? For that, we all had to be injected, masked up, locked down, and isolated for two years.” Simon added a final barb: “But worst of all by far is what we have done to America’s children as a result. The past two years – and continuing now in many venues – have been the worst case of child abuse in human history.”

In America, at least, the pro-lockdown sentiment gained a political dimension after President Trump began agitating for an end to the country-wide state lockdowns that had ensued from his declaration of a national emergency on March 13, 2020, which in turn had followed the WHO’s (belated) declaration of a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. In less than three weeks, though, Trump was calling for America to “reopen” on April 12, Easter Sunday, with “packed churches”. When Easter arrived, and Covid deaths continued to rise at an alarming rate, the mainstream media derided Trump as out of touch with reality, a typical headline on April 11 reading: “No more talk of packed churches, Trump acknowledges no gatherings for Easter.” 

The assumption of many was that Trump, as a billionaire property developer, had to be in the pocket of business and preferenced profit over people. In other words, better people died of Covid-19 than the economy suffer, and he does not win the vote on Election Day in November 2020. A flaw in this reasoning is that business in the modern era be divided into two entirely different categories: local companies and transnational corporations such as Jeff Bezos’ Inc. In the case of the latter, and here we could add Google, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, long-term lockdowns were a boon and not a bust. It was local hairdressers, restauranteurs, newsagents, shopkeepers ad infinitum bankrupted by stringent lockdowns, not the transnational E-commerce companies or government agencies. We might add here the unstoppable rise of future inflation produced by governments strangling small businesses only to put everyone on a life-support system by printing stacks of money followed by a whole lot more when that ran out.  

Three prominent medical scientists, Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University, Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford University and Martin Kulldorf, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, attempted to warn the world of the dangers of lockdown in the so-called The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) which has now attracted some 920,000 additional signatories. The GBD called for those least susceptible to being hospitalised by Covid-19 to get on with their normal life while taking, of course, whatever personal safety precautions they deemed necessary amid the pandemic. For the vulnerable, on the other hand, a society’s resources could be marshalled to provide Focused Protection. An eminently reasonable idea, you might think, given discriminatory nature of Covid-19. In the UK, as one example, 40 per cent of total Covid deaths occurred old-age nursing homes – some “focused protection” on that front might have been invaluable.

But, apart from Sweden and some local exceptions like Texas and Florida, it was not to be. We now know, thanks to an FOIA request, that Francis Collins, director of America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that two of the most powerful public health officials in the world were set against a non-lockdown strategy. Wrote Collins to Fauci on October 8, 2020: “There needs to be a quick and devastating published take down of its premises. I don’t see anything like that on line yet – is it underway?” We see here a striking gap between medical science and politicised science. On the release of this memo in late 2021, Collins – by then the former director of the NIH – doubled down on his “fringe epidemiologists” jibe despite the absurdity of the insult.            

One way to reconcile Collins’ puerile ad hominem attack with Francis Collins the renowned geneticist who led the Human Genome Project and won the Templeton Prize in 2020 is to factor in the warping effect of becoming an all-powerful modern-day technocrat, of succumbing to the bureaucrat’s chief anti-democratic vices of authoritarianism, safetyism and paternalism. In Sweden, where there are still restrictions on restaurant hours and attendance caps for indoor venues, there has at least been an attempt over the past two years to avoid protracted and comprehensive lockdowns, out of respect for human rights and protecting the economy if nothing else. Although the cumulative death rate of Covid-19 in Sweden is slightly lower than in the UK, there are probably too many confounding variables to draw any conclusions from that. Australia, for example, has had a very low Covid mortality rate because we – like Taiwan, New Zealand and so on – enjoy the advantage our geographical isolation. 

What we might say about the Swedish model, as exemplified by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, is that at least there were no nightly curfews or police helicopters swooping overhead in search of citizens-cum-fugitives. Tegnell has all along advocated “having a conversation with the public, putting a lot of trust in the public and giving a little responsibility to individuals”. Something to reflect on before SARS-CoV-3 does the rounds.