There are two basic questions any thoughtful layman should be asking about our response to COVID-19. First, given that we are reminded ad nauseam that the government only makes decisions that ‘follow the science,’ why were we not better prepared for a viral outbreak of this kind? Second, what is the moral justification for the unprecedented breaks that have been placed on our basic liberties, surpassing even those imposed during wartime?
As to the first question, Lord Jonathan Sumption, retired senior judge of the Supreme Court in the UK, has pointed out that we were prepared, but we simply ignored our own experts—the same experts we now swear by to justify lockdown measures.
Sumption points out that European experts—like those at Imperial College London, whose counsel the government of Boris Johnson has relied on, or at the Robert Koch Institute here in Germany—concluded that lockdowns only work on the scale that would justify their break on civil liberties at the initial stages of a pandemic. Since this was thought to be unrealistic in a free society, the only rational response was to ‘tough it out’ until we reached herd immunity or developed a vaccine. This advice informed the approach initially adopted in Britain and has continued to do so in other places, most famously in Sweden.
As we now know all too well, this was not the approach adopted throughout most of Europe, Canada, or the United States. Western governments changed their approach, Sumption explains, when people noticed what, say, the zealous governor of New York was doing and complained similar measures weren’t being taken by their own leaders. Our politicians, it turns out, were afraid of the mob.
Of course, this is not the rationale politicians offered to justify the lockdown measures. Governments and media outlets friendly to them did not make a scientific argument but a moral one. Even some conservatives initially applauded the courage of politicians for not abandoning the sick and elderly to their fate. This, however, was not the real story.
The real principle at work in their arguments made itself abundantly clear over time, a principle that gives us a good insight into what motivates institutional thinking in the West at present—an insight we would do well not to forget.
Before addressing this larger issue, we should highlight the reasons why it is impossible for us to accept that there was a noble principle lying behind the embrace of lockdown culture across the West. (This is not to say that people who supported the lockdown did not do so for moral reasons. I think many well-intended people understandably put their trust in what seemed to be a reasonable consensus, and some continue to do so. They are mistaken but honest.) So, what follows is not meant to be an exhaustive list of reasons but rather a simple introduction to the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of our best and brightest during Coronatide:
I. Rigorous border closures were decried as ‘racist’ when called for by President Trump—even as China itself stopped domestic flights from Wuhan province, while permitting international flights.
II. If the intention behind the “flatten the curve” rhetoric was to allow the medical sector to prepare itself, as we were told—”Save our NHS!” was the battle cry in the UK—then why is the medical sector not now sufficiently prepared to leave lockdowns in the rear-view? Especially worrying was the failure to protect homes for the elderly, which are notoriously understaffed and known to be vulnerable to outbreaks well before COVID painfully laid this vulnerability bare on the world stage.
III. Lockdown for thee, not for me. We have seen countless examples of high-profile politicians making exceptions for themselves to the very lockdown measures they imposed on others—a pattern of behaviour we observe in the ‘Green’ warrior politician or celebrity who flies on private jets and owns multiple homes. Obvious examples include California Governor Gavin Newsom getting caught dining out, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi getting her hair done without a mask, and the mask-free party that followed the Biden inauguration.
A particularly striking example of this hypocrisy is the explicit encouragement of BLM protests while anti-lockdown protests were met with shaming and described as ‘super-spreader’ events populated by ‘corona-deniers.’ Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s interview with Stephen Colbert was a particularly high-profile example of this kind of hypocrisy: she actively encouraged the BLM protests at what was the deadliest stage of the pandemic. On the other side of the Atlantic, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s recent disgrace is merely the latest example of this pattern of behaviour.
IV. I am not aware of a single politician who offered to forego their salary or take a pay cut to offer it to a COVID relief charity, even as they made decisions that wiped out the earning power of much of the working and middle classes—while simultaneously enriching multinational, big-box companies and corporations.
V. An unscientific fear-mongering campaign was designed to cow the population into conformity with the lockdown measures, since they were judged incapable of making their own risk assessments. I would highlight especially the daily dissemination of raw numbers of infection rates and deaths completely absent of any context, something that has led to widespread misconceptions about the dangers of the virus. In one shocking UK poll from last summer, 30% believed that 6-10% of the population had already been killed by the virus, while half believed it was 1%. The actual figure was roughly one-tenth of 1%.
Similarly, it seems that almost no one understands—even to this day—that an overwhelming proportion of deaths happened inside institutional walls overseen or funded by our governments, a cost they have simply passed on to ordinary citizens through mass closures or severe limitations of businesses, schools, and places of worship, to say nothing of controls on our civil liberties.
According to the arguments advanced by our political class, expanding the capacity of the medical sector should have been Plan A, B, and C. Surely this would have been cheaper and better for collective morale than shutting down a huge part of the global economy and taking on crippling debt in the process? Additionally, there is an argument to be made that the lockdowns themselves put more pressure on health care workers, who had to take on the additional burden of caring for people on their death bed or through a severe illness without the moral support of the patient’s loved ones. With the growing backlog of postponed operations and consultations, the effects of lockdowns will be felt for years to come.
And what happened to the liberal narrative that links poverty and crime? What of the narrative that was so invested in ‘mental health,’ the narrative that was so interested in welcoming and integrating immigrants?
This last point is a real conundrum in Europe where infection rates are disproportionately high in immigrant communities. One of the symptoms of this problem in Germany is immigrant children attempting to make vaccination appointments for their parents. Obviously, the well-meaning bureaucrat on the other end of the line cannot allow this; but what are these parents to do, having been cut off from the opportunity to learn the language—as one only can—through real world encounters? Masks have been required since the beginning of the school year. Think how hard it is for those same immigrant children (my eldest is one of them) to learn a new language when they cannot see their teachers’ or classmates’ faces, even during recess?
The hypocrisy is rampant. Until recently, my wealthy neighbours were free to go on holiday to Majorca—but my son could not go attend school down the street where they have had no Corona cases among students or staff, even after rigorous testing administered by the local university. Bavarian Minister-President, Markus Söder, did, however, announce recently that Bavaria would become climate neutral in 2040. After all, he explains, we have to think about the future of our children and grandchildren.
We have marshalled virtually all of our spiritual and material resources to stop the spread of the virus. But how can we justify the extraordinary preventative measures that have been taken to guard against a disease that does not meaningfully reduce average life expectancy? How can it be justified when it is now deemed an absolute right by the German high court to take your own life—and when there is a de facto right to take the life of your unborn child?
Perhaps it has something to do with the rhetoric of politicians like Söder who has compared deaths “in connection with Corona” to a plane full of people crashing every day. Merkel, in a rare display of emotion last Christmas, similarly claimed that there had been too many Corona deaths to justify seeing loved ones over the holidays. This is a superficially rational justification for the authoritarianism that lies behind the rhetoric. The justification is not the deaths themselves but the possibility of their ‘exponential growth.’ And the decisions taken are on the basis of predictions and selective catastrophising.
All this brings us to the heart of the matter. During Corona we have been waging an existential war against death itself. This is a war that cannot be won. But, in the meantime, we are exhausting our collective resources, spiritual and material.
The spiritual malaise and hypocrisy of our culture has become particularly clear to me here in Germany. It is harrowing to think of the resources being expended to kill unborn children—sometimes justifying them on the basis of reducing the number of genetic defects—in a country where the birth rate has been below replacement level for half a century. Germans abort nearly 100,000 children a year, a death rate that they have kept up during the pandemic. That number, set next to Corona deaths of 84,000 and counting, tells you all you need to know: if abortions were eliminated, Corona deaths would be more than offset in terms of numbers and lived years. And medical resources being spent there could be redirected to supporting frontline health care workers.
Lives in our culture of death are in fact merely part of a numbers game; they are not valued for their own sake. This numbers game brings us back to the ‘logic’ lying behind Merkel and her government’s rationalisation of stricter lockdowns: things might get worse, so we will pre-emptively mitigate against this risk by doing something extraordinary, whose consequences we cannot possibly foresee. This is nothing more than fear masquerading as rationalism.
If you think there is light at the end of the Corona tunnel, Herr Söder has news for you, as seen recently in his Twitter feed: “After Corona, climate change will be the next pandemic challenge we have to face.” There you have it: fear of nature will henceforth rule every meaningful decision regarding life and death. Viruses and climate change will justify continued social isolation and an increasingly totalitarian government—just as genetic defects justify child sacrifice. This is not the way a civilization survives.
James Bryson is a Humboldt Fellow in the faculty of Catholic theology at Ludwig Maximilians Universität in Munich.