The Great Covid Panic, subtitled What happened, why, and what to do next, is written by three economists: two from Australia and one from the United Kingdom. The second author, Professor Gigi Foster, has been an outspoken critic of the extreme restrictions that were introduced in Australia to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. She has been interviewed regularly on at least one UK radio station (talkRADIO), and she issues a regular newsletter summarising and providing links to articles published across the world on the handling of the pandemic.
This book resembles a scrap book rather than a coherent text, but this does not detract from the clarity of the message and the density and veracity of the data reported by the authors. Chapters are unattributed, contain different perspectives on the pandemic, and use a range of approaches to tell the story. These approaches included biographical sketches of responses to the pandemic, which range from the terminally terrified who supported draconian measures such as economic lockdowns through to sceptics who doubted the evidence for the measures. Some of these are real names, others are anonymous. There are amusing cartoons, copious graphs and tables, and some heartfelt views on the damage that has been done by the pandemic management.
The question is whether the damage was worth it, and the conclusion of the authors is, clearly, that it was not: the damage almost certainly outweighed the benefit. Furthermore, this book was written at the height of the pandemic when opinions contrary to COVID orthodoxy were being suppressed; we now have the benefit of hindsight. The pandemic was nowhere nearly as bad as predicted, the evidence, for example for face masks, was threadbare, and now the positive impacts of the economic lockdowns has been shown to be minimal. The authors, who undoubtedly have been vilified, ought to feel vindicated.
The essential thesis of the book is, regardless of the efficacy of pandemic management measures, that there was never an assessment of what the likely damage was going to be. The equation between benefit and damage was unbalanced; in fact, the damage side was left blank. As the heroic Lord Jonathan Sumption, former Supreme Court judge from the UK, repeatedly pointed out in the early days of the pandemic, it was immoral not to weigh the potential for harm when introducing severe measures to manage COVID-19. He was aghast at the restrictions to basic and assumed freedoms that the Common Law in the UK traditionally assured us and claimed there was a moral case for ignoring them.
The book is presented in three phases: Phase I: “The great fear” (January–March 2020); Phase II: “The illusion of control” (April–December 2020); and Phase III: “The end games.”
“The great fear” investigates how governments—aided and abetted by their health services, medical professions, epidemiologists, and modellers—instilled fear in the population. Fear of infection, fear of death, fear of causing death, and, ultimately, fear of being considered a social pariah. The book only slightly preceded the excellent A State of Fear by Laura Dodsworth, an English photojournalist who intrepidly excavated the evidence that the UK government made considerable use of its ‘nudge’ unit but also of more shady and secretive military intelligence organisations to try to inflict on the British people a state of fear-induced paralysis. The findings of Frijters, Foster, and Baker are quite congruent with the information revealed by Dodsworth, which constitutes an exemplar of triangulation. It is interesting that the two books also have in common the use of biographies to illustrate their points.
Phase II considers the tragedy of the pandemic, not in terms of deaths and morbidity, but in terms of jobs lost, businesses ruined, and the devastating effect on the mental health of a great many people. The possibility that the lockdown measures also led to suicides is raised. Science does not fare well in the analysis. Essentially, science was misused, and scientists lost the objectivity for which they are usually held in high esteem. Scientists, instead of providing balanced evidence for pandemic management measures (the ones who did were silenced, literally, on social media), simply followed the narrative that had been set. They behaved as a crowd and, indeed, a chapter of this section of the book is dedicated to analysing the social psychology of crowds. The overriding message: crowds tend not to be pleasant. A consideration of the dynamics of power completes this section and concludes that ‘monoculturalism’ lies at the heart of many current problems. It also, possibly, explains the remarkable similarity in most developed countries in their approach to the pandemic, which transcended political differences. Evidence of this monoculture is less evident in the United States where different states took radically different approaches to pandemic management, but is blatantly in evidence north of its border in Canada. The monoculture has arisen in places like the UK because it is represented by the same class of people, regardless of what party is in power.
I was most struck by the final section and, especially, chapter 10: “What’s next—and what have we learned?” where three scenarios are presented for what could happen as a result of the widespread disruption that has been caused by the pandemic management. The three scenarios can be summarised as follows:
1. A gradual winding down of the pandemic measures and a reconciliatory approach to getting society back to normal. Of course, this was written at the height of the pandemic when no end seemed in sight, and many spoke of maintaining some degree of restriction in perpetuity; 2. This scenario envisages a ‘techno-fascist’ era driven by the World Economic Forum and effecting The Great Reset, which so occupies the minds of conspiracy theorists. At the time the book was written these ideas were risible, but now we have galloping inflation, a virtually cashless society, and a failed effort to impose vaccine passports. The possibility of some international coordination by powerful globalists is no longer simply a ‘remote possibility’; 3. This scenario envisages a backlash against those who imposed draconian pandemic measures with show trials and punishment—if you like, The Great Payback. I am aware of how this plays up to natural human instincts for revenge, but as a recipe for a stable society it strikes me that this would be a disaster.
However, none of the above obviates the necessity to hold rigorous and fair post-pandemic public inquiries, to apportion blame and learn lessons lest we face another pandemic in the years ahead. The Great Covid Panic is one of several critical books that have emanated from the pandemic. In terms of helping us to analyse how the world got into the mess it did for the years 2020 and 2021 and helping us to plan for the next steps, it is a valuable addition to that body of literature. I will be interested to see if these authors stay with this subject; a revised edition or another book once the end of the pandemic is finally declared are distinct possibilities.
Roger Watson is a British academic and former professor of nursing at the University of Hull. He is the editor-in-chief of Nurse Education in Practice and an Editorial Board Member of the WikiJournal of Medicine. He was the founding chair of the Lancet Commission on Nursing, and a founding member of the Global Advisory Group for the Future of Nursing. In 2020, Watson was elected vice president of the National Conference of University Professors. In 2022, Watson was elected president of the National Conference of University Professors.