A year of Covid-19 (1) – following ‘the science’

On 20 April last year the lead story in ‘The Irish Times’ was a report of research led by an Irish scientist that there may have to be repeated waves of Covid-19 epidemics until enough of the population is infected to provide herd immunity.  At best there would be three more infection cycles before 60 per cent was infected, enough for immunity.

It reported intense debate on the subject, with World Health Organisation epidemiologists warning that there was no proof yet that having the infection would confer immunity for a significant period of time.  Later, when it was apparent that immunity did occur, the response was that the level of antibodies recorded in previously infected cases declined more or less rapidly so that immunity would also decline.  This however did not take account of the body’s reduced need for higher levels and its newly acquired capacity to ramp up again if required; it also did not take account of the role of T-cells in fighting infection.

The point however, is that herd immunity was not dismissed as beyond the pale and was not considered a euphemism for mass murder.  In fact, as the link to the debate below records, herd immunity is not so much a strategy as an outcome, the inevitable outcome of defeating the pandemic.  That it has been understood as anything else illustrates the impairment of critical thought that has accompanied the physical restrictions introduced by lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, governments in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere have been keen to demand that people follow ‘the science’ (as they put it), backed up by certain scientists or doctors, usually on the state payroll, who have given authority to government policy even when it is sometimes reported that they don’t agree with it.

The appeal to authority, the idea that there is one ‘science’ with one rational direction available to policy makers, the unwillingness to debate, and repeated charges of lack of transparency; all these are very far from any scientific approach.  The debate here on what the correct approach should be is an example of what has not been presented to populations.  The effects of this have been many and not always acknowledged.

I recently had a disagreement on Facebook with a supporter of a ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy, who refused to accept our differences were political, claiming that there was a psychological issue involved with my approach (along with some other remarks I have committed to amnesia).  The alternative that I argued, of focused protection of the vulnerable and opposition to generalised lockdown, was not received as a legitimate one to be considered, but simply one to be condemned and damned as so mistaken as to be the product of some psychological imperfection.

What was remarkable was that the principal issue facing the world was argued as something above, beyond or otherwise disassociated from politics.  Marxists, and this guy is one of long standing, are supposed to base their ideas on the reality that science, morality and all aspects of human behaviour are permeated with politics.  Science has its political aspects and the actions of the Government and state obviously does, especially when they involve drastic restrictions on human activity.

So, to regard Covid-19 as a non-political issue is absurd.  That such an argument could arise on social media is not at all surprising since everything under the sun appears on it.  In this case however the response is not uncommon, and is a mirror reflection of the approach taken by almost all Governments, which is to deny legitimacy to any questioning of their policies.  We can see this clearly for example in the pathetic ‘opposition’ of Keir Starmer, whose only point of disagreement is that the lockdown policy of the Government has been implemented incompetently and incompletely.

The policy of inducing fear into the population is ably assisted by a willing media seeking the simple and the sensational, through stressing the lethal nature of the virus; repetition of statistics on cases, hospitalisation numbers and patients in intensive care; the numbers with ‘long-Covid’; the prominence given to sufferers among the young, and of course the rising number of deaths.

This goes along with a determined policy of down-playing the specificity of those most under threat, and claims that the virus is either out of control or will utterly swamp the health service.  The fear generated has enough truth behind it to get acceptance of actions that would in normal times have generated heated opposition; including cancelled urgent cancer operations and a policy of isolation of individuals that admits that increased domestic abuse and enormous deterioration in mental health will follow.  The cumulative effect in generating fear is to dampen and discourage further the exercise of people’s critical faculties.

Instead of opposing all this, much of the left has echoed it and amplified it, as my minor Facebook argument illustrated.  This Left demands stricter and longer lockdowns and ‘zero-Covid’, i.e. no cases and no deaths from Covid.  To state that there is an alternative approach to generalised lockdown, and admit that some deaths will almost certainly result, is to damn oneself out of one’s own mouth.  How dare you advocate a policy that accepts any deaths!

We will, for the moment, leave aside the obvious truth that the current lockdown policy has abysmally failed to prevent avoidable deaths, and that the ‘Zero-Covid’ policy has yet to indicate what injury and deaths would flow from its implementation.  It has failed to admit that it would have to be enforced; that the state would have to do the enforcing and that it would have to apply much enhanced powers of coercion to attempt to achieve it.  An additional result would be to limit further the space for open debate on different approaches and alternative futures following the pandemic.

The policy of the Left has not been to encourage scientific debate but to back one element of the consensus view that lockdowns are the answer.  The problem here is that there has been far from a free debate on what the best approach to dealing with Covid-19 is and not, as the left would have it, a refusal to follow through on what is so obviously the right, or rather only, one.

These two articles, here and here, show that there is no single and unequivocal scientific approach that supports lockdown.  Rather, there is an intensely political debate within the scientific community that has suffered from, but resisted, restrictions on discussion.  The result of the attempt to impose a single approach has been the development of what has been called ‘groupthink’, censorship and self-censorship and something of a climate of fear, in which critical thought is seen as criticism of the scientific establishment, which might be damaging to the careers of those who engage in it.

The inevitable uncertainties generated by a new viral infection requires engagement with the issues that the political establishment does not believe the population can handle, something the media reinforces with its superficial treatment of every issue.  The mechanisms and apparatus that circumscribes political argument has been easily employed to narrow debate on the right approach to dealing with the pandemic.  The idea that the issues around it are non-political is, to repeat, ludicrous.

This political debate has been grossly distorted by an anti-scientific assault by the far-right, typified by the often-imbecilic antics of Donald Trump, with his alternative denial of the virus, its importance, his success in dealing with it, and his recommendation about drinking bleach.  The mass base of scientific ignorance he mobilised in the US has been reflected everywhere to a greater or lesser extent.  The effect on rational criticism of the prevalent lockdown approach has been to prejudice reception of it and create a barrier to its discussion.  Sections of the left have joined in, unwittingly contributing to the anti-scientific shut-down of rational debate.  As with so many issues, the opposition to lockdown by sections of the right, whether of the crazed anti-vaxxers or libertarian conservatives, has been the cue for some on the left to take an opposing view.

We are over a year into the pandemic, about a year since it hit Europe, and there is no excuse for lack of debate on how to deal with it. Only episodically has one taken place in Ireland and like everywhere else, any alternative to lockdown has been subject to condemnation. It has had its own share of far-right sceptics that have made the task of challenging the lockdown consensus harder; but the fact is that the policy of lockdown has failed, and the experience of the last year has proved it, which is what we will review in the next post.

Forward to part 2