by James Alexander
Influenza symptoms seem only a slight intensification of one’s ordinary attitudes to life: disinclination to get up, etc.Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks: A Selection eds. J.A. Gere and John Sparrow (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 78
I think we have to distinguish COVID-19 from Polis–20. COVID-19 is a disease caused by a novel coronavirus, which emerged in 2019. Polis-20 is the universal political response by governments, aided and abetted by the information, opinion and speculation establishments of various media, medical and scientific institutions in the year 2020 to perpetuate a triple policy which deliberately seeks to dehumanise and desocialise us through the use of masks, distancing and lockdown and has the unintended but certainly well understood triple consequence of damaging the economy as a whole, ruining our lives by constraining our economic and social activities and causing us to suffer more from deaths for other reasons (whether the reasons are economic, social or indeed medical). Polis-20 is also novel: indeed, entirely unprecedented. It is also foolish and evil: foolish because of its triple unintended consequence, and evil because of the nature of the triple policy itself.
Let me try to summarise everything that has been said on the sceptical side since March 2020. I take my views from a variety of sources: Peter Hitchens, Lockdown Sceptics, some but not all of the writing in the Spectator, along with Mike Graham, James Delingpole, Toby Young and Laura Perrins on the one hand and Carl Heneghan, Mike Yeadon and Richard Hodkinson on the other hand. These are, at the moment, respected but marginalised figures in the media and in science. There is also, eminently, Jonathan Sumption, the lawyer. There are others, though I personally owe less to them.
I am saying nothing particularly new here. All I want to do is emphatically contrast the apparent cause of the crisis, COVID-19, from the actual cause of the crisis, Polis-20. Others have used terms like ‘casedemic’ and ‘panicdemic’, which are certainly amusing and instructive terms. But I think ‘Polis-20’ attributes blame where it should be blamed, to human action, and in particular to coercive political action, and, in so doing, makes it clear that we should not attribute much – except some death and some suffering (which is of course, does it need to be said?, regrettable) – to COVID-19.
Let me present my summary of the sceptical position in numbered theses.
1. There is a virus; there is a disease caused by the virus: it was, as they say, ‘unknown to science’ before early 2020.
2. We are continually hearing things about the spread of the virus: this usually, significantly, takes two forms: one is ‘information’ about what has happened and the other is ‘speculation’ about what might happen.
3. Both information and speculation have been used carelessly in the formation of opinion.
4. Information has been continually presented without context.
5. Speculation has been continually a matter of worst case scenarios.
6. Opinion has therefore generally been that something must be done.
7. Since something can only be done by the state, the massed armies of information, speculation and opinion have forced the state to act.
8. The action of the state is what I call Polis-20.
9. Polis-20 was precipitate, disproportionate, often incompetent, and certainly responsible for imposing the expectation that something would have to continue to be done in the future.
10. Polis-20 was also universal. With a few notable exceptions – and only Sweden amongst democratic countries – all states, whether democratic or despotic adopted what can only be termed the triple policy of distancing, masks and lockdown – in effect, what have amounted to imposition of various forms of coercion and constraint.
11. Polis-20, as something precipitate, disproportionate, incompetent, universal, coercive and constraining, was, in effect, also despotic.
12. Since Polis-20 was a king attended by the three loyal lords of information, speculation and opinion, any attempt to criticise or be sceptical about this triple policy was met with universal condemnation from the media, medical, scientific and political establishments and also by other sectors who found some reason – whether personal or political – to approve of the measures.
13. Information has been presented without context. We have been told how many cases there and how many deaths, daily or in total – we are shown quantities – but these are presented without context, without reference to the total number of deaths, or the number of deaths from other causes, or comparative deaths from other respiratory illness in other years, or whether these amount to excess deaths.
14. In addition, information has been presented as if what are called ‘cases’ are significant cases and as if what are called ‘deaths’ are significant deaths. It is now well known that testing, firstly, has varied in how far it was carried out at different times (so that more testing naturally resulted in more cases being found, incidentally suggesting to some that the virus was spreading) and, secondly, is dubious in what it actually shows (because of ‘false positives’ and ‘false negatives’). Cases, anyhow, cover anything from asymptomatic reception of the virus, through mild symptoms, to severe cases requiring intensive care, oxygenation and intubation. It is also well known that records of deaths are ambiguous since, from the start, care was not taken to distinguish ‘death from COVID-19’ from ‘death with COVID-19’.
15. Speculation was influential at the outset of the crisis. Speculation took the form of models manufactured by mathematicians and statisticians, not by virologists or immunologists. They were certainly not attended by common sense or, what is the same thing, a sense of proportion. They were dominated by an enthusiasm for the ‘worst-case scenario’. The worst-case scenario is not what is expected or what is predicted but what is ‘projected’ if the worst case is to happen. This is a study of nemesis, so I am tempted to call the science of the worst-case scenario nemesitology. We could also call it scientia pessimi (if the Latin is correct), or, bluntly, ‘the dismal science’.
16. There seems to be a law whereby modellers tend to exaggerate the dangers of anything unknown, whether it be AIDS, swine flu, Sars, oil shortages, or even climate change. Modellers are susceptible to the pressure to exaggerate danger, since they reduce their liability: if they are right, they are justified, but, significantly, if they are wrong (and there are fewer deaths), then not only is everyone relieved but they can claim that preventive policies were effective. By contrast, if the modellers minimise the danger, their reputations will be destroyed, since they will be blamed for the inaction of the state. This law is as yet unnamed. I shall call it the Law of Fearsome Modelling.
17. The virus originated in China, where the response was secretive and eventually despotic. The World Health Organisation was not critical of China. Next emergencies were reported, for instance, in Italy. Then early scientific models were published, and since they were designed according to the Law of Fearsome Modelling, they caused much fear. The information, speculation and opinion establishments forced states to avoid the fate of Italy by imitating China. In addition, many states adopted the same policies at the same time despite being at different stages of the spread of the virus.
18. Thus we entered a world of exaggerated predictions followed by extreme policies.
19. This created a precedent – cemented by the information, speculation, opinion and action establishments – which created the inevitability that from now on something similar would always have to be done which in turn meant that it was almost impossible for the state to ever change direction or admit a mistake.
20. The media exaggerated and continues to exaggerate the dangers of the virus, by selectively using statistics (out of context, without adequate comparison) and by selectively referring to sad stories. All statistics are unreliable, all interpretations unreliable.
21. Standard protocols and understandings about the nature of a virus were turned by a hysterical media into policies: for instance, especially, ‘herd immunity’, which is a scientific phenomenon, and inevitable, was turned into a policy (of not doing anything) and contrasted with an alternative policy (of doing something). For obvious reasons, and in association with the media exaggeration of death, many wanted something to be done: hence the triple policy of lockdown, masks and distancing.
22. These policies have only slowed down the inevitable spread of the virus, and the inevitable emergence of what until recently was called herd immunity: since they only work, and to some extent (and even this is doubtful given the rise in cases despite masks, distancing, lockdown, etc.), in the short term. There is no or little evidence that any of the preventive measures – lockdown, masks, distancing – work. It has become a matter of propaganda, that is, of politics, that they do work. So Polis-20 has come to insist on the imposition of its policy by insisting that this policy is scientifically correct.
23. Masks are a particular impertinence because of the claim that masks serve others not oneself, an argument which is coercive. Masks are also of obvious symbolic significance, and are obviously political – indicating agreement and obedience – in effect, subjugation to Polis-20.
24. Governments have got into debt, colossal debt, in order to serve the doing something policies. They have imposed controls on medical care which have damaged general health, and offered benefits to the medical establishment which encourage that establishment to exaggerate the incidence and significance of COVID-19.
25. A pandemic can be survived without stringent restrictions if an epidemic is allowed – with some care and caution – to turn into an endemic condition: and COVID-19, in the long run, seems to be no more significant than bad influenza. There were excess deaths, compared to previous years, in March, April and May 2020, but there is little sign of excess deaths since. Only the very old and those with significant morbidities are usually threatened with death. Though no one really knows how many cases there have been, and how many deaths of COVID-19 there have been.
26. The adoption of dismal science has required us to believe in deliverance from our situation by a miracle cure, a silver bullet, a holy grail. This is ‘a vaccine’. Vaccines may or may not be something to be found through scientific procedures, and may be safe, or even sensible to use. (However, influenza vaccines work half of the time.) But they are a political hope, thrown out in the desperate imaginative situation created by Polis-20.
27. A sceptical or correct science of observation, explanation, evidence, that is, of establishing what it is sensible to consider facts and of establishing what it is sensible to consider a sensible response to those facts has generally been ignored or sent out to the margins. Assumptions have been made which exaggerate the danger: there has been almost no discussion of prior immunity to the virus, and much discussion of asymptomatic transmission of the virus and of reinfection after originally suffering from the disease. A reasonable low-keyed policy was avoided: proper testing of the sick, amassing sensible medical supplies, protecting the vulnerable. Plus the wise recognition and consolation that everyone dies inevitably.
28. The response from the beginning was disproportionate, and now is not only disproportionate but insane.
29. We have reified the physical avoidance of death into a fetish, and the imposition of political protocols in order to avoid death into a cult.
30. The state response to COVID-19 is the stupidest collective political act ever seen in history.
I will end with a few more general comments. The economy is being slain. The public sector has retreated within its defences. The private sector is dying – indeed, being murdered by the state. The state, or the public side of the state, is murdering society, or the private side of the state. In the Middle Ages in England all law was private law. There was no clear public interest. Public interest emerged from the time of the beginning of the absolutist state in the 16th and 17th centuries – and was extended in Foucault’s era of the 18th century so it became what he called “governmental”. Now the information, speculation, opinion and action establishments are collaborating – for a thousand contingent reasons – in maintaining a Government mentality which was wrong at the outset and could have been corrected at any point and could be corrected now at any point.
There are two gross explanations for why the state has engaged in the policy I am calling Polis-20. The first is cock-up and the second is conspiracy.
Cock-up is a universal finding of fault and a universal concession. Reliance on cock-up as an explanation demands that we ascribe no fault to any deliberate human action. This is unacceptable at any time, but particularly unacceptable in a modern rational state where there is, as there is obviously now, much reliance on statistics, modelling and so on. So we cannot use cock-up except for particular unintended consequences.
Conspiracy is the opposite of cock-up. Whereas cock-up ascribes everything to the comic or tragic fates, and dissolves everything in keystone coppery, conspiracy focuses out attention on not only a cause but an intended cause with an intended consequence. It overfocuses, of course, since in human activity there is little correlation of cause and consequence, and almost no correlation between intention and consequence. Conspiracy is as rhetorical, and as exaggerated an explanation, as cock-up.
The alternative explanation, subtler, is that there has been a cockupspiracy. A ‘cockupspiracy’ is something which several commentators have identified, though they have different names for it. Yeadon called it “convergent opportunism”. The idea here is that errors are made at the same time as intentions are formed and that as things continue errors, continually made, are continually adapted to by actors who seek to turn the situation – the erroring situation – to their advantage. These actors we may consider ‘bad actors’ for the reason that, in this case, they are turning a crisis to their advantage and are thereby perpetuating, indeed, one could almost say creating the crisis. These bad actors include politicians, the medical and scientific lackeys who have created models which infect policy, and the media lickspittles who seem still unable to criticise what is going on. All of these are responsible for Polis-20. The crisis has benefited those who have done most to perpetuate the crisis. If the crisis had not benefited them – or, more accurately, if they had not been able to act with the intention of benefiting themselves – it would not have been perpetuated. What we have is a culture in crisis because there is no sphere or forum in which there is any resistance to what has become a totalising discourse. The academics have failed, since they, as pensionaries of the state or of more or less public institutions, have a vested interest in collusion and anyhow sit in situations of comfort, like Georgian bishops, and find it convenient to withdraw to the safety of Zoom, Netflix and Salary. (‘Zoom, Netflix and Salary’ should be a technical term for the convenient lives of modern state pensionaries in the era of Polis-20.) And the Churches have failed, since they – as commentators anticipated in the 19th century – now simply fall in with the ‘values’ of the state.
In addition, other ‘bad actors’ meaning marginal political actors on the left have seen in the rise of COVID-19 and Polis-20 an opportunity to try to justify something we might as well, for the moment, call Revolution-21. Some of these bad actors are already part of Polis-20: here we have Big Tech, Big Pharma (in effect, Big Brother) and the ‘Great Reset’. But others are genuinely marginal, though often found sympathetic by the academic, media and political elites complicit in Polis-20: these are the agitators of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, who are operating with a Late Marxist expectation of overthrowing capitalism through a compact between intellect and proletariat.
This is the most serious political event since the French Revolution. There should be a Burke, writing some equivalent of Reflections on the Revolution in France. Something has happened; it should not have happened. How we return to the ancien régime is unclear. But reaction should be immediate and total. The exception should not be the norm. The triple policy should stop. Modest medical precautions should be continued. Research should continue with more light than heat. We should revert to our lives before the deluge. This should never happen again.
James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey