I’ve had two big worries during the pandemic, starting from the very beginning and still ongoing. Both relate to my sense that ‘coronaphobia’ has taken over as the basis of government policy in so many countries, with a complete loss of perspective that life is a balance of risks pretty much on a daily basis.
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First, the extent to which dominant majorities of peoples in countries with universal literacy can be successfully terrified into surrendering their civil liberties and individual freedoms has come as a frightening shock. There is this truly confronting video of the police in Melbourne assaulting a small young woman – for not wearing a mask!
On the one hand, the evidence base for the scale and gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic is surprisingly thin in comparison to the myriad other threats to our health that we face every year. We don’t ban cars on the reasoning that every life counts and even one traffic death is one too many lives lost. Instead, we trade a level of convenience for a level of risk to life and limb.
On the other hand, the restrictions imposed on everyday life as we know it have been far more draconian than anything previously done, even during World War II or the great 1918-19 flu. In present circumstances, the argument for the crucial importance of liberties has been made most eloquently by former UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption in a BBC interview on March 31st, and repeated several times since.
But it’s also an argument that Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America (and therefore suspect in the post-Black Lives Matter and statues-toppling environment), made back in the 18th century: ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety’.
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Yet, the evidence for the effectiveness of draconian lockdowns is less than convincing. As one Lancet study concluded, ‘Rapid border closures, full lockdowns, and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people’.
Second, the coronavirus threatens to overwhelm the health and economies of many developing countries where a billion people subsist in a Hobbesian state of nature and life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. In poor countries, the biggest numbers of deaths are caused by water-borne infectious diseases, nutritional deficiencies and neonatal and maternal complications.
The lockdown has produced its own version of Thucydides’ dictum that the strong do what they can, the weak suffer as they must. In developing countries, saving livelihoods is no less important than saving lives. The privileged jet-setters who imported the virus can utilise the private hospitals but the poor they infect have little access to decent healthcare and will be disproportionately devastated. The rich carry the virus, the poor bear the burden since staying at home means foregoing daily income. Millions ‘fear hunger may kill us before coronavirus’.
I remain very puzzled at how so many people I considered to be liberals have been so utterly indifferent to the plight of the poor and the casual labourers who do not have the luxury of working from home, nor savings to fall back on to tide their family over until they can earn an income again.
Celebrities posting videos and selfies of working from home in opulent mansions is positively obscene and revolting. Not surprisingly, given my Indian background, I was powerfully influenced by the visual images of the millions of migrant workers literally on the march by foot over thousands of kilometres trying desperately to make their way back to home villages as all work dried up.
Many died en route and the heartbreaking case of Jamlo Madkam in particular, a 12-year old girl who trekked 100km but died of exhaustion just 11km from home, has never stopped haunting me.
This is not to say that high-income Western countries are immune from the deadly effects of lockdown. But the acuteness of the harsh impacts on the poor is just unconscionable and hard to comprehend intellectually as well as emotionally.
What about AFTER this pandemic? What worries you the most?
Most of my answer to this question is anticipated in the answer to the first question: the long-term impact on the health, nutritional requirements, food security, mental wellbeing of people, etcetera. I’ve been worried from the start by the long-term impact of lockdowns over the coming decade on the lives and livelihoods of poor people in poor countries.
I wonder, too, if we have set ourselves up to repeat the folly every year with annual outbreaks of flu, especially if it is a bad flu season. If not, why not? Perhaps someone will come up with the slogan ‘Flu Lives Matter’. Or governments could just pass laws making it illegal for anyone to fall sick and die.
How and when are we going to return to the ‘new normal’ and what will it look like? Globalisation has underpinned unprecedented prosperity and the rise of educational and health outcomes for billions of people around the world, along with a dark underbelly of uncivil society. Will its discontents now throw away substantial benefits as the world retreats behind national moats once again?
The pandemic proves conclusively the need to demilitarise foreign policy and promote greater multilateral cooperation against grave threats that are global in nature and require global solutions. What my former boss, the late Kofi Annan, called ‘problems without passports’ require solutions without passports. The risk is instead we will move in the opposite direction and recreate regionalised balance of power systems in various hotspots around the world.
Pandemics have long been identified as one of many global challenges for which the world should have prepared in advance. Recently The Wall Street Journal had a major investigative article on the failure to do so, despite ample warnings from scientists. ‘A Deadly Coronavirus Was Inevitable. Why Was No One Ready?’ asked the authors, and quite rightly too.
Another catastrophe into which we seem to be sleepwalking is a nuclear war. And remember, the whole point of the sleepwalking analogy is that people walking in their sleep are not aware of it at the time. Other pressing global challenges include growing ecosystem imbalances and fragility, depletion of fish stocks, food and water insecurity, desertification, and of course a host of other diseases that remain the biggest killers on an annual basis.
By way of a concluding reflection, I think a common error has been to privilege the medical over all other considerations. In reality, and certainly with the benefit of hindsight but also from the very beginning in my case, this should have involved a considered assessment of what I call ‘A Balance of Interests’ (my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy). Governments must take into account and reconcile medical, social, economic, liberal democratic, human rights and international policies in fashioning an integrated public policy response to a pandemic.
The above is extracted from a long, 3,000 word full page interview featured in a Sunday edition of the Argentine daily La Nación on August 22, 2020 (in Spanish): Hugo Alconada Mon, ‘The Tyranny of Coronaphobia’, INTERVIEW WITH RAMESH THAKUR
Since then Covid has mutated into multiple variants, mass vaccinations have been carried out in very many countries, and our understanding, data and knowledge have evolved and grown. Despite that, re-reading these two worries each about the policy responses to Covid two years ago and about the possible ramifications for what the post-Covid new normal will look like, I don’t think I would change a single word today.
I confess I still don’t understand the global outbreak of collective panic and hysteria, the shelving of all existing pandemic management plans, the failure of medical professions to speak out, and the astonishing public compliance with authoritarian policies.
Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. This article was originally published on the Brownstone Institute.