Now that the US and WHO have both declared an end to the Covid health emergency, one might be tempted to think the pandemic nightmare is finally over. Indeed, for most people, it had already been overtaken by more pressing issues, ranging from inflation to war. But for those of us who maintained that the real nightmare was not the virus itself, but rather the governments’ dystopian response to it in the name of “public health”, there is little to celebrate.
For starters, we are still a minority. Over the past year, official reports have confirmed many of our claims that were initially dismissed as disinformation — on the likely artificial origin of SARS-CoV-2, on the futility of universal masking (especially in children), on school closures, on the negative impact of lockdowns, on the possible side effects of the mRNA vaccines, and much more. But most people are not aware of these developments. Instead, they still largely subscribe to the Covid consensus: that the pandemic measures were a necessary, albeit painful, response to a novel virus which we knew very little about. As a recent UnHerd Britain poll revealed, most Britons are still convinced that lockdowns were the right choice.
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Will this shift? It seems unlikely, given the vast resources that will likely be poured into consolidating the “accepted story” of the past three years — what we might call the post-Covid consensus. This can already be seen in the media’s hagiographic reports about two of the chief architects of America’s pandemic response, Anthony Fauci and former CDC director Rochelle Walensky, following their recent departures from government. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and national governments are pushing to increase the power of centralised public health authorities during health emergencies, through the revision of the WHO’s International Health Regulations and a new pandemic treaty. Elsewhere, despite the launching of official Covid inquiries in several countries, including the UK, it seems doubtful that they will lead to anything more than a merry-go-round of buck-passing. The failures committed at the highest level during the “war on Covid” are simply too big to expect states to put themselves on trial.
Indeed, if the past three years have taught us anything, it is that most of the constitutional safeguards, legal formalities and “checks and balances” that we took for granted can easily be swept aside in the name of “emergency”. That most of the Covid measures are now being curtailed doesn’t change the fact that the potential for a return to boundless executive power is always there. Indeed, perhaps this is the most pernicious legacy of the pandemic: that most people appear to have accepted the fact that democratic norms and practices may be suspended in the name of “public threats”. In other words, the politics of emergency have been normalised.
While the Covid pandemic may be over, then, the Covid paradigm remains very much alive. In fact, we are already witnessing its deployment in the context of new crises, most recently in the emergence of a totalising narrative surrounding the Ukraine war. This points to another uncomfortable truth: that the underlying conditions that made the Covid response possible have not gone away. If anything, they have been exacerbated since the virus struck: the capture of state institutions by corporate interests, the hyper-concentrated nature of our mainstream media, the power of Big Tech and its symbiotic relationship with the repressive apparatuses of the state, and the transfer of power from the national level, where citizens are able to exercise some degree of influence over policy, to an unaccountable supranational level.
In this context, it is worrying to see many of those in the so-called lockdown-sceptic camp drawing misplaced conclusions from the events of the past three years. It has become almost an article of faith among lockdown sceptics to place the blame for the pandemic response on excessive state power — and to conclude that the solution to all our problems is to dramatically curtail the role of the state.
We profoundly disagree with this conclusion. Of course, Western state institutions have failed in the Covid era — proving to be inefficient, terribly oppressive or both. Yet it seems pretty clear that they failed not because they are state institutions per se, but rather because they have been captured by private corporations and their interests. If the main lesson drawn from the pandemic is that there should be further erosion of the productive and organisational capacities of the state, disaster will surely follow. The worst possible outcome would be the further privatisation of public services, allowing private interests to further distort public institutions through “revolving door” policies and close government ties to biotech companies. Such an approach ignores the fact that private corporate power can be just as tyrannical as state power. In fact, many of our problems can be traced back precisely to the deregulation of big business of the past decades, which has led private corporations to exercise significant control over our lives.
To see how this corrupts the public sphere, consider the rise in conspiracy theories around the mRNA vaccines. Many of these, suffice it to say, are deeply disturbing. However, as we observed in The Covid Consensus, a main driver of these conspiracies has been the enormous secrecy with which Western governments have shrouded the entire Covid vaccine process — ranging from the original trial records to the contracts signed with vaccine manufacturers to the question of vaccine injuries. Secrecy is by definition an element of conspiracy, and with governments refusing voluntarily to divulge any of this information except when legally challenged, it’s clear that this has influenced the rise of the conspiracies, and general distrust in public health.
What’s particularly disturbing is the reason generally cited by Western governments to support this secrecy: corporate confidentiality. When Vikki Spit — whose partner had been recognised by UK agencies as having died of a blood clot to the brain after taking the AstraZeneca vaccine — requested information about why the company had requested indemnity from litigation, the UK government responded: “The requested information contains commercially sensitive information with regards to the contracts… [disclosure] would prejudice the commercial interests of the companies involved.” This suggests that the main problem is the way the role of the state has changed in recent decades, becoming little more than an enforcer of corporate priorities.
Another important example of this process is the marketisation of healthcare. In the years before the pandemic, bed occupancy rates in health systems rose across Europe, as the number of hospital beds were slashed in the name of austerity and “efficiency”. The pandemic has exposed the short-sightedness of such a policy: in order to have enough capacity to continue the treatment of routine conditions during a health emergency, health systems require built-in “inefficiencies” of empty beds, probably of around 20%. The problem is that, in the UK in particular, the healthcare system is failing on this front. Compared to France (5.73 per 1,000 population) and Germany (7.82), the UK has a shocking low number of hospital beds (2.43). Of the top 10 countries for hospital beds per capita, only two (Germany and Austria) are not in Asia or Eastern Europe.
This might just be one measurement, but it strongly indicates that Western market dogmas around efficiency shouldn’t be taken at face value. Rather than doing away with the state, the past three years have shown that we actually need more of it. But we also need to increase democratic control and oversight over its institutions, while at the same time placing clear limits to what can be done in the name of public health. This is the only way to restore the public faith’s in public health — and, hopefully, avoid a repeat of the Covid disaster if and when the next pandemic strikes.
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