This article was originally published by Shane J. Coules at The Mises Institute.
“A man walks through an eerily quiet, once-busy street lined with closed-down stores and burnt-out vehicles. Some of the storefronts display boarded-up windows, others with spattered red paint on the glass-like blood on a wrecked car’s windshield. Some of the stores have been victims of looting, the shards of glass on the ground a diamond-like reminder of the recent mayhem. Our protagonist takes a deep breath; the sound audible in the vast silence. He releases the breath slowly and continues to walk. His nostrils flare. He detects a familiar smell in the air: something’s burning. His ears twitch as he hears the distant roar of a mob, the volume rising with each step he takes. He sees in the distance a fiery orange glow growing larger; the fire that has been raging for months, continuing to spread.”
The above scene may sound like the prologue of an apocalyptic novel by, say, Stephen King. But it could easily be a blend of scenes from 2020: moments pulled from a nightmarish year—the end of which most of us will be happy to see.
And as countries throughout Europe and some states in the US move into a second wave of covid-inspired lockdowns, it’s worth reflecting on what we’ve encountered thus far in this surreal year, and ruminating on the absurdity of a second lockdown.
“Stay at Home. Wear a Mask. Science Is Real.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard or saw those three short statements bandied about on- and offline, I’d have quite a few, although admittedly I wouldn’t be rich. But I’d likely be in a better position than many small businesses that have been thrown into the unforgiving sea by their government only to be tossed a meager life vest by the same people who wrestled them overboard in the first place. It’s worth noting that the life vest hasn’t been enough to save some from sinking to the murky depths—with many more to follow suit.
Let us take a moment to consider those three regularly regurgitated phrases:
Stay at home. This was and still is the order given by many governments around the world, telling their citizens that they should venture outside only if it is “essential” or for a spell of light exercise. Limits on how far you can travel (in Ireland, for example, it’s within a five-kilometer radius of your home), and how many people from other households you can invite into your privately owned property (again, in Ireland this number is zero as of this writing, and that includes your front and backyard), have been declared by the powers that be. Fines, public shaming (do not dare question these measures or partake in anti-lockdown protests!), and a bad reputation await those who break these rules.
Wear a mask. While this writer personally has no problem wearing a face mask if a business owner requests it, it is interesting to note that years of scientific analyses on the effectiveness of face masks when it comes to hampering the spread of infectious respiratory illnesses like the flu, have shown it to be negligible. Go to the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website right now and you’ll read that “no recommendation can be made at this time for mask use in the community by asymptomatic persons, including those at high risk for complications, to prevent exposure to influenza viruses.” While Covid-19 and flu are similar illnesses, they come from different viruses, and the former is more infectious than the latter. It is also worth noting that the science around face masks is indeed still disputed by experts, and it’s even been argued that wearing masks can enhance the spread of the virus because people can be less mindful of social distancing while touching their nose and mouth more than they would when not wearing one.
But even if we accept that masks are definitely effective in slowing the spread of the disease—as recent studies have indeed claimed—overconfidence and inconsistency from experts and public figures throughout the pandemic has left public trust in them wanting to say the least. For instance, the US surgeon general in February urged citizens (in all caps no less) to “STOP BUYING MASKS!,” adding that they weren’t effective in preventing the general public from catching coronavirus. Even as late as March, New York mayor Bill de Blasio told residents to “get on with your lives” and “go out on the town despite coronavirus,” while the UK chief medical officer told UK denizens to not wear face masks. Meanwhile, the WHO and the CDC had both argued against the use of masks in the early months of the outbreak. While things may have changed in recent months due to the aforementioned new studies, we still have countries like Sweden not mandating mask-wearing as we approach the end of this bizarre year (note: Sweden’s daily number of covid deaths hasn’t risen above ten since mid-July and has since generally been below five). Can you really blame people for being just a little skeptical of those in positions of power?
Science is real. To end so emphatically (and condescendingly), you would hope that the person speaking those patronizing words has science on their side. But as one of the world’s most senior epidemiologists, Johan Giesecke, advisor to the Swedish government, said back in April: UK and European policies on lockdown are not evidence-based. And then we can remind ourselves of the now infamous Neil Ferguson–led Imperial College London study which determined that up to five hundred thousand lives could be lost in the UK alone. It was later revealed that the modeling used for the study was outdated, and thus the calculations dramatically inflated. For what it’s worth, Ferguson also said back in 2005 that 150 to 200 million people could die from the bird flu. The number of worldwide fatalities from bird flu between 2003 and 2009 was…282. So, science is real. Stop being a bad person. Listen to the experts and do not question them. Ever.
Prolockdowners Are de Facto “Pro-recession”
Another common line that has been doing the rounds over the last nine months is “placing the economy above society is wrong.” This statement brings to mind F.A. Hayek’s famous words regarding socialists: people who don’t understand economics fail to understand how societies—and markets—function. Economies are essentially societies, and societies are essentially economies; a healthier economy is conducive to a healthier society. Of course, there will still be problems brought on by bad government policy (e.g., the war on drugs), individual behavior (e.g., poor choices), and misfortune (which can be alleviated by support networks and charities). Societies will always have issues: utopias are impossible.
By calling for lockdowns, people are essentially welcoming a recession. And with recession come countless societal ills—in case that hasn’t already been made evident by the depressions of the past. If government measures are about ensuring the well-being of the people, plunging a country into a recession and piling up debt sure is a strange way to go about it. At the national level, lockdowns and recessions cause sometimes irreparable damage to people’s livelihoods, their mental health, and their physical well-being. At the global level, widespread lockdowns are predicted to greatly exacerbate third-world famines, with “virus-linked hunger tied to 10,000 child deaths each month.” With tragedies like these, lockdowns are indeed a strange way to go about protecting the most vulnerable people.
The Immorality of Lockdowns
Pandemics like covid-19 are unusual for Europe and the United States. Being 100 percent prepared for them is impossible, because while tax-funded research is regularly conducted in the hope that countries can be as pandemic ready as possible, each new virus brings with it an air of mystery, and fears of the unknown aren’t completely irrational, after all.
But, putting such life-altering power—over matters such as forced lockdowns—in the hands of people who pay a negligible price for being wrong (some political damage, maybe) is not only asinine, it is plain wrong. Coercion is wrong. Taking the freedom of choice away from people by force is wrong. Tell the old woman living with a terminal illness that she must spend the final months of her life in isolation; that she can’t take a trip to the lake she’s visited since she was a child; that she can’t be surrounded by her loved ones during the remaining time she has left. Tell a business owner that their business isn’t essential. Tell the man who’s prone to depression and lives alone in a tiny studio apartment that this lockdown is for his own good. Tell the woman whose cancer diagnosis will be delayed—and thus her chances of survival reduced—that this lockdown is for her own good.
This is no different from telling an individual driver that “speed kills,” so tough—you can’t drive a car anymore. Or that alcohol is one of the biggest yearly killers, so tough—you can’t enjoy a beer anymore. Or that more than two hundred thousand children alone are treated in hospital every year from accidents related to bike riding, so tough—you can’t enjoy cycling anymore. The role of government isn’t to keep people safe from themselves or the dangers that come with living freely; there’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to covid-19.
The Absurdity of Lockdown 2.0
For months now, data and experts have raised major questions around the efficacy of lockdowns in stopping the spread of the coronavirus and highlighted the damage caused by them. In the words of the Great Barrington Declaration (led by infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists), “lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short- and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings, and deteriorating mental health—leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.” Even the WHO has said that lockdowns should be a very, very last resort. Argentina recently entered its two hundredth day of nationwide lockdown, yet daily new cases have been hovering between ten thousand and twenty thousand since August. These and countless other examples and warnings have gone unheeded in many countries as they enter another lockdown—all the while not giving people a say in the matter.
The Future Is a Choice
For many of us, the latest covid calamity is just another disappointing chapter in the dreadful tome that is big government. When we consider that “one cannot violate moral and economic laws without having to pay a price, and that one violation will, according to the ‘logic’ of state action, lead to more violations until the price that must be paid becomes intolerable,” more scenes of social unrest are likely. The scene we opened with today maybe a collage of moments from 2020; if things keep going in the same direction, it may be a glimpse into the not-too-distant future.
But there’s still time for people to see the major failures of bloated, bureaucratic government made up of people who pay little to no price for being wrong and wreaking economic havoc—covid or not—on its citizens (far from being punished, those in charge regularly reward themselves with hefty taxpayer-funded pensions). Gross mismanagement by distended governments that leads to further social unrest and far worse doesn’t have to be the future. As Ludwig von Mises said, “Whoever wants peace among nations must seek to limit the state and its influence most strictly.” Those wise words are applicable to peace within nations, too.