The 21st century was, until last year, defined by two pivotal events: the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001, and the global financial crisis of 2008. The first fueled a massive expansion of security and intelligence services which permanently eroded individual freedom in the name of a “war on terror”. And the second caused a major global recession and prompted significant re-regulation of the financial system.
The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021 will dwarf them both in consequence.
The spread of a ‘novel’ coronavirus from Wuhan, China, beginning in late 2019, has induced the biggest economic shock in a century and war-time levels of public spending. Governments have introduced the most extreme infringements on human rights ever in peace time, making ‘anti-terror’ incursions from 2001 seem mild. The episode year will be remembered not for the death toll from Covid-19, but for the response to it.
By July 2021, 4.1 million people had died from or with Covid-19, the disease that can result from infection with coronavirus, known specifically as SARS-CoV-2. Obviously deaths are sad affairs and public-spirited governments have a responsibility to minimise them where possible. But it is also incumbent on governments to put risks in perspective, and weigh benefits of attempted mitigation against the costs, be they economic, social, psychological, or even constitutional.
In 2019, 55.4 million people died at an average age significantly below that at which the average Covid-19 death was recorded, which is well over 80 in most rich countries. According to the World Health Organization, each year communicable diseases kill more than 3 million people. Many deaths, including many of the 170,000 annual deaths in Australia, would be avoidable with greater spending and stricter rules, but as a society we choose not to attempt this.
In each of the influenza pandemics of the late 1950s and 1960s between 1 and 4 million people died, roughly the same proportion of the world that has died from Covid-19. Yet few recall these pandemics today; governments didn’t put hundreds of millions of people in indefinite lockdown or force them to wear masks outside for more than a year, which was the case in California, for instance, the biggest state in the US. Instead, governments tore up their carefully crafted pandemic plans, some published only a year or two before the new virus emerged, and suspended time-honoured freedoms of movement, association, trade, for indefinite periods.
Masks and “social distancing” were enforced by police. Digital platforms Facebook, Google and Twitter began censoring criticism in the interests of “public health”. In Victoria a pregnant woman was arrested in her own home for supporting an anti-lockdown protest on social media. Police used video footage to track down as many of the tens of thousands of protestors they could following demonstrations against lockdowns 17 months after restrictions began.
Public debt soared to the highest level since World War Two as governments introduced a vast array of subsidies to compensate businesses and households for lost income and employment. Inevitably, the waste was enormous.
Perhaps the biggest legacy of the pandemic will be the precedents for public health interventions on at least as drastic and invasive a scale in the future, when a virus at least as deadly emerges again. The balance of power between individuals, households and private businesses on the one hand, and the state on the other was permanently altered.
THE PANIC BEGINS
As a journalist writing for The Australian, I became one of the earlier critics of lockdowns, a view I soon learned was far from universally appreciated. In mid-April 2020 I wrote a column, given a provocative headline by an astute sub-editor: “We might be over-reacting to an unremarkable virus”, which prompted a furore. It is still the most read article I’ve written in almost 10 years as a journalist, eliciting over 180,000 views – about 20 times what a typical column might enjoy. I argued that as more “real data rolls in — as opposed to the wildly inaccurate epidemiological forecasts of millions of deaths globally and many thousands locally — justifications for massive interventions, fiscal and civil, are dwindling.”
When it emerged in early 2020 many, including me, feared the world was facing a virus as lethal as the Spanish Flu, which killed up to 50 million people in a year from the middle of 1918, including around 15,000 in Australia. Based on China’s experience in Wuhan, experts were a foreshadowing a case fatality rate (the number of deaths as a share of the number of confirmed infections) of 3.4 per cent, a much higher figure than the 2.5 per cent CFR sometimes attributed to Spanish Flu. Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson from Imperial College, London, predicted 2.7 million people would die in the US and UK unless governments introduced lockdowns.
In a climate of hysteria, it was little wonder governments dumped their previous pandemic plans, which called for calm presentation of the facts, and keeping as much of society open as possible. Yet by April it was becoming clear to me and others, from looking at the statistics on cases and deaths pouring in daily from various websites, that initial estimates were looking to be wildly pessimistic. The Doherty Institute modelling provided to the federal government in early 2020 said 5,000 intensive care unit beds would be required to accommodate Covid-19 patients, even with strict isolation and social distancing rules. In reality, fewer than 100 were needed at any point in 2020, one of many facts that might have led an observer to suspect initial fears were unfounded.
Japan, Sweden and Brazil, for instance, three quite different nations whose governments eschewed lockdowns to varying degrees, were not exhibiting anything remotely like a Spanish Flu rate of deaths. India, whose poverty and high population density made enforcing public health orders relatively challenging, provided reasons for optimism. Even now, almost 17 months on, the disease has killed around 420,000 in a nation that lost over 15 million to Spanish Flu, when its population was a quarter of its current 1.3 billion. Moreover, it was becoming clear that fatalities were concentrated among the very elderly and frail, in contrast to previous flu pandemics, which killed children and young adults. More effort should have been given to strategies to protect vulnerable and co-morbid populations, many experts argued.
I also quoted one of the world’s top epidemiologists, Stanford University’s John Ioannidis, who said the risk of dying from Covid-19 for a person under 65 years old was around same as from “driving a distance of nine to 415 miles by car each day”. A few months later, Ioannidis published a review of 61 serological studies where the median infection fatality rate (the number of deaths as share of all those infected, asymptomatic and symptomatic) was 0.27 per cent – a very small fraction of those initial estimates.
Regardless, the column – and those that followed it – elicited such a torrent of abuse I changed my name on Facebook. I was accused of being aligned with QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory group in the US (at which time I had never heard of ), by a prominent ABC journalist. My brother, a high school teacher on the NSW south coast, found via his students a highly defamatory article about me in an obscure online publication The National Times. My parents became worried about my safety. People were hysterical. It was easy to see how, in an earlier era, advanced societies had quickly become authoritarian. In private, plenty of senior Australians agreed with me, but few would say so publicly.
Writing about Covid was nevertheless gratifying in one sense: unlike much of economics reporting, policy decisions affected millions of people’s lives very directly.
Governments grossly over-reacted with untried pandemic measures that made little difference to the trajectory of the virus but caused enormous damage across multiple dimensions. That was my basic argument. Covid-19 clearly caused loss and heartache, but governments needed to argue not only that draconian measures “worked”, but also, that their benefits justified the costs. Moreover, even if that second hurdle were met, was it right to trample on individual rights?
It’s difficult to demonstrate even the first threshold was met. It quickly became clear that the correlation between the strictness of a country’s non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) – the academic term that encompasses lockdowns, mask-mandates and forced school and business closures – and Covid-19 cases and deaths was weak. One early US study, comparing the infection and mortality impact of different responses of 50 US states, found lockdowns lowered infections by 44 per cent after three weeks but had no reliable impact on mortality. A more recent study, comparing 10 different countries, found no evidence tougher restrictions reduced the growth in Covid-19 infections. Another, looking at data from 23 countries and 25 US states by economists from the US Federal Reserve and the University of California, found growth rates of Covid-19 deaths surged and dissipated rapidly in parallel, regardless of policy. “[Failing to account for this] may result in overstating the importance of policy mandated NPIs for shaping the progression of this deadly pandemic,” they concluded. The American Institute of Economic Research listed 35, mainly academic, analyses that raised doubts about the effectiveness of harsh measures, as of April 2021.
The point here is that the impact of lockdowns was and remains highly contested, and that the burden of proof should rest on those who seek to force others to behave against their will.
THE HARMFUL ALLIANCE
In June of that year, Nobel prize winning scientist Michael Levitt tweeted that 2020 had been a “disgraceful situation for science. For political reasons—we as scientists let our views be corrupted [and] failed the younger generation”. I have despaired similarly about economists and journalists, two privileged groups that served our societies poorly during the pandemic. I’m in a reasonable position to judge both. I am a full-time journalist, and I studied economics at three universities, starting my career at the Reserve Bank of Australia and before that briefly at APRA. Some Australian journalists, such Steve Waterson, Chris Uhlmann and John Kehoe, and economists, such as Peter Swan and Gigi Foster, opposed the reaction to Covid-19 with facts and logical arguments. But after more than a year on the front line, so to speak, too few in either group spoke out against government overreach and fearmongering. Indeed, many actively spoke out in favour, almost fervently, of what were unprecedented interventions with debatable benefits yet certain, if complex, costs.
Characteristic of this group of economists’ views was an open letter, signed by more than 100 economists, released in April last year that urged fulsome support for government measures. It dismissed the “trade-off between the public health and economic aspects of the crisis” as a “false distinction”. “The measures put in place in Australia, at the border and within the states and territories, have reduced the number of new infections,” it asserted, without pointing to any evidence, or any idea of what might occur when measures inevitably ended. Economics was built on the idea of trade-offs, and the notion that, armed with the right information, individuals were best placed to make their own decisions. It had long been a counterweight to policies that had superficial moral appeal, such as fixing prices or wages, or providing ‘free’ goods and services, but which ultimately caused more harm than good. As French economist Frédéric Bastiat observed in the 18th century, good economists are concerned with the “unseen” as much as the “seen”.
Economics also stresses how personal incentives motivate individuals and institutions, such as journalists, politicians, health bureaucrats, as much as selflessness. In the 1970s, there emerged a branch of economics known as public choice theory which questioned the idea that governments are “benevolent dictators”, selflessly acting in the public’s best interest. Rather, according to public choice, governments and bureaucrats tended to act in their own self-interest, as everyone else was assumed to. Consider the groups that determined the response to the pandemic: the media, politicians, the bureaucracy, “experts” and voters. All had powerful incentives, either financially or psychologically, to over-react and in some cases even to maintain restrictions for longer than necessary.
The media has long profited from fear and exaggeration. The more readers, the greater the revenue from sales and advertisers. Whatever era Covid-19 emerged in, it was bound to be presented sensationally. But in an era where traditional media has hemorrhaged billions of dollars in advertising revenues to digital platforms and online classifieds, the incentive to attract readers and viewers has been honed even sharper. Pictures of coffins, mass graves, patients on ventilators, became the norm of pandemic reporting. Journalists would seek out the youngest victim to create the impression everyone was at risk, even if the facts suggested entirely the opposite. In Queensland a 30-year-old man was reported for days to have died from Covid-19; it later emerged he had serious underlying health issues and didn’t even have the virus.
Deaths were almost never presented in context of total mortality or morbidity. As noted by three Spanish and German academics in a perceptive article:
The media have the incentive to portray danger. The story of the government as a hero who provides a resolution to threats is very marketable. In fact, mass media spread panic by presenting SARS-CoV-2 as an unprecedented threat.
Stories about rising Covid-19 cases outnumbered stories about falling cases, even when cases were falling, by 5.5 to one, they observed. Governments were poised to over-react too. “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and hence clamorous to be led to safety,” American journalist HL Mencken once observed. Politicians naturally looked for opportunities to introduce concrete, superficially effective policies, under the laudable objective of “saving lives”. This was especially true when they were personally insulated from the costs of lockdown policies, which were unevenly distributed, falling mostly on the young, the poorly housed, small business owners, and hospitality and retail workers. All these groups had little political sway.
A global pandemic supercharged this tendency to overreact. Once other governments started locking down, the political risk of not following suit was significant. If a government didn’t implement a lockdown, it would be blamed for the outbreak. Whatever the virus did, the safest political option was to implement lockdowns.
Traditionally, the bureaucracy has different incentives from elected leaders. It gains little from the political success of its masters and has the resources and inclination to offer objective, realistic advice, whatever might be electorally popular at the time. Covid-19 changed this equation a little because the bureaucracy itself benefited from an interventionist stance. Lockdowns provided scope to work from home, which was in effect a considerable pay rise for most bureaucrats because of the reduced costs of commuting.
Few journalists checked the accuracy of sensational forecasts or recommendations. Meanwhile academics’ applications for research grants were more likely to succeed where they could demonstrate a record of public contributions. Everyone was wining except the uninformed public, which has little time or inclination to keep up with the latest data.
Behavioral economists and psychologists have long known humans focus disproportionately on negative potential outcomes, known as a negativity bias. The thought of dying from the virus overwhelmed the very remote possibility for most people. Even the very elderly had a 95 per cent survival rate, as UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty spelt out numerous times in March 2020. The “identifiable victim effect” meant individuals were more concerned about saving lives from particular identifiable causes such as Covid-19, than from cancer or drug overdoses.
Economists failed in two further ways: relying on superficial correlations and making untenable assumptions. Ross Garnaut, one of Australia’s most prominent economists, speaking on a live panel with Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy in February 2021 said countries that had dealt with the coronavirus best, had the best economic outcomes.
Countries in our western pacific region did relatively well, they were the good performers. Taiwan right at the top, Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia. The developed countries in rest of world did poorly namely, the UK, continental Europe the US and Canada.
This was the most common economic argument from lockdown supporters: there’s no trade-off between health and economic outcomes. Governments should therefore be as aggressive and intrusive as they like to eradicate the virus. There was indeed a correlation between decline in gross economic product and Covid-19 deaths and cases, but the idea the stringency of government response explained it was fanciful. Garnaut’s group of “successful” countries, for instance, all responded in very differently ways. Taiwan, for instance, never locked down, while Japan barely tested any one by comparison to Australia and New Zealand. Similarly, in Europe and the US, nations and states responded very differently yet trajectories of cases and deaths were similar. Meanwhile, all countries in East Asian and Oceania, many of which are islands, did well compared to those in Europe, North and South America, suggesting geography or climate played at least as large a role as what policies were followed.
“Our conclusion was that one very important variable that determined outcomes was how seriously leaders took science and knowledge,” Garnaut said. The idea Scott Morrison respected science any more than French President Emmanuel Macron is in keeping with the strength of Garnaut’s analysis. A second problem with this argument is the lack of theory underpinning it. What exactly is the mechanism by which more Covid-19-related deaths leads to worse economic outcomes?
It can’t be the cases or deaths themselves, which were too few, even in the worse affected nations, to affect GDP. Most people wouldn’t have been aware there was a pandemic without being reminded of it 24/7. Steven Kennedy’s own 2006 article that modelled the impact of a pandemic on the Australian economy concluded that an assumption of 40,000 or 130,000 deaths had “little effect” on economic outcome. What mattered most was confidence.
“Confidence effects are likely to be large and immediate and overshadow all other factors,” he wrote, pointing to the 2003 SARS outbreak, which caused few deaths but still significant economic damage. So, the more likely explanation for differences in economic outcomes across nations was not the number of deaths or cases, but rather the length and severity of government restrictions and the fear they themselves fuelled.
“Quickly re-establishing consumer and investor confidence is likely to be one of the important roles for governments to play,” Kennedy’s paper said, suggesting governments “promote an environment in which people can quickly resume economic activity once a pandemic begins to dissipate”.
That’s not remotely what happened in 2020 or 2021.
When the pandemic emerged the most quoted study by economists who advocated strict NPIs – directly or indirectly – was an obscure analysis from 2007 that examined the impact in US states and cities during the Spanish Flu. That study found that “cities that implemented non-pharmaceutical interventions earlier experienced associated delays in the time to peak mortality, reductions in the magnitude of the peak mortality, and decreases in the total mortality burden.” But the NPIs imposed during the Spanish Flu were far milder and shorter than those introduced in 2020. For instance, quarantine entailed “isolation of ill persons and quarantine of those suspected of having contact with ill persons”, that is, not everyone. The median length of NPIs, in the midst of a far more lethal disease, was around four weeks. By the middle of 2021 the UK had been in various stages of lockdown for almost 15 months, and a few months later Melburnians became the longest locked down English-speaking people on the planet at 230 days and counting.
In short, a study based on newspaper articles written a century ago was a thin reed on which to lockdown hundreds of millions of households. And of course, the Spanish Flu substantially more deadly, leaving millions dead with a median age of around 30.
Some economists produced their own cost benefit analyses. Among the worst was written by Australians academics Bruce Preston and Richard Holden. In May 2020, by which time it was clear Covid-19 was far less lethal than first feared, they claimed the costs of lockdown were “outweighed by its $1 trillion benefit”. To reach such startling figures, they assumed 90 per cent of the population would become infected with Covid-19 without lockdowns, far more than any country had or has experienced. “Given a population of 25 million people and assuming a fatality rate of 1 per cent this would produce 225,000 deaths,” they said. In other words Australia would have had almost half the number of deaths as the US, which has 13 times the population.
But it was not only a patently ridiculous assumption about deaths that undermined the analysis. “To be able to weigh the value of a life against the economic costs of forgone output from lost jobs and business closures, requires placing a dollar value on one person’s life,” they noted, ascribing a value of $4.9m to each of the 225,000 “lost” lives. This figure was derived from an Australian government document from 2014 which said a “credible estimate” of the value of statistical life – a figure governments use to work out how much to spend on a particular program to save lives – was $4.2m. Apart from incorrectly transcribing the value, the authors overlooked the next half of the sentence, which said the value of a “statistical life year” was about $182,000. It was well known then that the average age of death related to Covid-19 in rich countries is well above 80, implying relatively few years left of remaining life, on average. In addition, many Covid-19 fatalities suffered a number of co-morbidities that would prompt health economists to mark down the remaining value of these life years.
Despite all this, the authors claimed saving these lives is worth “about three fifths of one year’s gross domestic product, which is about $1.9 trillion”. They also assumed the costs of lockdown relate only to the line items of the national accounts, which measure gross domestic product. But quality of life is not measured wholly by GDP: enjoying the company of friends and family, the freedom to travel, exercise and enjoy nature do not add anything to the spreadsheets published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The authors implicitly ascribed a zero value to freedom.
They did make one valid point: “lockdowns” can occur independent of government mandates.
Even in a country such as Sweden, where a shutdown has not been mandatory, there has been a more than 75 per cent reduction in movement in central Stockholm and a more than 90 per cent reduction in travel to some domestic holiday destinations.
Individuals’ choosing to take their own precautions must figure in any rational assessment of the costs and benefits of mandatory lockdowns. Bear in mind the “voluntary” component of a lockdown is a function entirely of media-driven fearmongering. Martin Lally, a New Zealand economist, undertook such analyses for Australia and New Zealand, separately. He conservatively attributed 40 per cent of the GDP decline to mandatory lockdowns, assuming the remaining losses would have occurred anyway. Even so – and with more reasonable assumptions about deaths – he found the cost of each life year saved was at least 11 times what governments typically spend to extend lives.
The concept of a quality adjusted life year is well established in health economics. Lally assumed Covid-19 victims had on average around six years of life remaining, and reduced the annual QALY measure by 20 per cent given evidence of serious co-morbidity among those affected by the virus in Australia and New Zealand. Looking at the range of outcomes in Europe and South America, where governments had introduced restrictions with varying levels of stringency, Lally estimated deaths would have amounted to between 5,000 and 18,000 in Australia rather than the 200,000 plus estimated earlier.
The obvious explanation for these overestimates [of deaths] is the fact that such models do not allow for the fact that, as the number of deaths rises, people will react by engaging in more and more protective actions that will reduce the future death rate, such as hand washing, mask wearing, reducing social interactions, working from home, etc.
“Please nominate the tolerable number of deaths from the easing or removal of restrictions. It’s a fair question,” economist Craig Emerson, a former cabinet minister, asked me publicly on Twitter in July 2020. Of course, governments allow people to die routinely, when they assess speed limits on roads, the number of ambulances and so forth. But Emerson’s question reflected the infantile level of debate among, perhaps especially among, educated people.
IT’S ABOUT THE MESSAGING
The media holds a special position in any democracy, providing a critical counterweight to government, which has incentives to lie and misuse power. Yet during the pandemic few journalists questioned the intellectual basis or unintended consequences of what governments were doing, and sometimes, incredibly, urging politicians who are biased towards overreaction to implement even tougher restrictions. The revelation, for example, by Queensland’s Chief Health Officer that closing schools was based on “messaging” rather than science was buried in an article in the Brisbane Times. “While evidence showed schools were not a high-risk environment for the spread of the virus, closing them down would help people understand the gravity of the situation. It’s about the messaging,” said Dr Jeannette Young in an interview.
A remarkable bias in favour of government action emerged in domestic and international reporting, too. Any evidence that tended to show strict measures worked was highlighted, while any that showed the opposite was ignored. Governments were only guilty of sins of omission, never commission. Many journalists appeared to believe the trajectory of an infectious virus was wholly in the hands of the decisions of state governments, and at press conferences journalists would ask not for the underlying scientific or economic justification for arbitrary rules, but instead goaded governments into “doing more”.
In our digital era the media is particularly influential in shaping public opinion given most of us are subject to news and, especially, news headlines, whenever we open our mobiles. Consulting firm McKinsey found younger adults were more than twice as worried about the impact of Covid-19 on their own health as those aged over 75, who were at far greater risk. In a survey the firm conducted, almost 40 per cent those aged 25 to 44 were “very or extremely” concerned about their health. Almost half of that group also said they had been “emotionally affected” by the pandemic, compared with 8 per cent of the over-75’s.
The media almost uniformly characterised whatever governments enforced as stemming from “the science”, when it was obvious from basic online research that their actions were totally at odds with “the science” only a few years before the pandemic. The UK’s 2011 pandemic plan for severe influenza, for instance, updated in 2014, didn’t mention a “lockdown” or “shutdown” at all. It advised specifically against mask mandates, school and business closures, even on the basis of a pandemic that might kill as many as 315,000 people in a 15 week interval (almost three times the annual death toll from Covid-19 in the UK). “Supporting the continuation of every day activities as far as practicable, upholding the rule of law [while] preparing to cope with the possibility of significant numbers of additional deaths” it urged, which was almost the opposite of what actually happened.
The World Health Organization as late as October 2019 advised against lockdowns, as well as shutting international borders and contact tracing – policies which in Australia became totemic “correct” responses even among those sceptical of lockdowns. These official views in turn reflected what most scientists thought too. The late epidemiologist Donald Henderson for instance, who helped eradicate small pox, argued in 2006 that “large scale quarantine” — universal stay at home orders — were “so extreme … they should be eliminated from serious consideration”. “Communities faced with epidemics … respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted,” Henderson said, writing in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism alongside three senior scientists.
Around this time, in 2006 a handful of academics and doctors were advocating mass quarantine or “lockdown” of everyone during a pandemic, enforced by the police, but authorities deemed the idea “impractical, unnecessary and politically infeasible”. Even as the coronavirus pandemic spread proponents of lockdowns such as Professor Neil Ferguson Imperial College conceded that China’s draconian response to Covid-19, which included welding shut the doors of apartment blocks so residents couldn’t leave, wouldn’t be possible in liberal democracies. “It’s a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought …. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could,” he told The Times in December last year.
THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL
Even though the number of doctors, scientists and health professionals who opposed authoritarian health polices dramatically outnumbered those who supported them, the former group were ignored in mainstream reporting. Dissent of any kind was deemed “misinformation” or “disinformation”. Along with too many economists, the media suffered from the “illusion of control”, a phrase first catalogued in the 1970s by American psychologist Ellen Langer which explains individuals’ tendency to see their success or failure mainly as a result of their own effort and skill rather than chance or other factors beyond their control.
New South Wales, for instance, was routinely lauded for its more “sensible” response to Covid-19, at least compared with Victoria whose inferior quarantine and security arrangements were blamed for a larger outbreak there. As it turned out, this was an illusion. NSW responded in broadly the same way in mid-2021 once outbreaks occurred in that state. The tactic of comparing deaths across nations and jurisdictions with different geographies, climates, population densities, legal frameworks, starting points, methods of recording deaths, is as common as it is simplistic. Naturally, any differences are ascribed wholly to how governments “handled the virus”, leaving no room for chance or human agency. Even repeated and massive undermining of claims that specific government actions had stopped breakouts of the virus didn’t shake the media’s faith in the power of mandates. In April last year Time magazine lauded Greece’s “success” at controlling the virus in contrast to the failure of Turkey, which had only locked down the over-65s. “Experts say both the stringency of those measures, and the way Greeks have largely abided by them, have been key to Greece avoiding the worst ravages of the global pandemic,” the Time journalists claimed.
Yet a few months later deaths in Greece surged, without presumably a change in vigilance or expertise. In March 2021 Greece had experienced about double the number of deaths as Turkey. I could not find a follow up article in Time.
Czech Republic was praised too. “Czech Republic has a lifesaving Covid-19 lesson for America: Wear a face mask,” condescended a headline in USA Today in April last year. The Czechs maintain Covid-19 deaths at a tiny fraction of those in France, Britain and Sweden by forcing people to wear masks, the article reasoned. Yet by early 2021 more than 21,000 Czechs had died with Covid-19, a greater population share than any other European country. Self-evidently, masks had failed to stop a major outbreak of the virus. This reflects most research on the utility of masks published before 2020.
In fact, the World Health Organization and governments across the world had advised the public against wearing masks. This was the case in the Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza, which was updated in August 2019. Yet halfway through 2020, governments almost uniformly changed their mind about masks, and imposed fines for not wearing them outside. A year on, a perfunctory look at the relationship between mask mandates and Covid-19 cases shows they did little, if anything, to stop the spread.
Sweden deserves a special discussion in any review of the failures of reporting during the pandemic 2020. It’s not a stretch to say the mainstream media were obsessed with trying to cast the Scandinavian nation as a “failure”. Consider a selection of headlines easily searchable online: “Sweden’s renegade policy looks like disaster”, “Sweden didn’t lockdown and now it’s paying the price”, “Sweden’s coronavirus death tally is among the highest in the world”, “Is there a sect around Sweden’s Covid strategy?”, “Sweden crisis worsens after its anti-lockdown stance proven a failure”, “Sweden has recorded its deadliest month since 1918” (forgetting to adjust for population growth since that time). This was a small fraction of a relentless barrage of anti-Sweden propaganda.
The Financial Times wrote how Sweden’s neighbours “offered help” as the situation “intensified”. Yet in the same article experts in Sweden said the nation didn’t seek, didn’t want, and didn’t need help. The nation’s hospital system had plenty of capacity at all times, they said. In Australia, journalist Garry Linnell at The New Daily said Sweden had been “ravaged”. Sweden was accused of pursuing a “herd immunity” strategy, when its chief epidemiologist had repeatedly said it was not pursuing such a strategy from the start.
Sweden did not, and still does not, stand out in terms of Covid-19 deaths or cases. As of July 2021, Sweden was 39th in the world in terms of Covid-19 deaths per million; in Europe it was 12th (excluding microstates), positions it has held with only slight deviations since the beginning of the pandemic. This is in a cohort of over 200 countries tracked by Worldometer. Other nations have “performed” – to buy into the illusion of control discussed earlier – far worse. But Belgium, Mexico, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and France, to name a few, haven’t been subject to global condemnation.
Total mortality for 2020 in Sweden, adjusted for population growth, was the same as it was in 2015, when there was no hysteria, and is only a little higher than in proceeding years. The average across 2020 and 2019 (which exhibited, unlike Sweden’s European neighbours, unusually low mortality) was lower than any two years prior. In February 2021 Portugal, which had enforced mask mandates and lockdowns, catapulted ahead of Sweden in terms of death per capita, eliciting little if any media attention.
Late last year Hungary overtook Sweden too, but also attracted next to no media attention. As of July 2021, around 14,600 Swedes, or 0.15 per cent of the population, had died from or with Covid-19, around 30 per cent of those were aged over 90, and 70 per cent were aged over 80. This toll was fewer than the 100,000-odd journalists and experts had warned would die without lockdowns. In other words, Sweden’s “ravaging” would be news to Swedes, who have been able to go about their lives relatively normally. Children were able to attend school, businesses were not forced to close. Households could mingle and enjoy being outside without masks. A more reasonable conclusion from the data would be that Sweden had around the same level of Covid-19 deaths as other European countries, without resorting to authoritarian measures.
Every country ahead of Sweden in terms of Covid-19 deaths had imposed tougher restrictions for longer. Critics of Sweden insisted its “failure” stems from a comparison with Denmark and Norway, two neighbouring nations which endured only a third, and a tenth, respectively, as many deaths. These same critics often compare Australia’s and New Zealand’s outcomes favourably to those in Europe and North America. Yet Sweden, apparently, can’t be compared with Germany or Belgium!
In any case, the widely referenced “government response tracker” compiled by Oxford University suggested Sweden’s overall response was if anything stricter than both of its neighbours for the entirety of May 2020 to early February 2021. Similarly in South America, Peru enacted among the toughest, longest lockdowns in the world, yet by 2021 its Covid-19 death toll was much higher than Brazil’s, which by comparison eschewed them.
What does distinguish Sweden — and why I believe it was attacked so viciously — was because, rather than copying China, it followed the conventional advice for responding to pandemics. No nation’s pandemic plan included mass quarantine of healthy people by the police, for instance. It has provided a humiliating counterfactual to the fearmongering authoritarianism that emerged in most other nations. Sweden did not “let it rip”, as critics have dishonestly claimed; it banned large gatherings, and ultimately restricted public gatherings to eight people for a short time. It eschewed forcing people to wear masks, which earlier studies had shown to be ineffective. It tried to strike a balance between health and wellbeing, more broadly defined.
Many millions of people around the world weren’t so fortunate, having their businesses, jobs, relationships, educations, and freedoms undermined for lengthy periods. The ultimate economic, social and political costs won’t be known for a generation. And as mentioned above, the true costs, in terms of the lost quality of life, can never be measured. In the face of uncertainty, an overreaction in the face of a new communicable disease was understandable. But as time went on it became clearer the disease was less deadly than anticipated.
If economists and journalists had done a better job of critiquing government policies, rather than enthusiastically barracking for them, the responses might have become more proportionate. Voters would have been less scared than they needed to be. Governments needed to demonstrate the measures they introduced were effective, produced benefits that outweighed the costs, and, if they did, that implementing them wouldn’t destroy the social fabric or set worrying precedents.
Social media must feature in any explanation of why so few spoke out against these extraordinary interventions. Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites provided a platform for moral grandstanding and invective that never existed before. Rational debate became much more difficult. For many proponents of strict public health measures, Covid-19 was as much an opportunity to expand the power of the state and crush liberal democratic norms as it was about “saving lives”. The world’s response to the pandemic has pushed possibly hundreds of millions back into abject poverty too.
This was and remains a debate about the rights of the individual in relation to the state. It’s about ideology. It’s a debate about whether the ends always justify the means, whether the risk of a small increase in mortality among the elderly justifies health interventions unseen in modern history.
HL Mencken once said the average man wants to be safe, not free. As technology improves, governments will be able to even more safety — but at a heavier cost to individual freedom. The last two years have seen a tussle between democracy and liberalism, where, sadly, the latter was knocked for six. Liberalism provides rights for individuals whatever the majority happens to think at any given moment. The two have co-existed because governments restrained themselves as much through convention as through law. But the pandemic revealed governments have recourse to immense power through various public health and emergency laws, and that they can exercise this power with little, if any, parliamentary oversight.
In the 19th century John Stuart Mill saw public sentiment as a threat to liberalism. His contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, over time, democracies would tend to “reduce each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Since Mill’s time liberal democracies have undermined the idea, going back to ancient Greece, that democracies are inherently unstable. They might be stable, but they have steadily undermined individual freedoms in the name of “safety”. It’s hard to see the pandemic of 2020-21 leaving anything but a legacy of more powerful government and less concern about individual rights.
Societies are coming to look more and more like what Aldous Huxley predicted in his classic Brave New World, where individuals, sorted into a caste system, have few rights, but where economic growth is high and where people are “safe”. I’d rather be a bit less safe and a bit poorer, thanks.
This article is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia and is written by Adam Creighton, Washington correspondent for The Australian. To find out more, head to ipa.org.au/essays.