Can democratic institutions recover from the excesses of pandemic policies, which uncritically aped the extreme and counter-productive interventions of the Chinese Communist Party, unleashing a cascade of collateral harms in their wake, from an escalation in mental health illnesses to untreated cancers, an educational deficit, and new waves of poverty and unemployment? Can our public institutions regain some of the credibility they lost when they were used to suspend civil liberties and pressure citizens to take vaccines of questionable efficacy?
Perhaps, but only if politicians, civil servants, and expert advisers are forced to answer for the consequences of their actions. This can only happen if governments promptly appoint public tribunals or commissions with a wide-ranging brief to thoroughly investigate the response of public authorities and leaders to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Earlier this year, Sweden’s government-appointed Corona Commission published its findings, which were critical of certain aspects of Sweden’s response to the Covid pandemic, but found that its broad policy was “fundamentally correct.” The UK is currently finalising the terms of reference for its Public Covid Inquiry led by Baroness Hallett. The Irish and Scottish governments have both announced their intention to hold similar inquiries.
Only time will tell if these inquiries manage to expose uncomfortable truths about the Covid response, and make public officials and political leaders answer for their blunders, rather than simply being a window-dressing operation. Because the issues involved require complex and politically charged judgments, rather than just questions of “hard science,” the outcome of such inquiries will depend to a large degree on the professional calibre, moral integrity, independence, and impartiality of the individuals who lead them.
Here are two ways a properly constituted and professionally conducted Covid inquiry could enhance the resilience and integrity of our liberal democratic institutions:
First, a public Covid inquiry could identify and diagnose serious errors of judgment and flaws in the democratic process that led to the abrupt abandonment of standard infectious disease protocols, the premature suspension of citizens’ liberties, and the embrace of untested approaches such as lockdowns that inflicted untold harm on society.1 This would make a repetition of these errors less likely, at least in the near future.
Second, if citizens see a serious effort to scrutinise the motivations behind pandemic policies and their impact on society, at least some of their trust in their public institutions will be restored. Without that trust, governments will increasingly find themselves relying on coercion, fear and manipulation rather than goodwill, in order to secure citizens’ compliance with their laws and regulations.
Of course, some governments may attempt to sidestep the demand for a public inquiry into their response to Covid-19, in order to save themselves and their colleagues from unwelcome scrutiny. Other governments may institute an inquiry, but its terms of reference may be defined too narrowly, or its procedures may be too rushed and superficial, to uncover serious problems such as reckless and corrupt behaviour in public institutions.
In spite of these risks, it is incumbent upon any self-respecting democratic government to commission an independent Covid inquiry to assess the performance of government actors in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only time will tell if such inquiries fulfil their public function and deliver the unvarnished truth, for better or for worse, rather than “covering over a multitude of sins.”