“It has not yet been decided how many people can visit each other at Christmas.” So read a recent Irish Times report on the imminent scaling back of Covid restrictions.
Many of us have become so accustomed to being instructed by government officials how to conduct our private life that this sort of statement, instead of sparking shock or indignation, has almost become par for the course.
Over the course of this year, many Western governments have approved an ambitious battery of intrusive interventions, from home confinements and curfews to compulsory masking of healthy citizens and forced business closures, ostensibly with a view to minimizing Covid-19 infections, hospitalisations, and deaths.
But is this level of governmental intrusion into people’s everyday life a proportionate and justified response to the risk of Covid-19? Apparently, quite a few citizens believe it is. For example, according to a survey conducted in September for the Irish Department of Health, 53 per cent of people polled believed that the Government’s response to Covid-19 had been “appropriate.”
Highly intrusive forms of government intervention are often justified on grounds that they are necessary to tackle a national emergency. For example, the abridgement of civil rights has frequently been defended as the price we must pay for national security in the face of threats from international terrorism. The logic of lockdown is very similar: “If even one life is saved, it was worth it.”
But this argument is shallow and simplistic.
To begin with, it is important to keep in mind that the estimated infection fatality rate (deaths among those infected by the disease) of Covid-19 varies dramatically across different age groups. In Spain, for example, official records show that 0.1% of recorded cases of Covid-19 under 49 are fatal, compared with 0.2% between 50 and 59, and 9.4% among those over 80. If these percentages are further broken down according to pre-existing disease, it emerges that the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths are connected with pre-existing conditions.
The upshot of these statistics is that young populations in reasonably good health do not need to be shielded from the virus, as they are not at a significantly high risk of death or severe disease from Covid-19.
Second, attempts to engineer social outcomes through highly ambitious and intrusive government interventions have a rather bleak track record. Anyone who has studied political history knows very well that some of the most disastrous social policies have been implemented in pursuit of seemingly noble and humane ideals.
For example, the Russian economy was brought to its knees by centralised planners who aimed to honour the motto, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
American city planners in the 1950s and 1960s produced suburban ghettoes plagued by drug addiction and crime with their well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided interventions designed to create happier and healthier communities.
Something similar seems to be happening with Covid-19. This is a virus that has already insinuated itself into the social fabric, and is here to stay. Yet national health advisors and government ministers seem to be under the illusion that they can stop the virus in its tracks. What price will ordinary citizens pay for this vain illusion of power?
Confining citizens to their homes, closing off counties, or shutting down restaurants and bars for weeks on end might succeed at temporarily reducing the rate of viral transmission. But this attempt to keep Covid-19 at bay is doomed to failure.
For as soon as you open up society again – as you must – the virus keeps moving, and infections multiply again.
There is simply no reason to believe that a “shock-and-awe” campaign against an endemic virus will have any positive impact on its long-term trajectory. If anything, it may simply delay the adquisition of natural immunity in the healthy population and thus leave vulnerable individuals exposed to the virus for longer than is necessary.
Furthermore, even if your heavy-handed interventions in the social fabric manage to save some lives that would have otherwise been lost to the virus, the negative effects of such interventions should not be underestimated.
When you suspend critical medical treatments, order the closure of churches and businesses, and effectively dismantle people’s social networks, you are condemning many citizens to declining health, poverty, unemployment, loneliness, and acute depression – and all in the name of public health! Some people will take their own lives, while others will lose their sense of purpose, as their social support system falls apart or they see their businesses ruined.
It is unethical and unjust to play god with other people’s lives, or to impose sacrifices upon them that are out of all proportion to their likely benefits. It is even more unethical when those demanding such sacrifices are government employees and advisors whose income will be largely unaffected by their destructive interventions.
There are much less intrusive and destructive approaches to disease management. For example, governments could invest a fraction of the revenue they lose through national lockdowns in the expansion of healthcare capacity, research into improved treatments for Covid-19, and enhanced support and advice for high-risk individuals and their close contacts.
But many Western governments have instead opted for the heavy-handed approach, ordering citizens to wear masks, stay at home, close their businesses, or obey strict limits on the guests they may entertain in their homes. These sorts of interventions are decidedly not the mark of a free society.
For a free society rests on the principle that citizens are responsible for their own choices, and that public institutions should only intervene coercively when personal and collective responsibility breaks down.
The police come knocking on your door when you are involved in a crime, not because you opened your restaurant, had a dozen people over for dinner, or took a 10 km walk.
A hyper-intrusive government prevents people from making properly informed, humane, and contextualised choices, and treats citizens as children who are no longer expected or even permitted to act on their own best judgment.
If a government tells citizens how many people they may host for dinner or how many kilometres they may wander from their home, it is not fulfilling a legitimate governmental prerogative: rather, it is playing god with people’s lives, sacrificing their freedoms in order to indulge a recklessly utopian dream, the dream of a Covid-free society.