The hazards involved in questioning dominant media narratives highlight that freedom of speech and expression are definitely on the endangered list in much of the West, and unending vigilance is required to guard our God-given freedoms. Perhaps our temporary ‘house arrest’ in North America will help us value and fight for our freedoms more attentively when the virus component of this crisis passes.
“This article has a controversial but valid analysis of the COVID 19 situation, a point of view that all our friends of the TXC family would doubtless find useful. The author has requested to remain anonymous.” -Peter Jones.
As the most bizarre Easter week many can ever remember begins to fade from view – police invading churches and some Christians in America trying to find the money to pay fines for attending services in their cars – [i] some very big questions are looming, and widespread street protests have begun.[ii] The media’s relentless editorializing about the unprecedented nature of the situation continues unabated, yet viruses and plagues are not unprecedented, even in recent history. The response – quarantining entire healthy populations under extreme lockdown and closing up the economy – is. The beginnings of public protest are therefore hardly surprising as people start to weigh for themselves the seemingly low mortality of this virus strain against the human cost of shutting down the world.[iii] Soaring levels of unemployment, business closures and the mass displacement of people have spiralled around the world amidst a colossal self-inflicted economic disaster – France now facing its worst economic contraction since 1945[iv], Canada looking at its deepest recession ever (at least in the short- term with possible long-term ramifications),[v] the U.K in the same situation with the worst downturn in a century,[vi] and the US debt-laden economy in the balance.[vii] Every thinking Christian should read some of the more thought-provoking articles of the last few weeks and reflect on the questions raised by them.[viii]
Freedom and Choices
The hazards involved in questioning dominant media narratives highlight that freedom of speech and expression are definitely on the endangered list in much of the West, and unending vigilance is required to guard our God-given freedoms.[ix] Perhaps our temporary ‘house arrest’ in North America will help us value and fight for our freedoms more attentively when the virus component of this crisis passes.
Questioning the official line of governments and health officials is not to undermine or underappreciate the efforts of those serving diligently in the medical profession. All should recognise these past weeks have been very difficult for many doctors and nurses and we should be truly thankful for their dedication and labor. I for one pray I am as troubled by the tragic loss of any life, as those first responders who care for the sick or dying at their bedside. That being said, my central concern as a Christian thinker is with weighing the risk posed by the virus and the societal response in the lives of everyone – not just medical workers – as well as meditating on what God might be saying in the midst of it all.
In view of this, as we think of our health professionals with gratitude at this time, it is also worth reflecting on the choices we all make to pursue any vocation – each involves certain risks. I know several businessmen whose small companies have already been decimated by the shutdowns and may not pull through. The restaurant industry will take decades to recover, with numerous real people having already lost everything. It invokes a false and dangerous dichotomy to accept popular mantras like ‘people over profits,’ as if economic concerns can somehow be isolated from our health and life as human beings. The health consequences of unemployment and business loss are well-known and can be devastating.[x] Many people are not aware of the high suicide rate recorded after the 2008 global market crash. The work of researchers from the University of Oxford, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in June 2014 identified a huge spike in what they call ‘economic suicides’ (10,000+) and a deep mental health crisis that followed due to job loss, home foreclosures and debt. Of course, business inescapably involves risk and can lead to various health-threatening losses.[xi]
Millions of other people across North America, who live paycheck to paycheck in laboring industries (not funded by the taxpayer) have lost their jobs and cannot pay their rent – in fact unemployment is now at its highest in the USA since the Great Depression, and Canada’s economic prospects hang on the edge of the abyss.[xii] It is not a lack of care or compassion to point out the risks to the health and wellbeing of everyone in this crisis; it is simply facing a human reality. I see no reason to single out healthcare workers as alone at the point of this spear nor the healthcare system as the only arena of serious strain.
Models, More Models, and Real Data
As the daily news feeds continue, many people have already reached ‘model’ or ‘projection’ fatigue. The secular prophecy of scientific prediction is notoriously unreliable.[xiii] No sooner has one model been suggested, than an alternate is offered in its place. Interestingly, almost all recent projections have revised mortality dramatically downward.[xiv] No computer model can accurately predict the course of this virus, in part because we simply do not have sufficient relevant information. Dr. Rosalind Smyth, professor of child health at UCL in Britain, has said that the data is so misleading in the UK, it should not be used.[xv] There is no doubt our medical workers are facing a serious outbreak of a novel, highly infectious respiratory disease which is placing serious strain on parts of the healthcare system. Yet this should not prevent people from asking serious questions, nor calling for an urgent review of the unprecedented reactionary measures not seen with SARS (2003), H1N1 (2009), nor even the deadly Spanish Flu (1918). To be a thinking Christian involves shunning a docile herd mentality that follows the crowd wherever it wanders. The Levitical laws for quarantining the sick are a vital biblical model for dealing with disease. But I question the humanity, validity, legality, and value of the practice of total population quarantine, bringing the world to a halt, rather than isolating the sick and vulnerable.
Researchers at the University of Oxford suggested weeks ago that up to 50% of the UK population may already have been infected, which if true, alters mortality projections and brings to the fore the question and importance of herd immunity and the wisdom of shutting down the entire economy.[xvi] Likewise, in North America, it seems there may be untold numbers of undiagnosed cases with different presenting symptoms or none at all.[xvii] Other experts have recommended the Swedish model of allowing children to go to school and pass the virus around to develop immunity – whilst protecting the elderly and vulnerable in isolation for a few weeks. They argue this virus is following the pattern of other similar respiratory diseases. Some have even suggested that containment and lockdown just prolongs the epidemic and risks bringing it back more aggressively in the future.[xviii] A top German epidemiologist has written an open letter to the German Chancellor citing critical questions that he believes need to be answered and calling for a serious review of current measures.[xix] A good friend of mine and leading medical professional has told me he believes we will all have immunity soon enough through wide community spread and that the optimal response would be targeted – isolating the elderly and immunocompromised demographic who are clearly most at risk. Factoring in the issue of co-morbidities (dying with but not simply from the virus), or dying of Covid-19 instead of common influenza or another respiratory disease (the well-known phenomenon of a new virus displacing the other ones),[xx] it is going to be a long time before we get to an accurate understanding regarding those whose tragic deaths are directly attributable to Covid-19 and what the real excess mortality for any nation really is.
As a philosopher I don’t pretend to have the expertise to authoritatively sort through all the scientific opinion and my friends in the medical profession themselves offer only tentative responses based on limited information. As such, it remains vitally important to reiterate that computer models used to justify a course of action are not the same as rear-view-mirror analysis of real data. In addition, the data is not self-interpreting – just like a philosophy of life, assumptions are always built in. It is because of this that the response to the crisis should be measured and targeted, lest the destruction and havoc caused by our panicked actions be the dreadful product of our ignorance. At the very least, public debate and creative alternatives to the current approach need to be advanced.
Consequences for Human Wellbeing
Factors like these should encourage us all to reflect carefully on the dangerous employment of special legal powers and to question the unprecedented use of mass quarantine; in particular, how long it should be prolonged! Together, these measures are extending business lockdown, social dislocation and isolation, furthering market uncertainty and decline and leading the globe to the brink of a potentially catastrophic economic depression. The long-term health implications of these decisions for the poor, unemployed and isolated elderly must be seriously reviewed. In addition, we should consider what is happening with displaced people in India and other developing nations right now because of their attempt to copy Western lockdown measures.[xxi] The real suffering and eventual death toll from this mass displacement of people and economic disaster is unimaginable to us with our relatively comfortable lives in the West.
My appeal then is for communities and nations not to approach the problem of public health in a one-dimensional way. Civil authorities can lock down a business, but they cannot switch off the essence of human nature. We are cultural beings made specifically to work (Gen. 1:28; 2:15) and social beings made for fellowship (Gen 2. 18; 21-23). To deny human beings these things, even amidst sickness, is to deny part of the essence of their humanity and fundamentally undermine their life and well-being. Work is part of the normative structure of human life and existence and is therefore pre-political because political life presupposes it. Human governments do not bestow on people a right to work, they are merely called to recognize and protect it. It is God himself who commands human beings to rule and subdue, to work and serve (and observe sabbath rest), so we might reasonably ask if we are not presently being forbidden to do what God commands?
Whatever we make of these biblical considerations, we must responsibly weigh the outcomes of our actions legally, economically, socially in terms of human wellbeing as a whole, and then not just for ourselves, but for poor and developing nations.
The Dark Side
It is my view that our lack of level-headedness in this pandemic has highlighted again that we are an end-stage culture in the West. We are ready to demand that ‘government’ save us and are happy to surrender measured judgment for media soundbites. One of Britain’s finest legal minds and former Supreme Court judge, Lord Sumption, has called the response to Covid-19 a ‘collective hysteria’ and warned of the dire consequences. In an interview with BBC Radio 4 he said:
The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated. That’s what I fear we are seeing now. The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work. They don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying. They want action anyway. And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria. Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.[xxii]
Epidemics have frequently reshaped political and cultural life in human history and one outcome seen before is the growth of authoritarianism.[xxiii] We seem strangely blind to the fact that this health crisis is being exploited to expand evils like abortion,[xxiv]assault historic freedoms,[xxv] mortgage the future of our children and further the control, reach and power of a secular interventionist state, with their big banks and corporations too big to fail – how much of the American private sector does the Federal Reserve now own or control? The longer current measures persist, the deeper the economic hole we dig for ourselves, the more incomprehensible our debt load, and the greater the loss of freedoms, long-term health and the prospects of the next generation.[xxvi] In this crisis we have already witnessed a definitive end, in our lifetime, to fiscal conservatism and limited government – even in the United States. Fiscal conservatism was never going to survive without social conservatism, which itself cannot survive without a Christian world-and-life-view underpinning it. It is hard not to be concerned now, not only about an inevitable recession, but with the looming threat of inflation and geo-political shifts in influence and power waiting in the wings. Statism and welfarism are now entrenched and will be for decades in the West. It is going to take nothing short of a massive Christian reformation to recover Western nations.