On 13 November Kamran Abbasi, editor of the British Medical Journal, argued that the medical debate on Covid-19 and policies to contain it have become corrupted through politicisation of science: ‘The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency’. The silent roar of ‘Bravo!’ you heard was from me. During the coronavirus pandemic medical science has taken on the role of state religion in pre-Enlightenment times.
Politicisation of the World Health Organisation should be of little surprise. As in any international organisation the selection and appointment of its chief, all senior posts and even external consultants attracts fierce political lobbying from geopolitically powerful and financially influential donor countries. In its weekly morbidity and mortality report on Covid-19 on 5 February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said mask mandates for ten states were associated with a 5.5 per cent decline in weekly hospitalisation rates. The choice of timeframe was interesting: March–October 2020, the off-season for every flu-family illness. The winter surge was ignored in order to be able to make the claim. Using data from Worldometers, the combined total cases for the ten states on 31 October was 2,454,425, and on 9 February 2021 8,344,622 – a 240 per cent increase in the 3.3 months compared to the six-month period covered by the CDC.
Like Pacific salmon leaping gaily over obstacles as they swim upstream during their return journey in the spawning season, the Covid infection curves surged dramatically as winter returned to Europe and North America. The virus god had failed to direct it to spare lockdown countries and states and infect only the rest, so there’s not much visual difference in the trajectory of the curves between them. The five worst Covid mortality US states locked down for the winter. Their mortality rate is 42 per cent higher than that of the five worst-hit non-lockdown states.
Writing in The Spectator (24 February), Stephen Miller notes that the daily drumbeat of negative news coverage of Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths has faded since Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump as president. No more screaming headlines along the lines of ‘The equivalent of 20 full-size 737 passenger planes continue to fall out of the sky every day’ anymore. Meanwhile across the US, as the reality of the costs of lockdowns bite, and the lack of better Covid-19 outcomes for states that imposed stringent restrictions compared to those like Florida and South Dakota that did not finally begins to break through the media conspiracy of silence, many governors are under attack. That’s not Fox News or conservatives saying so, but according to an analysis in the New York Times. In a widely reported MSNBC interview on 17 February, Biden’s coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt struggled to explain similar curves from lockdown California and Florida. While Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is finally receiving national credit, last year’s hero Andrew Cuomo of New York is under uncomfortable scrutiny for lies, evasions and cover-ups and California’s Governor Gavin Newsom is facing recall. During the campaign, Biden and Kamala Harris cast aspersions on Trump’s ability to deliver on the promise of safe and effective vaccines by year’s end and on the integrity of the Food and Drug Administration. The undermining of public confidence contributed to the rise of vaccine hesitancy and now both are engaged in a desperate race to boost confidence – schadenfreude, anyone?
In Australia too politics has infected the Covid discourse within states, between states, between states and the federal government and between political parties. Governments have routinely inflated the threat posed by Covid, aided and abetted by the media’s pandemic porn; imposed drastic society-wide shutdowns; and claimed success for tough-love policies when the threat didn’t materialise. The surge in popularity of incumbents who followed this has led them to repeat the exercise at the slightest excuse so that two million Perth residents were locked down in response to one mild case. Queensland’s premier has already been re-elected on her successful Covid management through extreme measures; West Australia’s seems set to repeat her example shortly. The strategy has paid political dividends even for Victoria’s premier whose mismanagement is responsible for the deadliest ‘workplace accident’ in Australian history. All three premiers have fought running battles with the federal government and Queensland and Victoria have squabbled also with their NSW counterpart. On 26 February Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles posted a video on Facebook where he tore up and shredded a $30 million hotel bill to reimburse NSW for Queenslanders who had arrived and been quarantined in Sydney between March and September last year. ‘Scott Morrison has given the go-ahead for NSW to send Queensland taxpayers a $30m bill for their quarantine program even though it’s 100 per cent a federal responsibility’, he said. Gladys Berejiklian dismissed such ‘political shots’ as a stunt. A particularly unedifying example of political point-scoring was in the case of two aged-care residents in Brisbane who were given four times the recommended vaccine dose. Instead of working together for the common good by identifying and fixing weaknesses in the chain of logistical responsibility, the accident was weaponised for yet another attack on the federal government. Incidentally, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, the 22-point gap between Australian elite and mass trust in public institutions (government, business, media, NGOs) is the biggest among 22 countries in the survey.
The political rewards of exaggerating the danger and then saying government policies helped to avert the worst is the most likely explanation for the shift, from the initial goal of flattening the curve to delay infections until health systems had been beefed up to cope with the hospitalisation and acute care demands, to the much more ambitious goal of community suppression and even ‘Zero-Covid’ elimination. In the UK, Sir Charles Walker MP said in a BBC Radio interview that goalposts ‘are not so much being moved as ripped up and carried off to another playing field’. The same is true in Australia. It’s time to abandon the singular focus on just one risk and promote public understanding that life presents an entire spectrum of hazards. The key policy question is: what is the acceptable level of mortality risk relative to the damage to health, mental health, society, economy and disadvantaged groups like casual labourers?
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