Saturday, 3 October 2020

Pandemic, lockdown and authoritarianism - no illumination in the vacuous world of Covid-19 denial

Covid-19 deniers are raising their pitchforks again over the latest 'lockdown' measures.

As Boris Johnson announced his 'pub curfew' and other token interventions, denier groups have intensified their calls for non-compliant insurrection.

And with this has come an even deeper descent into conspiracy claims and crass argument. 

One of the most fatuous is the 'what about other infections/diseases' line. 

With many other global infections, such as tuberculosis and malaria, alongside heart disease and cancer, resulting in multiple annual deaths, what's so special, they ask, about Covid-19?

This is a bit like saying 'road traffic deaths are massively high, so why should we be concerned to do anything about equivalent deaths from alcohol abuse or smoking'.

The effective claim here is that we must just 'accept' the 'inevitability' of yet another mass threat to human life rather than think about what can practically be done to prevent, contain and, even in time, eradicate it.

As we approach winter, deniers protest that there was never any lockdown for seasonal flu that has, in some years, lead to extensive deaths. 

The obvious difference here, of course, is that we don't yet have a vaccine for Covid-19, a much more contagious, complex, and still unknown entity than flu. The idea of reaching 'herd immunity' without a vaccine may hold some perverse 'logic' for deniers, but the alarming human cost of such has no moral or practical appeal for the mass body of ethical science.  

Until a mass immunisation programme is in place, there has to be ongoing measures to contain a virus that has already seen over 33 million confirmed cases and wiped out over 1 million people across the globe in under a year. And these figures are almost certain to be underestimates.

Elementary public health thinking, you might imagine. Not, it seems, for those denying that there even is a pandemic.

One such fanatical voice likens the scientific presentation for this second set of measures to the '45 minutes' deceit that led us to war in Iraq. 

Aside from the scientific vacuousness of such 'comparisons', there's something deeply disturbing about invoking the loss of a million lives and mass devastation of a country in order to protest the shutting down of British pubs at ten o'clock.

Denier grievances, including from some proclaimed 'leftists', are riddled with this individual libertarianism. 

'Freedom', in this rallying call, is the 'right' to enter a shop or board a bus without a face mask. 'We shall never succumb to social distancing', they proclaim. Yet such 'liberty-seekers' are really liberty-takers in their failure to consider the collective health rights of others. Whatever else this is, it's nothing to do with cohesive leftism.  

Delusional 'theorising' 

Deniers see lockdown as a conspiratorial plot to suppress the public, whereas it should be understood as a sign of systemic government failure to protect that population.

As in February/March, the latest measures announced by Johnson fall well short of what's needed to break the rising rates of transmission.

And as Devi Sridhar laments, lockdown itself has been a massively wasted containment opportunity:

"The only alternative to more restrictions and modifying our own behaviour is a functioning test-and-trace system. Lockdown just presses pause on the spread of the virus. Once restrictions are lifted and governments have pressed play, it will start spreading again. The key objective of lockdown should be to carry out mass testing and tracing in order to aggressively seek out and eliminate community transmission of the virus (like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea have done). This also buys time for science to develop solutions (such as dexamethasone), and to build healthcare capacity. Simply to lock down for two weeks would be less effective: it is kicking the can down the road."

For Sridhar, UK government efforts are all too darkly laughable:

"Nine months after South Korea and Senegal started building diagnostic capacity, it is comically depressing that the UK government, one of the richest in the world, does not have a functional testing system that returns results within 24 hours."

Richard Horton offers similar condemnatory warnings:

Fringe science

In seeking 'validation', denier platforms often invoke a particular set of 'sceptical scientific voices' on infection rates, mortality figures and the need for containment.

In a forensic investigation, Nafeez Ahmed shows how the same authors of a highly-publicised letter at the right-wing Spectator downplaying Covid-19 numbers and effectively arguing for 'herd immunity' are in fact a "fringe group":

"The main authors of that letter are Professor Sunetra Gupta (a theoretical epidemiologist at Oxford University), Professor Carl Heneghan (director of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine), Professor Karol Sikora (consultant oncologist at the University of Buckingham) and Sam Williams (director and co-founder of the Economic Insight consultancy)."

Seemingly impressive credentials. Yet, contrary to media-generated impressions of 'two contending scientific sides', these authors, Ahmed shows, have no serious collective standing or peer-reviewed track record, with some also linked to various right-wing/libertarian lobbying groups in the US and UK:

"Worse, this group’s claims about the Coronavirus have no basis in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Instead, it represents what one top British epidemiologist has described as “a fringe group of scientists”, out of sync with “most of the public health experts in the world.”"

Yet, despite their lack of scientific credibility, these figures have been given direct access to Boris Johnson himself:

"Indeed, there is unambiguous evidence that someone at the highest levels among the Prime Minister’s advisors is actively seeking to influence his thinking by leveraging this pseudoscience. Hours before Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance held their Government press conference this week on the new COVID-19 measures, Gupta and Heneghan had gone to Downing Street to brief Boris Johnson personally about how to respond to the rise in recorded cases."

And why, asks Anthony Costello, was a PR firm with links to the Number 10 'Nudge Unit' apparently involved in promoting this group's policy ideas?

It's darkly ironic that the very denier platforms castigating Johnson over lockdown are the same ones endorsing 'scientific' figures with such close access to him. 

Late and reluctant lockdown 

Yet the paradox says much more about the desperate drift and expedient calculations of government, as well as the stark confusions of Covid deniers. 

Johnson and Cummings may be 'indulging' this "fringe", but they also follow the more immediate rules of political survival.  

From the outset of this crisis, denier outlets have peddled gross distortions about the motivations behind government lockdown policy, failing to see either its core purpose or its stumbling implementation. 

As previously discusssed, despite some variations in the Johnson and Trump administrations' handling of Covid-19, both have been marked by an early denial of the virus emergency, a strong reluctance to take swift precautionary action, and ongoing prevarication in maintaining adequate public health protections.

Both leaders resisted lockdowns and other public health measures until forced otherwise by pressing scientific evidence, public health warnings and escalating political pressures. 

Despite emergency economic measures, big business interests have remained predominant, sustained neoliberal priorities which has led to social dislocation, public suffering and major loss of avoidable life.

And as Trump follows Johnson and Bolsonaro as a Covid-19 statistic, we see the most prominent illustration of what happens under neoliberal, business-first policies when late, careless and ad hoc responses fail to protect. 

While early containment-conscious countries have managed to avoid further waves of the virus, and enjoyed some sense of 'normality', the leading neoliberal states are seeing renewed lockdown and the continuing penalties of free market individualism.

Yet, for all their criminal failings there is not the remotest evidence here, as claimed by denier platforms, that Johnson, Trump and others have been party to some 'grand plan' or pre-fashioned agenda to impose lockdown measures for purely authoritarian purposes.

Again, one has to ask, what political benefits capitalist-serving political elites would derive from deliberately plunging profit-driven economies into crisis?

The political class want 'open', not locked-down, economies - even where the pandemic serves particular elements of capital or those deriving increased crony rewards. 

They want passive citizens and active consumers. They want, in short, 'functioning' capitalism.

And it's important, again, to remember that lockdowns are actually a last resort consequence of failed government responsibilities to have proper prevention and containment measures in place. 

Beyond that early and ongoing failure, the continuing use of lockdowns, for any ruling political-business class, is to get the virus 'under control', people out spending/consuming again and 'normal' service resumed.

On what rational level would capitalist-serving, election-seeking politicians like Trump and Johnson be acting otherwise?

There's simply nothing here to indicate that lockdown has been specifically deployed as an authoritarian instrument. And relentless, nonsensical denier claims to that effect have only served to disguise real elite malfeasance.

Authoritarian signs

But what of the apparent rise in reactionary enforcement? 

As the pandemic intensifies, it is increasingly evident that certain states and governments around the world have adopted harsh policing and controlling measures. Cases of police intimidation across Australia are cited as key examples. 

This may, indeed, be seen as an indication of the unfolding pandemic situation being used to extend already existing authoritarian state-based powers.

But this is substantively different from denier claims of a 'global plan' to impose lockdowns in order to secure deeper authoritarian controls. 

As Caitlin Johnstone argues - in an excellent defence of Julian Assange and his role in exposing elite criminality - much of this "wild theorising" is the product of failed accountability, leading to rightful suspicion of the powerful:

"If we had transparency for the powerful as we ought, there wouldn’t be any wild theorizing about what they’re up to behind the walls of secrecy. Indeed, the various agendas that are doubtless being schemed toward by oligarchs and unaccountable government agencies wouldn’t even exist, because people only plot such evils when they are out of the public eye. Whatever’s going on with this virus would be clear as day, and the fact that people are paranoid and distrustful of authority figures about the matter is solely the fault of those authority figures’ refusal to have transparency and accountability."

Yet, for Johnstone, there still has to be coherent and credible evidence of any such 'global power grab':

"For months I’ve been getting many people telling me every day that I need to be sounding the alarm about this virus giving cover for an authoritarian power grab that will thrust us into a dystopia from which we will never recover. Few of them can agree on exactly what form this power grab is taking, and none can lucidly explain in their own words exactly what they know and how they know it when I ask them to, but they want me to write essays defending their viewpoint. It’s not that they’re wrong to be suspicious; again, it’s a guarantee that authoritarians and plutocrats are at the very least opportunistically shoring up power and wealth for themselves in a whole host of ways amid the confusing upheavals of 2020. It’s just that I can’t write essays which I can competently defend about things I cannot see. The level of evidence and argumentation that I apply to the rest of my work simply is not there at this time. I’ve been looking at this thing from every angle, and a powerful evidence-based argument for any kind of centralized monolithic global power grab in relation to this virus just isn’t forthcoming." (Emphasis added.)

This doesn't mean, for Johnstone, that governments, corporations and other elites aren't organising in various reactionary ways to the pandemic. 

But, she insists, we still need much clearer understanding of such shifts. And, she concludes, we find no serious clarity in denier claims. 

In short, "there's no evidence for a monolithic global power grab."

Such realities are reinforced by Jonathan Cook in a pointed call-out of 'cynical leftists' and their failure to demonstrate any coherent take on the situation: 

Covid-19 does not appear to be one of those weak points in the western narrative, not least because it is very hard to discern any meaningful western narrative about the virus other than an agreement that it is a dangerous disease for some sections of the population and that its rapid spread could overwhelm most countries’ health services...To challenge and disrupt that narrative, one would need either to persuade the public that the disease is not dangerous at all or that health systems can easily cope with large numbers of people getting sick. Even if I believed that were true, which I don’t, my chances of persuading anyone – outside of the small circle of believers among the cynical left – that I should be listened to over a majority of epidemiologists would be close to zero. 

And if there was credible evidence that this was all some orchestrated hoax or deception, people would be acting on impulses other than the most obvious ones:   

If it is a hoax, if there is no danger, if lockdown is entirely unnecessary, the truth of that will eventually become evident to ordinary people without the intervention of pundits like me. People do not want to be locked up. Fear, for themselves or their loved ones, is what makes them compliant.

Bigging-up Big Pharma 

Similar superficial and diversionary claims abound in 'left' denier circles about the power of major pharmaceutical corporations and individuals like Bill Gates.

Now, Gates most certainly does have considerable levels of undue power and influence. His super-wealth is a scandal, as is the very idea that billionaires should exist at all, or be in such positions to dispense wealth as charitable gifts. 

Human life and wellbeing is a right, not something dependent on charitable dispensation from an ultra-wealthy few. 

The Gates Foundation, like so many other expressions of 'philanthropic capitalism', is actually a major impediment to humanitarian rights and economic justice. 

Gates's connections with Big Pharma should also be critically questioned in this regard, as should his reach across major political, media and other public institutions.

Yet, at this useful investigative juncture, denier 'analysis' again collapses into facile conspiracy.

Denier narratives use Gates as another gateway to illogical theorising about 'grand impositions', 'mass-medicalised controls' and so on. 

The idea that Gates is 'running' some kind of 'global vaccine plot' 'on behalf' of Big Pharma, or/and at the behest of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is, again, without any credible evidence. 

Not only does it fail logical examination, it feeds a whole further set of outlandish claims. Thus, any serious challenge to Gates and his activities is only undermined by such spurious output.

For example, as Tim Anderson notes, any potential profits that might accrue to Big Pharma from a marketable Covid-19 vaccine are minuscule compared to the profits from potential treatments for the virus. 

More particularly, notes Anderson, Big Pharma itself is but one nominal part of the total corporate economy. Why would it alone be able to direct a 'global pandemic economics' just for its own benefit?

The recent 'revelation' that Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government Sir Patrick Vallance has a £600,000 shareholding stake in a major vaccine-producing company has also been seized upon by deniers and anti-vaxers as 'smoking-gun' proof of Big Pharma's all-controlling agenda. 

Yet, Vallance's past pharma background with Glaxo-Smith-Kline is already well known. This is, indeed, an obvious conflict of interest, but it's just one small part of a whole world of political-corporate largesse and revolving-door appointments.

Again, disreputable as such practices are, these linkages and influences offer no sound evidence of either Big Pharma's unique power or any serious case against mass vaccinations.        

Situating 'left' Covid-19 deniers

As Anderson points out here, many deniers pushing such claims as purported leftists are not actually producing left arguments at all. They are, rather, peddling "populist" narratives. 

Many, if not all, veer towards right-wing notions of 'individual freedom' rather than socialist collectivism. 

Many embrace, overtly or implicitly, deeply fanciful and unsubstantiated 'New World Order' notions, typically involving UN-directed 'One World Government'. 

Denier claims are virtually all steeped in hyperbolic, inflammatory language: 'muzzles', 'face nappies', 'lockdown tyranny', 'the New Battle of Britain', 'the new abnormal' and so on. 

And denier narratives are also, essentially, anti-science. Even where they claim to be offering 'competing' scientific evidence, there is general and ignorant disdain for a wealth of proven scientific practices, public health measures and respected practical analysis, typically tied into conspiratorial conjecture about the WHO's 'malevolent global health agenda'.

Anderson provides a further excellent take-down of such misguided 'discourse' in his prior study, How the Pandemic Defrocked Hegemonic Neoliberalism.

The ways in which neoliberalism, corporate greed and attacks on the natural environment has shaped this pandemic should be the principal focus of left analysis and challenges. Yet 'left' conspiratorial denial is only masking and limiting that task. 

As Cook also concludes:

"I see the cynical left not only as misguided and ineffectual but as ultimately a brake on progressive change. They risk contributing to the worst trends in our increasingly polarised and dysfunctional societies."

It's also no coincidence that those figures and platforms peddling Covid denial are likely to be exponents or facilitators of climate denial. 

As with climate change, a vast and overwhelming consensus on the causes and effects of the pandemic is being treated with vacuous contempt.

In front of deniers stands a mountain of scientific and public health evidence, all summarily dismissed as false, irrelevant or conspiratorially construed. 

Again, what useful insights might one derive from people who openly say 'there is no pandemic'?

And it's that very irrationality which should preclude placing any trust in denier accounts of why and how authoritarianism may be spreading. 

Lockdown or suppression

Denier platforms are fanatically focused on lockdown as an authoritarian instrument. But the term itself is really a useless and divisive misnomer. What do we really mean by the term 'lockdown'? 

Why has it come to be used as a synonym for social imprisonment? 

Why is the focus on 'locking down' people rather than the suppression of a virus?   

Are we really being 'held' in our homes against our wills, rather than partaking in a collectively understood public health exercise? 

And, even if we are being subject to extra forms of authoritarian policing, where does that stand against other forms of authoritarian enforcement? 

What does 'lockdown' usefully tell us about the actual prevalence and rise of authoritarianism? 

Are we to understand that states, governments, armies and other martial forces have not already been subjecting whole swathes of humanity to truly deep forms of authoritarian lockdown? 

Is neoliberalism itself not already a form of mass ideological lockdown? 

Is the brutality that's been going on for generations against black people in the US not a systematic racist and class lockdown? 

Is Israel's siege of Gaza not the very example of an open prison lockdown? 

For black Americans, as for occupied Palestinians, real daily lockdown is being held to the ground with a knee on your neck.

Those on the left who do consistently challenge such authoritarianism, but have also bought into denier 'theory', should be thinking much more deeply about where they place Covid lockdown on that authoritarian scale.  

The harsh policing of Covid 'violations' is certainly concerning. But where does it sit within the wider sphere of corporate control, military enforcement and other deathly authoritarianism? 

Why does this particular expression of authoritarian policing assume such vital significance for Covid deniers?   

The pandemic may be providing new cover for extra-state powers. But the kind of fascist-type lurch we're seeing, most particularly in the US, exists within a much more complex terrain of political-capitalist crisis, including, of course the deepening spectre of climate collapse. 

Why would we even try to confront such massive, existential questions from the narrow issue of Covid lockdown?        

Critical left vigilance is needed over official information, power-grabbing elites and authority at large.

There is, indeed, a vital and fascinating discussion to be had right now about the perilous state of capitalism, whether or how it can survive this crisis moment, and the role of the Davos set in seeking to save it. 

And a key part of such discussion concerns the increasing potential for state repression as failing political elites struggle to offset economic and social dislocation. 

Yet, any searching and informative understanding of such capitalist disorder and authoritarian trends are certainly not coming from the crude and misguided ranks of Covid-deniers.


John M said...

Thank you John, a thoughtful and informed posting - a great riposte to those on the "Lifeboat News" who so readily ape their political opponents with their ignorant, actually risible, conspiracy theories about so many things, not just Covid, in the process diverting themselves from the more rational and more essential criticisms about everything else that's been going on in the last forty years - as you so cogently point out. (I found your post via Lifeboat News, I do occasionally visit, but haven't contributed for some time and will not be in the future, and though I can see why Rhysiart has been banned, I don't think he was actually the worst offender - there's a whole crowd of them now - in particular their continued anti-science take on vaccines was incorrigible, totally immune to rational argument and medically informed persuasion - I write as the only medically qualified person (that I know of) contributing.) . This is just a preliminary comment, as I've only had a quick read of this post. I'll read it again tonight. Best wishes from Covid free Aotearoa. We have our fair share of ignorance and conspiracy theory here (indeed my brother in law this morning reported a whole crowd of QAnon believers in the local health food shop), the difference is that it hasn't extended to our leadership, thank goodness. I was able to go to two classical chamber music concerts yesterday with no concerns for my health, despite my being over 70. So keep well over there, we have three daughters live in London and I have family of my age and older in Yorkshire and Scotland, so I do worry a bit about them. Keep well and the same to your family, John Monro

John Hilley said...

Thank you kindly for your valid comments, John. Yes, I think it's important to keep making the case for rational enquiry, serious science and social collectivism against this pernicious conspiracist nonsense and crude 'libertarianism'. I don't visit TLN much these days, though believe there's still a few good voices there. Your words on the proactive policies and situation in New Zealand says it all about what could have been in the UK, though with Scotland on a subsequent and more hopeful learning curve. Stay well and best wishes to all your family.
Regards, John