Am I ready for a pandemic amnesty?
No — not yet.
Emily Oster’s article in the The Atlantic has caused a stir this week. In it, she proposed the idea of a “pandemic amnesty”. In other words, we should forgive and forget what we said and did during the pandemic when we were fearful and didn’t know any better. We should also show forgiveness towards those in power as regards decisions that were made in a state of deep uncertainty and under acute pressure. Whether we ended up being right or wrong, we should not allow this to feed into ongoing polarisation in other areas by either gloating (if we were proven right) or becoming defensive (if we weren’t).
I’m sorry for what I did when I didn’t know
All this sounds like perfectly good sense. And I partly agree with the sentiment. Back in March 2020, none of us knew what we were dealing with. No one knew how to test for Covid, or how bad it would get, how many would die, or how exactly it was being passed on — and we certainly didn’t know anything about Long Covid.
That’s an incredibly tough situation in which to have to make decisions which are going to affect the entire population in all aspects of their lives. I never envied the people responsible for making them one bit. And — given that uncertainty — it was absolutely understandable for people to be somewhat fearful. Long Covid in particular made me nervous: I have seen first-hand how chronic fatigue syndrome can impact and destroy people’s lives. I was (and am) willing to take reasonable steps to avoid this disease. I got vaccinated as soon as I could and I do not regret this one iota.
Yet, despite this understanding and goodwill, I’m still not ready for a complete “amnesty”. Not yet.
Wanted — open debate
Once the initial shock of the first lockdown being imposed had worn off, I found myself taking what I would describe as a moderate position towards lockdown and other measures aimed at limiting the spread of the disease. That is: we would only know whether lockdowns were the right answer or not at some point in the future when the pandemic was over. In the meantime, if lockdowns were to be imposed, an appropriate threshold for imposition would be whether the health system was threatening to collapse. To me, that seemed like a sensible, pragmatic way forward. It seemed like the middle ground.
BUT: what definitely needed to happen — from the very first day of lockdown — was an open, honest and robust public discussion about all the alternatives. We could then adapt or change course if necessary.
And that’s where things went horribly, horribly wrong.
Democracy — suspended until further notice
Such a discussion of alternative approaches was ruthlessly suppressed and those criticising or rejecting lockdown demonised. I was never explicitly against lockdown, but even I took some serious blowback for daring to suggest that peoples’ freedoms were a relevant factor in weighing up the various options and that just whipping those freedoms away because of a relatively low risk to life and limb seemed disproportionate. Even mentioning “herd immunity” was enough to lose you friends.
A great number of people — close friends included — seemed to spontaneously forget what a liberal society is and what underpins it. If people’s freedoms can be taken away at the drop of a hat and all discussion against that move suppressed, then liberal democracy has de facto ceased to exist. Didn’t they understand that? Were they so willing to cast that foundational understanding to the four winds? Or did they take the liberal democratic societal contract for granted to such an extent that they believed these oppressive tactics would not cause serious damage to it?
What, actually, is our social contract?
I even began to ask myself: do we, as a society, still desire liberal democracy? Is that what this debacle was to teach us? That we are in disagreement about what our preferred social model actually is? To my mind, liberal democracy depends on an understanding of the citizen as being robust, willing to take risks — and ready to put up with certain dangers in order to be free. The model citizen in a liberal society displays self-restraint and consideration towards fellow citizens and exercises his rights and freedoms in a way which does not harm others.
Covid showed us that even moderate risks to life and limb would cause large portions of the population to run to the state to cry for protection. They did not trust their fellow citizens to act in a considerate way, preferring the state to wade in with its heavy hand and regulate every aspect of our lives for us. They wanted the state to protect us from our fellow citizens. The notions of “self-responsibility” and “freedom” became more or less synonymous with egotism and selfishness.
Isn’t that depressing? Doesn’t that make you sad? If this is still liberalism, then it is liberalism of a very Hobbesian kind, with the idea of citizens being “free from” things (i.e. infection by other citizens) taking precedence over their positive rights to do things (i.e. go to the pub and have a beer with your friends).
We need to talk
In any case, we all needed to talk about all of this rationally. And it just didn’t happen. Because it wasn’t allowed to happen. By autumn of 2020, I had become so disturbed by this shutdown of society and basic democratic function that I wasted no time in signing the Great Barrington Declaration. It didn’t matter to me whether I thought the experts supporting it were right or wrong. I just wanted to see more balance in the overall debate, which the pro-lockdown side seemed to have won outright — by means fair and foul. The fact that this is the first time I have admitted to signing the GBD in public should give us all pause for thought about how poisonous the debate had become back then.
And, sure enough, the experts spearheading and signing the Great Barrington Declaration were hounded, discredited, bullied — and outlets such as UnHerd censored for allowing them airtime. This is not how a democracy works.
The things I witnessed during those months and years of the pandemic have profoundly disturbed me. My trust in my fellow citizens and also our leaders to act reasonably, think things through and act within the bounds of democracy in critical situations has been seriously undermined.
At the end of the day, Covid-19 is a serious illness, but nothing compared to things like Ebola. What would happen if a more serious event were to happen? What then? As we’ve seen, supposedly inviolate democratic principles can be swept away like dust and opposition stifled.
Democracy is as delicate as a butterfly’s wing, and too many were willing to crush it in the palm of their hands in exchange for the feeling of a safety which can never be guaranteed. It could so easily happen again.
That is why I am not forgetting.