Nearly four years on since the onset of the pandemic and the rash of public policy interventions to manage and contain it, many more people have become sceptical of the range of policy responses by health officials, governments, and drug regulators.
Yet, substantial numbers remain convinced that while mistakes might have been made, the interventions were mostly successful and generally well-intentioned in unprecedently challenging circumstances of a fast-spreading lethal new virus.
The sceptics feel vindicated on three counts: the gravity and universality of the threat from the disease were exaggerated, often deliberately; the efficacy of the policy interventions were overstated; and their collateral harms and risks were downplayed.
The vilification, silencing, and defenestration of genuinely concerned and well-credentialled dissenters contributed to growing loss of trust in the good faith and competence of the authorities. In summary, over three years we witnessed the arrogance of know-all experts, the authoritarian instincts of governments, and a surprising degree of timidity and compliance of the people.
The mantra of ‘Follow the science’ has been unravelling. Testifying before Congress on 8–9 January, Anthony ‘I am science’ Fauci confessed that the health authorities’ six-foot distancing rule (1.5-2.0 metres for countries following the metric system) was ‘likely not based on scientific data.’ It ‘sort of just appeared.’ He also conceded that Covid vaccine mandates ‘could increase vaccine hesitancy in the future.’ The larger point of course is that the mandates contributed to a general loss of public trust in health and other institutions.
In an excoriating retrospective analysis of the Covid policies enacted by Drs. Fauci and Deborah Birx, Scott Atlas, who served as Covid adviser to President Donald Trump, wrote in Newsweek last March that the policies ‘failed to stop the dying, failed to stop the infection from spreading, and inflicted massive damage and destruction particularly on lower-income families and on America’s children.’ He lists ten falsehoods that were promoted by health leaders, officials and academics.
Francis Collins, the former head of the National Institutes of Health, admitted last July that public health officials had shown an unfortunate narrow-mindedness in their single-minded focus on Covid to the neglect of other health, social, and economic considerations. In his own words:
So you attach infinite value to stopping the disease and saving a life.
You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives, ruins the economy and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recover from.
The UK Covid inquiry chaired by Baroness Hallett looks set to become the most expensive in British history, with one estimate from the Taxpayers’ Alliance putting the total cost at £156 million. It has also proven farcical, devoting endless time on the equivalent of tittle-tattle gossip on WhatsApp groups, and showing remarkable hat-doffing deference to the health officials and their top scientific advisers and rude indifference to equally eminent critics of the official narrative.
Even by its own low standards, the nadir came with the testimony from the Prime Minister (PM), of all people. Presenting to the inquiry on 11 December, Rishi Sunak drew attention to a study which indicated that more quality-adjusted life years (QALY) would be lost by the first lockdown than by the Covid disease.
In a jaw-dropping response, Hugo Keith KC, counsel assisting the inquiry, quickly shut him down. He was not interested in ‘quality life assurance models’ (sic), he said.
Remember, this is the PM speaking, one moreover who was Chancellor under Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the time, suggesting that the cure might indeed have been worse than the disease. Professor Karol Sikora, an eminent oncologist and a former head of the cancer program at the WHO, called this ‘The single most revealing exchange in the Covid Inquiry.’
Sir Patrick Vallance was the UK’s chief scientist when coronavirus struck. Like Collins in the US, Vallance too conceded in testimony at the UK Covid inquiry on 20 November that science was given undue weight over economics: ‘The science was there for everyone to see. The economic advice wasn’t.’
In an astonishing open letter to PM Scott Morrison on 19 April 2020, many prominent Australian economists rejected commentators’ calls for a rapid return to work and labelled the notion of a ‘trade-off’ between public health and the economy a ‘false distinction.’ They said that while the measures adopted to contain the spread of Covid-19 had caused economic damage, those negative effects were far outweighed by the lives saved.
The letter was eventually signed by 265 economists. But it has not aged well and this might explain why the group’s website with the full list of signatories is no longer accessible. This was astonishing because this non-economist was under the impression that cost-benefit analysis was integral to the discipline of economics.
For what it’s worth, I wrote as early as 30 March 2020 in Pearls and Irritations:
In responding to an epidemic, there is a trade-off between public health and economic stability. It is the duty of health professionals to focus solely on the former. It is the responsibility of governments to balance the two…
‘Public policy must be based on a balance of risks and benefits…The health of citizens and the health of the national economy are closely connected and interdependent.
In a follow-up article on 17 April 2020, for the Lowy Interpreter, I wrote:
Health professionals are duty-bound to map the best- and worst-case scenarios. Governments bear the responsibility to balance health, economic, and social policies. Once these are included in the decision calculus, the political and ethical justification for the hard suppression strategy is less obvious.
Albanese’s Covid Inquiry
In opposition Anthony Albanese and Labor had promised a Royal Commission, which has strong powers to compel witnesses to testify and demand relevant documents. In September Prime Minister Albanese announced the powers, composition, and terms of reference of Australia’s Covid inquiry. It failed every best-practice test of an open and independent public inquiry. It lacks statutory powers to gather documentary and oral evidence.
With narrow and limited terms of reference, it will not examine decisions and actions of state governments, which formed the vast majority of pandemic management policies. Any self-respecting person approached to be on the panel would have politely but firmly turned down the invitation.
The three panelists are all women with public records of advocating lockdowns, masks, and vaccines. Angela Jackson has past ties to the Labor Party. In June 2021 she tweeted that Melbourne’s lockdowns had helped ‘to keep the rest of Australia Covid free,’ adding: ‘Time to bloody step up Sydney.’ The next month she said Victoria needed ‘a hard lockdown’ to get through the pandemic.
Catherine Bennett was also supportive of Melbourne’s lockdowns in 2020–21. The third panellist is Robyn Kruk, director-general of the New South Wales Department of Health.
Defenders of the Albanese model were few and far between. The opposition party attacked it as a ‘half-baked’ inquiry that would function as ‘a protection racket’ for the mostly Labor state governments that had instituted some of the harshest unscientific measures in the world. Its scope should either be widened or else it should be disbanded, they said.
Peak aged-care bodies, unions, and the pro-Labor government Greens added their voices to the chorus of criticisms of the decision to exclude actions by state governments. Even some Labor Party parliamentarians described the inquiry’s narrow scope as ‘bizarre.’
Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay said the inquiry will fail to do justice to the high human cost of the Covid policies, including family separations, school closures, and Australians not permitted to come home from overseas. The Australian columnist Peter Van Onselen said Albanese’s limited and toothless Covid inquiry was ‘base politics at its worst’ and the PM had borrowed the playbook from the satirical British TV series Yes, Prime Minister. Paul Collits criticised the scope and all-women composition of the inquiry committee as a non-inquiry ‘female farce.’
Because of my work on Covid issues since March 2020, I was asked by several people to put in a submission (the closing date was 15 December), at least ‘for the record.’ I declined. Taking part in that sham exercise would imbue it with some degree of undeserved legitimacy.
On 21 September, a media release from Senator Malcolm Roberts derided the ‘betrayal of everyday Australians and small businesses’ with the government ‘running away from a Royal Commission.’ He promised to request a Senate inquiry by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee to recommend proper terms of reference for a Covid Royal Commission to be established in 2024. The Senate agreed to this on 19 October.
The committee will report back by 31 March. Several groups, including some that I am associated with, have been busy preparing submissions to the Senate committee that had a closing date of 12 January.
A collaborative effort to draft a comprehensive people’s terms of reference can be found here, with 45,000 signatories as at 17 January. It includes two organisations with which I am closely associated, Children’s Health Defense Australia and Australians for Science and Freedom. (Full disclosure: I am one of the co-authors of the document.)
It calls for answers to the scientific basis for some of the most intrusive and coercive pandemic management measures, the cost-benefit analyses behind the policies including an examination of the harms likely to result from both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions; and explanations for enacting and enforcing vaccine mandates despite knowing that they stop neither infection nor transmission.
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