Whole-cost denialism – wilful blindness or myth?

An historical perspective

Fifty years on from that obscure episode in history between 2020 and 2023, now generally known as “The Covidiocy,” it is perhaps now time to reflect on one of its darker aspects. The whole period was one of darkness, of course, largely forgotten now only because of the greater darkness to which it led, culminating in the implosion of the World Equity Government after the sack of Beijing

The particular aspect in question is the inexplicable blindness shown by governments and most of their population to the catastrophic harms of the policy called “lockdown,” a term that had previously been used only for punishments for prison riots. As a biologist, Dr Heather Heying, said back in 2021, the policy “killed everything except the virus.”

Prior to the escape from a virology laboratory of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the autumn of 2019, the global health body then known as the WHO, and the relevant national public health organisations, had all specifically excluded the quarantining of healthy populations as a response to pandemics, because of its likely ineffectiveness, and its unacceptably massive economic and social costs.

But once western governments, in their panic emulating the command and control policy of the Chinese Communist Party, put their nations effectively under house arrest and closed down vast swathes of their economic base that were never fully able to recover, all those dangers were forgotten.

It is not as if nobody predicted the ill effects at the time, nor that they were hidden once they began. Even before the first lockdown a number of commentators pointed out the quantified evidence from the great 2008 recession on the close link between unemployment and mortality, and the direct relationship between loss of national prosperity and health provision. Others, including some of the greatest legal minds, focused on the abrogation of civil liberties that was likely to be irretrievable, and injurious to mental health and social justice alike. A few took a sociological approach, arguing that if you curtail the social contact of a social species, both politics and rationality itself will suffer.

Yet although the ill-effects were flagged up by the mind-boggling sums set aside for job-support schemes and other subsidies, quite apart from those announced for financing the policy itself, a majority appeared oblivious to what was before their eyes. Journalists quipped ignorantly about lives mattering more than economics.

It is hard to understand the reasons for this. During that first lockdown, in Britain as elsewhere, most people knew nobody who had died from the virus, and few who had even been ill with it. Yet everybody had family members who were “furloughed,” (formerly a missionary term), met tradesmen who were now out of a job, saw the suffering of friends or relatives isolated in care homes, or struggled alone to cope with young children at home, on reduced incomes. The whole small-business community was either preparing to go under, or knew, if the changes happened to benefit them, that but for the grace of God they too would be without an income.

Even the mainstream press spoke of the terminal collapse of the travel and hospitality industries, and less obvious but more portentous stories like the euthanasia of animals in bankrupted zoos. As months went by, the press published alarming statistics about the spiralling number of suicides, the deaths from cancer or heart disease because of the restriction of hospital facilities, and wrote of teenagers discussing the pointlessness of life amid suicidal thoughts. And yet not only did the significance of this fail to register with most of the public, but they branded those who mentioned them (ironically, given its current meaning) as “Covidiots.”

It is this irrational animus against those who questioned lockdown which has led to the theory that the entire population was complicit in covering up this appalling abuse of humanity, and ignoring its disastrous costs. Hence has arisen the term “Whole-cost Denialism.” Families were divided, public figures “cancelled” (a term meaning something similar to “non-personing” in twentieth century totalitarian states), and professionals deprived of their careers. Surely such abuses could not occur without widespread and active public complicity?

Yet we should consider a number of mitigating factors. In retrospect we can see that the public in those days was very poorly educated, even at university level. We now understand that education had become progressively geared towards indoctrination in a particular élite’s worldview, even whilst it lauded critical thinking as an ideal. Students were, in fact, taught that independent thought was immoral.

Despite the fact that the culture had become, over the course of the century after Edward Bernays, little but a stage for competing propaganda and public relations, few ordinary people had any true understanding of their methods. They had no idea that their response to the lockdown policy was being conditioned by behavioural psychologists, even after the prominence of these in the government’s advisory team, and their meeting minutes, were published.

This ignorance made people highly susceptible to the story woven by mainstream news sources. Despite journalists like Nick Davies pointing out a decade earlier that news had become little more than a précis of press-releases from government, industry or social activists, most people assumed that journalists still dug around to investigate the truth. This was especially believed of the BBC, only slowly losing its credibility at that time.

Fear, too, was a major factor. Leaders like Britain’s Boris Johnson had deliberately framed the pandemic in militaristic terms, inventing quasi-Churchillian slogans and even comparing the NHS, the top-heavy bureaucratic health system of the time, to the RAF of World War 2. The fear-mongering was in retrospect quite deliberate, and was sustained throughout the period in order to maintain public control, an abusive relationship which helps explain the extraordinary rates of mental illness in the years following, if that can ever be distinguished from the political horrors that ensued.

But this use of fear, common in inadequate politicians, was particularly subtle in focusing on the fear of harming others. The slogan “Careless talk costs lives” was truthful in 1940, but concern for hypothetical “others” became pathological in 2020. Sick young men discharged themselves from hospital, resulting in their own death, in order to protect their young children, who were not even susceptible, from COVID. The same phenomenon led to the elderly dying in enforced isolation from their families, ostensibly for their own protection, or to nonagenarians being arrested and handcuffed in the street for putting themselves at risk. Fear of being infected led to non-vulnerable adults, at imminent risk of flooding from winter storms, being unwilling to break the lockdown regulations and stay with relatives. Fear of a virus that was unlikely even to make them ill outweighed the concrete risk of drowning.

All this seems absurd now, but at the time it probably appeared to compliant people obvious that one must concentrate solely on the “big enemy.” They had been trained so to think. It was not the first time that rumours of unjust suffering on a vast scale had been ignored to focus on what was constantly said to be the war in hand. Even governments in America as well as in the UK, perhaps because of their own blinkers of fear, refused to undertake or at least publish cost-benefit analyses. These would certainly have revealed the scale of the developing crisis and the total disproportionality of lockdowns.

That work was instead left to independent scientists like the paediatrician Ari Joffe in Canada, whose very independence, like those of the authors of the 26 or more studies refuting the benefits of lockdown, led to their public marginalisation. Most of the population genuinely “didn’t know.”

It is, of course, a separate question, for the moral philosopher rather than the historian, whether they should have made it their business to know.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Medicine, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Whole-cost denialism – wilful blindness or myth?

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    Jon,

    This morning I needed the catharsis of writing my own brief take on your retrospective. It started simply as a comment on “Most of the population genuinely didn’t know” and then grew a bit. Apologies for any superfluous repetition.

    I think you are right to say that the vast majority of people “didn’t know”. And I would say that it was not their business to “know”. It has always been the case that only a minority of the general population is endowed with the necessary scientific education and thinking skills that would enable them to tease out fact from fiction, to analyse data, to identify spin, etc. That’s not a patronising observation – it’s a fact of life.

    For better or for worse people were forced to choose between competing views (if they were aware that such things existed); and they had to have strong reasons to swim against the overwhelming tide of government and media propaganda. The unremitting daily diet of press conferences and ministerial statements, undergirded by manipulated statistics, wilfully bereft of inconvenient contrary data and research findings, was enough to wither all but the strongest constitutions and leave the majority in a state of fearful compliance, leading them to support government policies which purported to save lives – and who wouldn’t want to save lives?

    Even well informed and motivated commentators and scientists who understood the truth of what most governments were doing struggled to get their voices heard. One by one they were disparaged by government spokespersons and de-platformed by media outlets. Conglomerates of scientists who jointly ventured to express their concerns or their dissent in letters to learned journals and in public declarations were brushed aside. Very rarely were there public debates between scientists holding contrary views; most media outlets prevented this. Government advisory committees were not properly held to account and the presumption was that governments were “following the science”; any questioning by journalists was of a trivial and peripheral nature and did not deal with fundamental issues.

    It’s difficult to see how things might have been different. Once the floodgates of group-think folly were opened, right at the beginning of 2020, there was no going back. To change course in any significant way would have meant a loss of face, an admission of guilt, and a political meltdown.

    It was much easier 5 years later, after the Public Enquiry, and when one’s political career no longer depended on it, to admit that mistakes were made, that lockdowns may have caused more deaths than they could have prevented, and that the economy need not have been damaged as much as it was.
    “Nevertheless, we insist that the government at all times acted in good faith.”
    A bit like they did during the Iraq war.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Good sequel, Peter. My future author might well have included these points in his “on the other hand.”

      The piece was actually prompted by Peter Hitchens’s observation on how unjust it is of “the public” to label dissenters as “COVID deniers,” so I wondered how future historians might interpret who was actually blinded to the truth. Historically, after all, such denials concern issues hiding behind the headlines, not denial of the headlines.

      Hitchens is also looking forward to the public enquiry, but since the consequences will make the Iraq war look like a minor peccadillo, I’m sure the scope of such an inquiry, and its Chair, will be unusually fully circumscribed. That applies whichever party sets it up, both having outdone each other in enthusiasm.

      Maybe “Should lockdown have been started earlier and continued longer?” is the kind of question that is easiest to answer with, “How could we know our mortality would be one of the highest in the world?”

      • Jon Garvey says:

        PS Despite the “scathing criticisms” of the Chilcot Inquiry it’s hard to find any links on Google from after it came out in 2016. Bad news appears to be easily buried if you control the information, and it’s not the politicians who seem to call the shots, or the Conservative government would surely have had a field day.

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