EU Referendum

Covid: a loss of authority


A little while ago, I wrote of how Spanish environment and energy minister Teresa Ribera had sought to reassure consumers about the security of electricity supplies, only to trigger panic buying of lanterns and camping stoves.

This was not dark humour on my part but exactly the sequence of events experienced, where there was no general response to the news of an interruption in energy supplies until the minister issued a statement.

In a sense, that bears out the somewhat cynical wisdom of the old saying that nothing is true in politics until it has been officially denied. But I wonder of something of that sentiment is not driving the sharp reaction on the continent to government plans for further Covid controls, culminating in mass demonstrations in Austria, and prolonged rioting in the Netherlands and now Brussels.

Actually, I wouldn't set too much store on rioting in Brussels. From what I've seen on social media and elsewhere, the level of disturbance seems par for the course – about typical for weekend in a city which boasts a world class fleet of riot control vehicles, in numbers which would provoke the jealousy of a third world dictator.

But the Netherlands – or Rotterdam, initially - is rather different. To have to stolid, dependable Dutch – the "yes" men of Europe – out on the streets protesting seems rather unusual from the perspective of the average – i.e., ignorant – Brit: the goody two-shoes Dutch don't do such things, especially over public health measures.

No doubt there are complex reasons for the rioting in Rotterdam, described by the city's mayor as an "orgy of violence", where crowds of several hundred rioters torched cars (and bikes – only the Dutch could burn bikes!), set off fireworks and threw rocks at police, leading to the police responding with warning shots and water cannon.

But at the heart of this may simply be the situation where a significant number of people no longer accept uncritically the instructions of their political masters, and are no longer prepared to do as they are told. And, if that is the case, we may be looking at something potentially quite serious – an erosion of the authority of the state.

As far as the UK is concerned, it is interesting to note that, alongside Covid controls, there seems to be a convergence of issues, common to roughly the same group of people.

Thus, we see that group described as Brexiteers also expressing opposition to climate change orthodoxy and also Covid measures such as vaccination and vaccination passports. This group also tends to be vocally opposed to immigration and multiculturalism.

To this group is often applied the description "libertarians", the essential characteristic of which is strong advocacy of individualism, and individual responsibility – combined with a general antipathy towards state control and collective action.

The ironic thing here, though, is that while proclaiming the virtues of individualism, this group is as much a collective as the conformists whom they seek (quite often rightly) to deride.

Not only is there commonality in the causes espoused, there is a distinct conformist tendency, where "membership" of the group demands uniformity, where opposition must be expressed to the entire range of "libertarian" issues. Cherry-picking is not allowed – the whole package must be accepted.

For my part, while I strongly support Brexit and retain a powerful scepticism of the outpourings of the climate worshipers, a rather regret that opposition to Covid control measures has been become an obligatory component of the "libertarian" mix.

For sure, it is very easy to be extremely dubious about the efficacy of government measures, and the competence of the government team. And with Johnson at the helm, it is entirely rational to listen to what the man says we need to do, and to do exactly the opposite.

But then, in respect of the UK's Covid epidemic, I do have something of an advantage in having several qualifications in the public health field, and a lifetime of experience the prevention, investigation and control of communicable disease.

While I can thus discount much of what the government clones tell us – such as the absurd and largely counterproductive advice on frequent handwashing to control what is an airborne disease – I can form my own views on the seriousness of the disease and the measures that should be applied.

And, contrary to the noisy, self-appointed "experts" in the libertarian camp, I do take Covid seriously – very seriously indeed. From a very personal perspective, I am acutely conscious that, at my age and with my underlying health conditions, should I succumb to the illness, it will probably kill me. And I have far too many people whom I need to piss off, for me to retire early to my grave.

More to the point, as I wrote in this piece, more than 18 months ago, in terms of overall mortality, highly infective illnesses, which have a severe impact only on a relatively small proportion of the population, are far more dangerous than killers such as Ebola.

Here, as I set out in my piece, there is a failure to appreciate the distinction between absolute mortality and mortality rate. Coronavirus produces a relatively low death rate but, because of its infectivity and the disease profile, it is capable of killing far more people (absolute mortality) than a less virulent organism.

The reason why this virus is so dangerous is exactly because of its relatively low virulence, causing only mild illness in the majority of the population that it infects. Ebola, by contrast, killed as many as 90 percent of the people it touched, so it never spread. It killed off its victims too fast.

The same goes for the clinically indistinguishable Green Monkey (Marburg) Disease which is so deadly that investigators in the early days were stumbling on whole troops of dead monkeys in the forests of Equatorial Africa, with no spread to their neighbours.

By contrast, coronavirus is our worst nightmare. The high proportion of asymptomatic infections and mild illness means that it can spread undetected throughout the population, where most people remain mobile even when infected. Thus, infected people are capable of spreading the disease to the vulnerable, who are so often tragically killed.

The underlying point, therefore, is that this illness cannot be ignored. Even a government as inept as ours must take action and, in the nature of a viral disease, the most effective control is mass, pre-emptive vaccination – a herd response to a pathogen to which individualism is of no consequence.

Immediately, one can see why, intuitively, the individualist would reject the conformity of a herd – i.e., collective – response, each demanding the right to make an individual decision based on an appreciation of the risk.

It is here that the government has been at its most inept in failing to explain that vaccination is primarily a collective response to a collective threat. The issue. Of course, is that vaccines, as with any applied drug, has its own risks and a proportion of those to whom it is administered will be damaged by it, or even killed.

Perversely, it is a measure of the success of a mass vaccination programme that there will come a point where the incidence (or severity) of the disease is driven back to such an extent that more people are damaged or killed by the vaccine than the disease.

At this point, or approaching it, a case can be made that the balance of advantage for the healthy, less vulnerable cohort lies with refusing vaccination – the benefit is for the herd, not the individual.

This being the case, the government should be stating very clearly the underlying purpose of the vaccination programme, and it should be totally open about the risks involved. And, as each individual is being asked to contribute to the greater good, generous compensation should be paid rapidly to those damaged – or their dependents.

There are many technical issues involved – far too numerous and complex to address in this post – but the core issue it that, sometimes, the needs of the individual must be subordinated to the needs of the group.

The trouble is, I suspect, is that governments have lost the moral authority to make that case, while libertarianism has begun to assume to status of a cult, mirroring the very collectivism it seeks to oppose, without heed to the values it supposedly represents.

Since the collective too is capable of dissent – as we see with Insulate Britain – we see weak governments, lacking the moral authority to pursue their own agendas, presiding over increasing disorder. In that, Rotterdam may be the signpost to our future.

Also published on Turbulent Times.