Moving Beyond Fear

There are now glimmers of hope that we are stumbling out of the Coronavirus mire. It has been a distressing time for many Australians. Not only have we had to deal with the impacts on our health of a persistent, virulent and sometimes deadly virus, but we have also had to deal with the draconian restrictions governments have imposed on our freedoms. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that these restrictions have provided more discomfiture than the virus itself. We have had people forcibly denied access to their loved ones even when those loved ones were faced with harrowing circumstances where they desperately needed emotional and physical support. We have seen our children deprived of their rights to proper education and access to their peers resulting in mental health issues and other stressors. We have seen those working in small businesses deprived of the opportunity to earn a livelihood. Our population has been compelled to yield up such basic freedoms as the freedom of association and movement.

All of this dysfunction which has eroded many of the fundamentals of our liberal democracy has been driven by fear.

Once upon a time the Australian ethos was epitomised by larrikinism and a disdain for authority. There has been little sign of that in the pandemic. In the words of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, there have been ample examples of Australian citizens wanting to “hide under the doona”!

In this essay I intend to present to my readers my concerns of the politicisation of fear and how detrimental it has been to our society. There is no doubt that during this traumatic event our governments have manipulated us by fear. We need to learn how to avoid that happening again. This has been an unprecedented social experiment which requires dispassionate analysis if we are to learn to do better in the future.

From the very beginning the public response to the coronavirus has been dominated by fear. Eighteen months or more ago when the world was beginning to see the effects of the virus, our health experts were warning us that without drastic interventions hundreds of thousands of Australians could die and our health systems would be overwhelmed by victims of the virus. The initial lockdowns and restrictions were justified on the basis of temporary actions to “flatten the curve” so our health systems might cope. But the interventions were far from temporary and our state premiers under the guise of protecting our health have continued to not only maintain but strengthen the restrictions.

In evolutionary terms fear is often helpful. If a person whose lifespan is short is driven by fear of predators for example, and as a result gets to live a few more years to survive and procreate more, then that is indeed an evolutionary success. But life has moved on. Today, now that lifespans are vastly longer, fear, with its impacts on mental health, anxiety, hypertension and such is more likely to reduce a person’s lifespan and of course even beyond that to reduce the quality of life of those so affected.

Our governments, using fear to manipulate us, have imposed on us a disproportionate response to this virus and we have meekly complied as a result. Despite their fearmongering it is evident that Covid-19 (as the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Patrick Vallance said in March 2020) “is not lethal or dangerous to the vast majority”. Of course the virus is dangerous but it mainly kills the elderly and those with underlying health conditions mainly dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, diabetes and various hypertensive diseases among others. (It is a telling statistic that the average age at death from those who have died of Covid-19 in Australia is above the average life expectancy of the population at large!)

The public are notoriously bad at judging and reacting to risk. A good example is the general hesitancy to use the AstraZeneca vaccine after some reports it resulted in thrombosis. The risk is miniscule but public opinion would have us believe the vaccine should be avoided. But understandably, after the government fear campaign, most people believe that Covid-19 is far deadlier than it is and grossly overestimate their own likelihood of catching the disease and consequently dying if they do so.

On top of this of course is that it emerges that Australians of the current generation are far more risk averse than previous generations.

So a perfect fire storm has been unleashed because we are not only very risk averse but on top of that we are poor at judging risk and inevitably exaggerate the risks to which we are potentially exposed. As a result we have abandoned our sense of personal agency and with it our freedom and ran to the security of the carapace of the state whilst yielding to the government imposing unprecedented powers over us.

Speaking as someone who is in the latter stages of life it seems to me that our response has unduly tried to protect people like me at a huge cost to younger generations. In adding a year or two to the lives of old people we have substantially curtailed the future of our young people who have shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden. It is they who have been deprived education, who have lost their jobs, been most impacted on constraints to mobility and so on. Moreover it will be they that have to deal with the huge debt Australia has acquired in trying to cushion the economic blow Covid has rendered us.

The media, of course, has been complicit in promoting fear in the population. Each day they have highlighted with alarm any new Covid cases. They seldom report the per capita rate of infection or the fatality rate of those infected. And they often urge governments to take even more stringent measures.

We know also that many (perhaps most) people who have died with Covid had other co-morbidities. Consequently deaths from Covid are exaggerated.

What’s more Covid deaths make the headlines every day. Why are Covid deaths so important (other than to fuel the fire of Covid fear)? We aren’t assailed daily with news of deaths from other causes (such as road accidents, heart attacks or cancer). Surely this is a political strategy to have us unduly fear Covid without any context to put such deaths into perspective.

But of course every day we have been assured by our state premiers that all the imposts on our freedoms that they have imposed are because they are “following the health advice”! Mind you that advice is so secretive it is never shared with those who are forced to live under the restrictions. And surely “health advice” is merely one factor to be considered. To begin with such health advice is focussed on physical health and doesn’t seem to consider mental health. And surely a politician must take some heed of economic and social impacts as well? To continually hide behind the “health advice” is a cowardly act that neglects the overall concerns for the welfare of our society.

In fact some of the state mandated restrictions seem to have little empirical support.

For a time Victoria shut down children’s playgrounds and even had the police patrol them to assure themselves  that children weren’t surreptitiously having fun hurtling down a slippery slide or getting visceral pleasure on a swing!

Mask wearing has been enforced even though studies have shown statistically insignificant differences in infection between those that wear masks and those that don’t. Masks have been mandated for some even though they were outdoors where scientists assure us there is little likelihood of the virus being transmitted.

Curfews have been mandated even though there is little evidence to suggest that they have reduced Covid infections.

But besieged premiers like Dan Andrews have protested that even though such interventions individually have little effect, collectively they make a difference! It is like saying if you buy a lottery ticket you have little chance of winning, but if you buy three you will certainly get a prize!

The British Author and Journalist in her recent book A State of Fear, Laura Dodsworth, describing the management of the fight against Covid in the UK had this to say:

People willingly sacrifice liberty for security during a crisis. This is not a simple exchange though. What does security mean? And is liberty returned when the crisis has passed? After a crisis some governments may wish to lengthen the state of fear or exaggerate it to keep the population obedient.

Early in 2020, the people of the world realised en masse they would die. Of course they were always going to die. But they believed they could die then or soon as a result of the epidemic. Mortality felt real. It could be that a modern day death phobia, or at least our disconnect from death, has primed us for an over-reaction. If you haven’t accepted you will die one day, you are a sitting duck for policies which claim to be for your safety. There is mixed evidence about the efficacy of lockdowns. We do know that they have cast lives. Yet people traded their liberty in the hope that the government knew best.

The most frightening aspect of all of this is how meekly Australians sacrificed their freedoms and sought to embrace their misguided notion of the security of the state.

As Queensland Senator, Amanda Stoker has written::

When politicians offer to solve problems that properly are the domain of individuals and families, they slowly erode freedom of choice and deprive individuals of the satisfaction that comes from personal accomplishment. And as governments fail to deliver on their grandiose promises, they gradually undermine faith and confidence in our democratic institutions, strengthening the appeal of fringe populists and extremists.

In essence because of loss of a sense of personal agency we have sought more frequently to have government protect us. Overall government interventions result in clumsy, ham-fisted, bureaucratic actions that are often ineffective. As a result citizens lose trust in governments. They are then caught in a double bind that they feel inadequate to resolve the problems themselves but neither do they trust the politicians to reliably develop cogent solutions. Hence they become vulnerable to “snake-oil salesmen”.

Moreover, once it seemed the prerogative of Labor governments to want to jump in and smother us in the comfort blanket of the “Nanny State” to protect us from all sorts of real and imagined threats. But now even the Liberal coalition seems to have forgotten its traditional aversion to impinging on individual liberty and increasing the size of government, believing it too, for political reasons, needs to take on the mantle of “white knight” to save us all from circumstances that in previous generations we might have negotiated ourselves.

It is instructive to look at the history of our Covid response. It is amazing how easily we went from the government applying what they thought were some necessary impositions to “flatten the curve” to restrictions on our freedoms that have now lasted eighteen months or more. Our premiers, in particular, (perhaps with the exception of Gladys Berejeklian), have fallen over themselves in rushing to impose more and more restrictions which curtailed the freedoms of their constituents. Mostly they have manipulated people by playing on the heightened fear that their state propaganda has stimulated playing on the ignorance and the manufactured fear of the general populace.

As citizens we should bear in mind the advice of Seneca the Elder:

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.

The question I would ask in conclusion is, “Are we going to allow our irrational fears demolish what is the crowning achievement of Western society – our liberal democracy?”

There are worrying signs that the impositions on the freedom of individuals, (so long fought for at great cost to our predecessors) will not be totally withdrawn as the pandemic ebbs but cynically continued and probably augmented by politicians who seek to wield unfettered powers over the populace. For such people democracy is not a right but an inconvenience.

They are bolstered by burgeoning bureaucracies who wield immense, largely unchecked, power. Embedded in these bureaucracies are many “woke” people enveloped in identity politics who are convinced that they are more enlightened than the general populace and it is their duty through any means to save the “unenlightened” from themselves.

In this process the individual is inevitably disempowered. In the current crisis, evidence of that is the fact that the so-called “health advice” is never shared. Our governments are morphing into “Big Brother” and the most frightening thing is that many of us are willingly complicit in allowing this to happen.



6 Replies to “Moving Beyond Fear”

  1. And Gladys, the one bright light – the one who was willing to manage risk, rather than continually install strategies put forth by others to eliminate it altogether (not possible of course) – has now gone. Many of us in NSW feel a bit gutted by that news. Will the replacement/s have the courage (the guts) to guide us through? Let’s see!

  2. Sorry Ted can’t agree with you on this one and I doubt you believe it either. Whether you intended it or not your blog borders on a conspiracy theory itself, hinting that our elected leaders are some how using COVID as a means to gain more personal control of society. I don’t think you believe that.

    Our leaders are human and faced with something that they can’t see, can’t fight and don’t understand they acted out of fear. Gladys I take my hat off to. The courage to go soft could have back fired terribly resulting in her decisions causing the deaths of thousands. I know most would be old or fat or fighting cancer or pregnant but they are still people.

    The US took a more relaxed stance and have a death toll of about 700,000 even with a variety of loose lock downs. If Australia with around 1 tenth the population took the same approach we could expect 70,000 deaths maybe. But let’s be conservative and say that more than 50,000 Australians would be dead now if we copied the land of the free. I know many were old and dying anyway but I still could not make the decision to let them die and that’s in hind sight. Our leaders had no idea what they were facing when they first talked lock down. So is 50,000 lives worth the impact on our youth and our mental health. Not a decision I’d like to make.

    Ted you have made some difficult decisions for the greater good in your career but I am pretty sure nothing compares to what our state leaders have had to contend with recently.

    I do agree with you about the Nanny State concept, although I believe I prefer to live in our Nanny State than the land of the free. I will watch with interest the opening of borders and end to lock downs though. Freedoms I believe will be returned but we shall see.

    That does not include freedom not to be vaccinated though. For my money if you want to forgo modern medicine in the form of a vaccine you forgo modern treatment if you need it as well. Of course that’s not going to happen. So the only way to stop the unvaccinated clogging up our hospitals is to put pressure on people to vaccinate. We must wear seat belts despite some believing they can kill you. What’s the difference?

    1. Thank you Greg for your usual forthrightness. I really appreciate being able to have a sensible discussion with you.

      Unfortunately Greg, I do believe some of our elected leaders, whether consciously or not, have used the fear of the pandemic to augment their power over the citizens they have been elected to govern. Whilst I don’t believe that our leaders are acting collectively in this way, those that are so disposed will surely emulate others where those others have been successful in gaining more authority.

      Those in leadership positions have the opportunity to inflict their character flaws on others and as we have discussed many times inflated egos are often the problem.
      You know from your own experience in organisations that flaws in the personality of an organisational leader result in many injustices and indignities being inflicted on the workforce. Do you think it is any different with political leaders? This problem is exacerbated when the political leader is shielded from public opprobrium by a large majority and an ineffectual opposition. (I could give you more specifics but I am not wealthy enough to defend a defamation case against a premier!)

      I am not suggesting that Australia should have taken no preventative measures to thwart Covid. It would always have been prudent to protect the most vulnerable.
      But our rush to impose lockdowns, I think, has been a disproportionate response. As I understand it, Australia had a plan to counter pandemics before Covid arrived and it didn’t include lockdowns. We seem to have been hijacked by the Chinese on this issue. The Chinese imposed lockdowns in Wuhan after the outbreak there (including such draconian measures as welding shut the doors on high rise apartments). They then proclaimed their responses were successful in shutting down the virus and lauded the merits of a totalitarian government in being able to take such drastic measures. Subsequent events in Wuhan have shown these measures were not as effective as were claimed.

      We in the West, abandoning all our libertarian principles, fell over ourselves in emulating their example (but at least without welding doors shut!) and inadvertently or not assumed some of the totalitarian attitudes of the Chinese.

      My concern is twofold.

      Firstly there is little to suggest that lockdowns are effective in the long term. You cite the horrendous death rate in the USA from their mismanagement of Covid. But have a look at Sweden who have never locked down and have substantially better outcomes than most.

      The initial rationale for lockdowns was legitimate. It was about slowing the spread of infections so that hospitals could cope. But in the end if we are ever to restore our society to anything like it used to be lockdowns are essentially avoiding the problem. Sooner or later we have to confront Covid. Thankfully we now have vaccines that will protect most of us. It is time to confront Covid and restore our lives.

      As for Covid deaths they are indeed regrettable. But whilst we dramatise every Covid death, the risk of death from cancer, heart disease and diabetes are significantly higher than from Covid. The fear of Covid is heightened by our premiers and state health officials every day highlighting Covid cases and Covid deaths. (Four times as many Australians died from falls in the last twelve months than did from Covid!)

      Now, as I highlighted in my essay, my greatest concern was how meekly we capitulated to governments in giving away our freedoms. The freedoms we have surrendered in fighting the pandemic are not trivial. They include freedom of association and movement, freedom to protest peacefully, freedom to worship, freedom to conduct commerce and freedom of Australians to enter or leave their own country.

      It concerns me that so few Australians seem to value such freedoms. Part of this, of course, is that we no longer teach our children about the progress of Western civilisation. Indeed many who try to do so are pilloried by the “woke” brigade for purportedly advancing colonialism, patriarchy and racism. But this unique place we find ourselves in, a liberal democracy with its attendant freedoms, was not arrived at easily and took a millennium or so of determined struggle by enlightened men and women to achieve. It is nonetheless fragile and could be easily eroded if we are not vigilant.

      As you rightly point out, the decisions our state leaders have had to take in the last eighteen months are very difficult ones and as you say, more momentous than those I have had to make. And no doubt our early responses were ill-informed.

      But what of now? We have had eighteen months of experience. Yet Premier Dan Andrews still persists with a lockdown mentality even as Covid cases in Victoria are reaching record highs. Melbourne, which once revelled in its status as the “world’s most livable city” has now acquired the dubious status of the “world’s longest shutdown city”!

      It is easy to overlook the collateral damage. Even if lockdowns have saved some lives, they have devastated small business, kept children out of education, caused immense mental, social and emotional hardship. It could be reasonably argued that the remedy has been more harmful than the disease.
      Many thanks for your comments. We might have to agree to disagree on some of these issues.

  3. Hi Ted

    Thanks for your independent assessment looking at issues from a different perspective. As I do not have access to the detailed medical advises provided to political leaders, it is hard for me to assess the right or wrong of some of the decisions being made by senior politicians and bureaucrats. As a result I have been left confused and surprised at some of the behaviours of individuals and governments.

    I had a debate with an elderly neighbour recently where he was adamant that he is alive today because of the actions of the Qld Premier to shut borders and enforce lockdowns even though he had been double jabbed. While I did not agree with his strength of conviction, I suspect that the greater majority of elderly people throughout Qld share a similar view, with little appreciation for the well being of business and the economy.

    My sister and her husband are law abiding retired Queenslanders who are both double jabbed and had spent the last 7 weeks applying for an approval to return from NSW to Qld after helping with normal family issues for their son in North Sydney which were not classed as special circumstances. They understood the risks of their travel at the onset and were prepared to accept the consequences, pay their dues, hotel quarantine and comply with the law. This whole period (7 weeks to get approval) was extremely stressful, where processing bureaucrats would provide no information in terms of their status for approval except to advise that their name was listed for consideration even after supplying identity proof and rates notices that they lived in Qld. They could only fly back to Brisbane and arrived last Saturday to be escorted through Brisbane airport in a line with other returning Queenslanders by police at front and back of the que. Their car is now in transport. After a long bus trip from airport with lengthy stops they arrived at their hotel for their 14 day confinement to a room. While police and bureaucrats were very understanding, polite and sociable, it is hard to imagine in this set of circumstances, that this is how the Queensland Government now treats its law abiding citizens returning home, while sporting groups and families and affluent people are treated with special favours and privileges. You may recall that hotel quarantine space became limited due to sporting teams and families while a major announcement on the construction of a Toowoomba quarantine facility was announced. I may be cynical, but having been a bureaucrat and serving a term as a politician, I know too well how these announcements are made to win the hearts and minds of electors on the premise that it is for the good of all people.

    However, there is some good news for the hotel. The room is comfortable, announcements are made over the public address system that even and odd numbered rooms can open their doors at certain times, meals are OK and hotel staff will store your delivered liquor orders delivering your ration of one bottle of wine each per day to your room in case you have lost the ability to count.

    I will be interested to see how these issues are analysed as part of history and I look forward to your further commentary.

    On a final note, politicians with backbone, compassion and integrity like Gladys are few and far between these days. We need more leaders like Gladys, but our political processes and public views of politicians do not seem to encourage this sort of leader anymore.

  4. I am responding to Ted’s original article and Greg’s reply.

    Regarding our leaders and how they have managed COVID-19, I am not arguing whether “our elected leaders are using COVID as a means to gain more personal control”.

    I am arguing that their responses based on lockdowns, forced hotel quarantine and ‘the medical advice’ has been lazy and, to me, demonstrated a significant lack of leadership.

    A personal story to emphasise my point. My son, his wife and their 3 month old daughter were required to leave the USA to renew their work visas. It took them 12 months to arrange the necessary travel, including being fully vaccinated and returning multiple negative COVID tests.
    They then spent 5 weeks in hotel quarantine or home isolation in three different States before their visas were renewed. That is one story in thousands.

    After 18 months, I’d argue our leaders can and should be managing this pandemic better.

  5. Ted, most of your readers would be very familiar with the art and practice of risk management. An emerging threat with potentially dire consequences would present a risk of the highest order, justifying extreme mitigation strategies. As the true impact of such a threat becomes more apparent after a few months, it would be normal to expect a major review and ramp-down of the response. This didn’t happen, at least in the public arena.
    Likewise we have seen many other actions unprecedented in my lifetime – censorship of alternative views, criminalisation of alternative therapies, healthy people locked up, mass coercion to receive experimental medical procedures, marginalising of sections of the populace, and so on. Why, you might (and should) ask yourself.
    I suspect that world hunger, bad drinking water and homelessness could have been eradicated with far less expense.
    As to Mr Brown’s suggestion that medical treatment be withheld from the unvaxxed, what a despicable thought. It goes against every value of our society. What next – no treatment for lung cancer in ex-smokers, obesity & diabetes brought on by poor lifestyle choices?

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