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.