Is the pandemic turning the West into China?
The Covid-19 pandemic is a 'stress test' for Western democracies. According to political philosopher David Thunder, the West is failing this test as the dividing line between Chinese collectivism and European individualism has begun to blur.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis of sufficient magnitude and impact to constitute a major ‘stress test’ for Western democracies. While it may be reasonable to scale back certain liberties in the midst of a serious crisis, such as an imminent military threat, it is not always easy to get the balance right. In the heat of a national or global crisis, citizens may be overcome with fear and panic, and may surrender more of their liberties than they ought to.
A plausible case can be made that this is exactly what has happened in the current pandemic. A host of governments across Europe and North America – with some notable exceptions, such as Sweden and Florida – imposed severe restrictions on civil liberties, even to the point of putting entire populations under what amounted to a form of universal house arrest. They seemed to be taking their cue from China, which instituted a dramatic lockdown to contain the outbreak in Wuhan back in January 2020.
Lockdowns took different shapes in different regions, but they all involved intrusive and coercive regulation of citizens’ social and commercial lives, of the sort that would never be approved or accepted under normal circumstances.
In many Western countries, this pandemic occasioned an unprecedented restriction of citizen mobility, the imposition of curfews, the policing of household activity, the forcible closure of schools and businesses, and the prohibition of religious worship and anti-government demonstrations.
The question is, were these measures a proportionate response to the threat of a disease with an estimated Infection Fatality Rate in the region of 0.15-0.3%?1 Equally importantly, were they a scientifically sound response?
An apparent lack of evidence
Viewed purely as measures of disease control, coercive lockdowns could only work if governments were correct in assuming that they could stop a virus from circulating widely by mandating a dramatic shutdown of social life. But social life for human beings is not just a luxury, but a biological, economic, and psychological necessity.
It is not surprising, then, that little empirical evidence has emerged to support the notion that crude attempts to curtail social contact in the general population yielded any significant improvements in overall patterns of disease spread. Indeed, the available evidence suggests that lockdowns were extremely ineffective as instruments of disease control.2
Remarkably, such draconian interventions were virtually untested (Mexico had implemented a partial lockdown in response to the 2009 swine flu outbreak, but most of the world remained open throughout that pandemic), and, prior to 2020, were not considered as serious contenders in mainstream scientific discourse about pandemic control.3
Since most governments that undertook lockdowns never published a proper assessment of the human, economic, and social costs and benefits of lockdowns, they were literally ‘flying blind’. They seemed to be operating on a non-evidence-based ‘hunch’ that lockdowns would stem the spread of Covid-19 by separating citizens from each other.
However, that hunch was never corroborated by the data, only by abstract and highly speculative mathematical models. Numerous international studies attempting to establish some interesting correlation between lockdown measures and reduced mortality, many of which were published in respected peer-reviewed journals, have not managed to show that lockdowns reduced the spread of disease or the overall level of excess mortality.4
The lockdown experiment has not only failed as a piece of public health policy; it has also helped spearhead a worrying shift in the values and self-understanding of Western societies.
Traditionally, Western democratic societies conceive of themselves as spaces within which individual citizens can live dignified and free lives in cooperation with their peers. But, amidst the fear and panic surrounding societal lockdowns, many governments and media outlets in Europe and North America bombarded citizens with a very different sort of shared narrative and a very different approach to policymaking. This approach, I would suggest, amounts to a form of ‘collectivism’.
Individualist vs collectivist identity
Let me explain: liberal individualism may be understood as the notion that each individual should, barring evidence to the contrary, be given the benefit of the doubt and trusted to act responsibly in most important aspects of her decisions and relationships. Illiberal collectivism, by contrast, is the notion that individual behaviour and choices, rather than being left up to personal judgment and initiative, should be radically subordinated to the needs and interests of the ‘collective.’
In practice, the primacy of collective welfare over individual choice translates into the primacy of elite interpretations of collective welfare. Collectivist ideology, since it distrusts the capacity for self-government of free individuals, must empower a political and scientific class to interpret and coordinate the collective interests of society.
In practice, the contrast between liberal individualism and illiberal collectivism should not be understood in an absolutist fashion. For example, liberal individualism is not tantamount to indifference to common interests; and illiberal collectivism need not be entirely indifferent to individual liberties. However, there is a difference of emphasis and priority.
Liberal individualism dares to hope that the gamble on individual freedom will pay off, in the end, and is very sceptical of the notion that elite actors can organise citizens’ lives better than citizens themselves. Collectivism, on the other hand, views individual freedom as a constant risk to be controlled and hemmed in, and zealously entrusts elite actors with this task.
Traditionally, Western nations have prized individual freedom
Before the pandemic swept the globe in 2020, China was a perfect example of illiberal collectivism, whereas Europe seemed to stand for liberal individualism. In China, the government claimed the authority to regulate the number of children couples could have; ruled through a single, unrivalled political party; and routinely punished political dissenters with censorship or imprisonment.
The Chinese Communist Party claimed to speak uniquely for the ‘people’, and used the apparatus of government to regulate people’s health choices, internet activity, and political allegiances, all in the name of the collective interest of the nation, as interpreted by the CCP.
Traditionally, Western nations, though ruled by political elites, have prized individual freedom and have valued a multi-party democracy to hold government accountable. Traditionally, Western political cultures have been characterised by discourse and practices evincing significant deference toward individual liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and freedom to criticise and protest against government decisions.
And then the pandemic swept through Europe. And something changed. The dividing line between Chinese collectivism and European individualism began to blur. It was no longer so obvious that collectivist ideology was at home in China, and out of place in Europe and North America. Collectivist tropes and values seemed to suddenly be pervasive in Western discourse and practices.
Covid-19: a future of collectivism?
It began with the apparently innocuous idea that in the midst of a crisis, each citizen should think about the whole society, and not just about their own interests. Citizens were urged to minimise their social contacts, wear masks in public places, wash their hands regularly, stay at home, and (later in the pandemic) receive a Covid-vaccine to minimise the incidence of serious disease in the community.
The notion of acting in ways that are beneficial to society even if one does not stand to benefit directly is actually consistent with liberal individualism. There is no necessary conflict between personal liberty and social responsibility. In fact, one of the hallmarks of liberal individualism is its trust in the ability of individuals to freely cooperate and do what is best, not only for themselves, but for the public interest.
But the initial exhortation to solidarity and social responsibility rapidly became contaminated by a collectivist ideology of a sort that we are not accustomed to in the West. The shift from what seemed like a reasonable exhortation to solidarity, to an illiberal form of collectivism occurred in various ways.
People who protested against their government were widely depicted as anti-social delinquents
First, the language and discourse surrounding pandemic measures became increasingly removed from the central concepts and values of liberal individualism. People who took a different view of risk than the official view of their governments began to be dubbed as ‘selfish’ and ‘dangerous’ to the health of others.
People who refused to mask themselves or their children were ridiculed and held up as examples of bad citizenship, with no regard to the possibility that they might have responsibly reached a different conclusion about masking to that of their government. People who protested against their government were widely depicted as anti-social delinquents with no concern for the common good.
Whereas liberal individualism assumes that individuals must carefully weigh up the costs and benefits of different courses of action and make risk assessments in light of their personal circumstances, collectivism distrusts individual choice in complex matters, trusting instead in the choices of government experts.
Before 2020, someone who disagreed with expert judgment would have to make their case and present their evidence. Over the course of the pandemic, however, social media commentators, academic scholars, journalists, and many others became increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices. Critics of lockdowns, masking, and vaccine rollouts were routinely dismissed as ‘anti-science’, reckless, and thoughtless, as though a single univocal ‘science’ delivered an unambiguous answer to every important public health question. Critics of pandemic measures found their tweets and videos removed because they diverged from official government information.
Trust in the free and informed judgment of individual citizens was replaced by distrust in individual judgment
Second, the enthusiastic embrace of coercion as a solution to public health problems represented a significant turn toward collectivism. What began as various bits of public health advice that citizens should be trusted to carefully weigh up and apply in light of their personal circumstances, soon became inflexible and coercive government mandates, applied indiscriminately across the whole fabric of society.
Trust in the free and informed judgment of individual citizens, one of the hallmarks of liberal individualism, was replaced by distrust in individual judgment and top-down decision-making on behalf of the collective, one of the hallmarks of Chinese collectivism.
As coercive and intrusive interventions became normalised, the space of personal freedom progressively became smaller. Governments continued to exhort citizens to social solidarity and responsibility, all the while treating them as though they were children who needed to be cajoled into doing the right thing.
Early in the pandemic, numerous Western governments ordered citizens to stay at home. Many citizens were unable to travel to funerals or see loved ones because of strict border quarantines. Many businesses were closed down by government order, in the name of public health. Even household gatherings were regulated by emergency orders. In many countries, police were authorised to break up small gatherings, just because they involved more than one household.
For the first time ever, vaccination was effectively enforced upon adults through coercive regulations. The ‘Green Pass’ system introduced in Europe applied strong pressure upon citizens to vaccinate, by compelling unvaccinated travellers to obtain negative Covid tests at their own cost. Certain countries and certain institutions began to require Covid vaccination as a condition of employment.
Initially, vaccination was required for health professionals, but later this requirement was extended to other professions, such as pilots, firefighters, truck drivers, and teachers. The vaccination pass system was extended to domestic venues such as restaurants, cafés, bars, and cinemas in several places, including the Netherlands, Ireland, France, and New York. Italy recently became the first country to effectively render vaccination obligatory for workers in the public and private sectors alike. The extensive use of vaccine passes excludes unvaccinated citizens from a large range of social venues, solely on the basis that they have not received a Covid vaccine.
This level of top-down control over delicate and complex decisions about personal health is not consistent with liberal individualism, but it is consistent with a collectivist approach that empowers public health officials to supervise people’s most intimate choices, purportedly for the sake of the ‘collective interest’.
If public officials had access to all the relevant information, intimate knowledge of the interests and needs of all sectors of society, and Herculean levels of wisdom and sound judgment, giving them wide discretion to coercively re-organise the entire social fabric might achieve good results, albeit at the cost of liberty. Given that these conditions are unlikely ever to be met, or even approximated, government policies animated by illiberal collectivism are likely to be very disappointing, and potentially catastrophic.
- 1See John P. A. Ioannidis, ‘Infection fatality rate of COVID-19 inferred from seroprevalence data’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 99 (1), 2021. It is important to note that infection fatality rates are not fixed but vary according to region, population health, quality of available treatments, and other factors.
- 2Given the complexity of the variables affecting disease outcomes, it is difficult to isolate the effects of lockdowns in a precise manner. Nonetheless, it is notable that many studies find that lockdowns have minimal if any impact on disease and mortality. See, inter alia, Bendavid, Oh, Bhattacharya, and Ionnaidis, ‘Assessing mandatory stay-at-home and business closure effects on the spread of Covid-19’, European Journal of Clinical Investigation 51-4, April 2021; Larochelambert, Marc, Antero, Bourg and Toussaint, ‘Covid-19 Mortality: A Matter of Vulnerability Among Nations Facing Limited Margins of Adaptation’, Frontiers in Public Health, 19 November 2020; Morris Altman, ‘Smart thinking, lockdown and Covid-19: Implications for public policy’, Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy 4: p. 23-33, June 2020; Chin, Ioannidis, Tanner and Cripps, ‘Effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions on Covid-19: A Tale of Three Models’, medRxiv, December 1, 2020; Berry CR, Fowler A, Glazer T, Handel-Meyer S & MacMillen A, ‘Evaluating the effects of shelter-in-place policies during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), 118-15, 2021; Agrawal V, Cantor JH, Sood N & Whaley CM (2021), ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Policy Responses on Excess Mortality’, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), June 2021.
- 3The option of quarantines for exposed individuals, as well as border controls and screening as methods of disease control, are expressly ruled out as “not recommended under any circumstances” in pandemic guidelines issued by the World Health Organization in 2019, ‘Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza’
- 4See Bendavid, Oh, Bhattacharya, and Ionnaidis, ‘Assessing mandatory stay-at-home and business closure effects on the spread of Covid-19’, European Journal of Clinical Investigation 51-4, April 2021; Larochelambert, Marc, Antero, Bourg and Toussaint, ‘Covid-19 Mortality: A Matter of Vulnerability Among Nations Facing Limited Margins of Adaptation’, Frontiers in Public Health, 19 November 2020; Morris Altman, ‘Smart thinking, lockdown and Covid-19: Implications for public policy’, Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy 4: p. 23-33, June 2020; Chin, Ioannidis, Tanner and Cripps, ‘Effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions on Covid-19: A Tale of Three Models’, medRxiv, December 1, 2020; Berry CR, Fowler A, Glazer T, Handel-Meyer S & MacMillen A, ‘Evaluating the effects of shelter-in-place policies during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), 118-15, 2021; Agrawal V, Cantor JH, Sood N & Whaley CM (2021), ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Policy Responses on Excess Mortality’, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), June 2021.