After Covid: Amnesty or accountability?

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on what should be done about the errors made in the pandemic response


God help us when, not if, there is another infectious disease outbreak on the scale of Covid-19. 

Since the World Health Organization’s tardy declaration of a pandemic in February 2020, at least 6.6m deaths have been officially attributed to the virus. And depending on how so-called “excess deaths” are defined, credible estimates put the true death toll at up to four times higher.

The pandemic left in its wake death and fear. Also anger and alienation.

How to respond to the Covid pandemic — whether to vaccinate, mask, or isolate, as well as the degree to which such interventions should be mandatory — split nations, families, friends and colleagues. Humankind has rarely been so divided and at odds with itself. 

“Follow the science” was the call of the Covid crusaders. It’s a compelling battle cry, for the foundation of medical progress over centuries has been the eschewing of hunch and belief in favour of the rational pursuit of evidence-based decision-making. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

That’s not how it played out. Even in democratic societies supposedly based on a commitment to the value of a contestation of ideas and freedom of choice, differing opinions — including those of reputable scientists — were aggressively shut down.

But as research results and experience accumulated, it became obvious that scientists, doctors, politicians and the media at every step along the way had overstated the strength of the evidence on which they were making life-changing policy decisions. More seriously, in some cases, this distortion was not made not in good faith, but was calculated and deliberate.

These elisions, exaggerations and downright lies — as well as the suppression of contradictory information — were being done supposedly with the best of intentions. It has transpired that rather than serving the greater good, their actions often visited substantial harm on those whose best interests they were ostensibly serving.

Livelihoods were destroyed, children were denied proper schooling, those ill with other afflictions were deprived of proper medical care, and millions were tortured by not being allowed to be with their loved ones, even in death.

No wonder the result has been bitterness, distrust and fury. What is now needed, writes Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, is amnesty. Writing in The Atlantic, Oster this week penned an earnest plea for the combatants “to forgive one another for what we did and said when we were in the dark about Covid”. 

Oster makes the reasonable point that for a long time there were only “glimmers of information”. Life-changing choices had to be made urgently under conditions of great uncertainty. She argues that the missteps that followed did not stem from nefarious intent but were made by people “who were working in earnest for the good of society”. 

“Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard … is preventing us from moving forward. We have to put these fights aside and declare a pandemic amnesty,” she writes.

Fat chance of that. Oster has been savaged on social media and angrily rebutted in other journals. Few people, especially not those who warned of medical over-confidence, pharmaceutical greed and governmental over-reach, are in any mood to forgive and forget.

Professor Vinay Prasad, an epidemiologist at the University of California, writes on Substack that what is needed is not amnesty but accountability. While Prasad didn’t sign the 2020 Great Barrington Declaration — which argued for keeping safe those most at risk, rather than relying on lockdowns, which they predicted would have devastating effects — he says it’s salutary to read it today “and know that no one was closer the truth”. 

Yet the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration— professors Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard — were despite their stature dismissed out of hand by the likes of Anthony Fauci (who headed the US public health response) and US National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, and demonised as “fringe epidemiologists”. 

The National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that “forget everything, learn nothing” is a bad way to ensure institutional accountability. “We need to understand what role conscious deception (noble lying) plays in public-health messaging. We should investigate it precisely because, while it didn’t accomplish its ends, it did inspire a backlash.”

Mary Harrington, an editor at UnHerd, writes that no ‘amnesty” is possible without an acknowledgement by the ruling elite of wrongdoing. “Those who drove Covid policy presented themselves not just as people doing their best, but as the sole bearers of rational truth and life-saving moral authority.

“We all knew every pandemic policy would come with trade-offs, [but] the priesthood forbade any discussion of those trade-offs. No amnesty will be possible that doesn’t acknowledge the class politics, the corruption of the scientific process, the self-dealing, and the self-righteousness that went to enforcing those grim years of tyranny.”

Then Harrington gets to what is surely the crux of the dispute: what happened is of more than just historical interest because it influences how we will deal with such events in the future. “The very foundation of moral authority is a shared trust in the integrity of scientific consensus … Covid has left us in no doubt that there is a great deal of grey area between ‘science’ and ‘moral groupthink’.” 

Not all medical scientists were oblivious to this “grey area”. In a series of webinars I conducted at the very beginning of the Covid crisis with Professor Robin Wood, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Cape Town, he presciently and repeatedly warned against the “fear-driven” responses of the WHO and the South African government, which he said were based on public health authorities and politicians “cherry-picking data from exaggerated predictive models of infection and mortality”.

Wood — who is internationally known for his work on the transmission of infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis and HIV/Aids — was one of very few South African scientists who dared to criticise the WHO.

He picked out WHO’s delayed response to declaring a pandemic, its refusal to countenance evidence that the outbreak might have originated in a Wuhan laboratory, its muddled masking policies, exaggerated concerns about youth mortality, and its insistence that the virus was not spread through the air but by physical contact.

The WHO’s approach to policymaking is supposedly to ‘consult broadly’, says Wood. What this means is to invite those whom it knows agree with it to sit on a committee and then to present their position as a “consensus”.

When I spoke with Wood this week, there was no sense of him feeling vindicated at being proved correct about the subversion of science by bureaucrats and politicians. Instead, he bemoans the pressure on leaders to “do something”.

Regrettably, says Wood, this doesn’t mean being open-minded. Instead, it often means “ignoring the evidence or dogmatically trying to fit it into preconceived policies”, which aside from in Sweden, is what has happened almost everywhere.

“I can understand the growing public scepticism, the lack of confidence in the existing medical system and the global institutions that are supposed to manage our existence. In my view, if a new pandemic comes along, we are less well equipped to deal with it than ever before.”

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