The campaign against Covid-19 has had three disturbing features: the presumption of “guilt,” the suppression of deviant scientific, and the anti-religious animus exhibited by many civil authorities.
Churches have been closed while liquor stores, abortion clinics, and gun shops have stayed open, and healthy people have been confined to protect residents of nursing homes, when in fact our policies have exposed such people to grave risk. The effects of such measures can be dire.
Democratic capitalism, fascism, feudalism, and socialism are all ideologies, each with a social and political system that, sometimes very imperfectly, embodies it.
But in circles influenced by Marx, the word ideology has a derogatory sense, and designates a form of false consciousness. There is a Covid-19 ideology (which I shall call covidism) at least in the descriptive sense, and there are reasons to believe that it is an ideology in the derogatory sense as well.
For unclear reasons, covidism is considered enlightened and progressive, while skepticism about it, even when inspired by concern about the fate of restaurant workers, is considered conservative or even reactionary.
Ideology in the derogatory sense contains some elements of truth. But its motto is philosopher David Hume’s belief that “reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions”. The Nazis were right in seeing that Weimar society was gravely dysfunctional, though the cure they offered was immeasurably worse than the disease. The grain of truth in covidism is that Covid-19 is sometimes a deadly disease, about whose transmission we know little. Most cases are mild or moderate – sometimes so much so that the patient is unaware of the disease. The number of cases (and deaths) are exaggerated by counting as Covid-19 cases people sick from other causes. The “silent spreader“ who plays a large role in the covidist narrative remains a controversial hypothesis.
The Covid-19 ideology appeals to what Hobbes called “fear of power invisible,” a fear that is only increased by the precautions taken against it… People reason that unwelcome things they are forced to do must be somehow justified, just some people argue that there must be something wrong with the Jews because so many people hate them.
It also appeals to fear of human beings as such — what I call anthropophobia. We are asked to presume that people, ourselves included, are sources of infection until they prove otherwise – a fear that is most keenly felt when the people we are dealing with are somehow outsiders. And near the core of covidism is the argument that perfectly healthy people are a lethal danger if they venture abroad except for “essential” purposes (liquor, marijuana, guns, or abortions, but not attending church).
The rhetoric of Covid-19 ideology has two elements: scientific fundamentalism and a fallacious argument from fear.
Scientific fundamentalism is signaled by the claim that that those who question the “consensus” are anti-science or guilty of “denial.” As Presidential candidate and sometime Secretary of State John Kerry put it in another context, “I’ve often said that global climate change is an issue where no one has the luxury of being ‘half-pregnant’. You either are or you aren’t. And so it is with climate change. You either understand or accept the science – or you don’t.” The better view is that of the late Charles Krauthammer, “There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge”.
Fear can be rational, but an irrational appeal to fear ignores other sources of danger and urges us to take precautions with unexamined costs.
Covid-19 is not the only killer disease. Fear of it, though, has led to the neglect of other diseases and of other causes of death such as starvation. The partner of a gay friend of mine recently died; he did not receive the life-saving care for a lung disease he needed because he did not have Covid-19.
Covidists hold that any measure, however otherwise destructive, is legitimate if it reduces the incidence of Covid-19, even slightly. I leave the economic effects of precautions to economists. The rest can be summed up in the phrase, “social distancing can kill, too”. California, with a population of 40 million, was thrown into panic mode by one death from coronavirus. By way of comparison, nearly 4,300 Californians killed themselves in 2016, a 50 percent increase from 2001. And California law encourages suicide in some cases.
Loneliness can kill, in recognition of which the United Kingdom has appointed a Minister for Loneliness. (I doubt that she will accomplish much.)
Deaths of despair include not only deaths by suicide, but also drug and alcohol poisoning, as well as alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis, to which I would add heart failure where the patient is depressed. The rate of such deaths has been steadily rising. They have two social causes, economic insecurity and social isolation.
I need not choose between these explanations: both of them are certain to be increased by the measures taken against Covid-19. Suicide prevention hotlines have been kept busy during the Covid-19 crisis. Domestic violence cases have spiked during the pandemic, as have cases of child abuse. A surge of divorces is expected when the crisis ends.
Coronaphobia has generated a perverse morality, for which staying home and watching Netflix is an act of heroism like that of the soldiers who fought in the invasion on D-Day. Avoiding fellow human beings, even crossing the street to avoid them, and wearing a mask when you cannot avoid them, is an expression of solidarity; forcing troubled families to spend more time together will improve their relationships, and the love of Jesus means denying people the Eucharist.
For how long? Until it is “safe” — which may mean for ever.
Americans like to think of their country as a constitutional democracy despite the abridgements of liberty associated with the War on Terror. The hope of a revived democracy requires the overcoming of what Charles Taylor calls our “self-imposed isolation,” which the covidist ideology massively reinforces.
We are experiencing what Denis Praeger has called “a dress rehearsal for a police state“. Anthropophobia turns quickly into fear of social outsiders. Religious and racial minorities around the world have served as scapegoats for Covid-19. And in states like Maine, fear of Covid-19 has been used as a vehicle for long standing resentment of “out-of-staters.” Tensions between African-Americans and the police have exploded, leading to absurd proposals to abolish the police. And a class conflict has arisen between those people able to shelter themselves against the consequences of our precautions and those who cannot.
Citizens and politicians, in making prudential decisions about public health, need to free themselves, so far as humanly possible, from ideological distortions. The precautions taken against Covid-19 may do more harm than the virus itself. A reader may ask: do I think that I am immune to ideological distortion? On the contrary, we are all sinners – cognitively as in every other way.
The best I can do is to think as well as I can.