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Were the lockdowners and the vaccinators really just trying to save lives? And is this what made them so dangerous in the end?

Daniel Hadas, whose sensitive and measured commentary on the pandemic I’ve long valued, recently offered these remarks on lockdowns and mass vaccination on Twitter:

It needs to be understood that the true motivation of the lockdown / forced vaccination Covid response really 𝑤𝑎𝑠 Saving Lives.

Saving Lives wasn’t a smokescreen for some other hidden plan.

Of course, there was opportunism: there were those who used the state of emergency to claw power, money, fame to themselves. There were both supporters and opponents of the Covid measures who did that.

Where [there] is opportunity, there will be opportunists.

But mere opportunism is not enough to drive forward the leaders and followers in a revolution on the scale of the Covid response.

That requires faith, and the faith that drove this revolution was the faith in Saving Lives.

To deny the authenticity of the project to Save Lives is to remain perilously ready to sign up to all current and future projects to remake society and morality in the name of Life-Saving.

And it is to remain blind to the fact that Saving Lives has come to mean hacking away at the limits of what can be done to men, women and children in the name of saving their lives and those of others.

This thesis angered many people, at least some of whom misconstrue what Hadas is arguing. The point is not that a genuine commitment to “Saving Lives” might excuse the response or make it better. Rather, a commitment to Life-Saving public health interventions is in Hadas’s view the ominous root of the problem, because Life Saving is in fact a shallow goal that sounds good enough to rationalise all manner of harmful, destructive policies. Almost anything can be justified – any amount of collateral damage accepted – if it is for Saving Lives, and this is why all of us should cultivate a distrust of self-appointed Life Savers everywhere we encounter them.

In this sense, then, Hadas’s thesis seems undeniable: The millions who signed on to lockdowns and demanded their governments force-vaccinate their peers were not just wrong in a direct, empirical sense – that is, for believing that lockdowns and vaccines would improve health in any way. They were also much more profoundly wrong in a moral sense. Even if lockdowns and vaccines had the potential to stop the virus, nobody deserves house arrest or forced medical treatment for the crime of being a potential vector of infection. Placing Life Saving ahead of all other outcomes is very dangerous and also very stupid, for the simple reason that we are all going to die. As a justification, it functions as a mere pretence to ignore the very real trade-offs that lurk in any alleged solution to anything. Explaining how it could be a good idea to delay the deaths of some elderly and sick people at the cost of the well-being, physical health and autonomy of billions is very hard. Pleading that “we need to save lives” is easy.

That said, I find the thesis less than complete. The public health establishment and their media collaborators carefully manufactured public support for their response by sowing far and wide the belief that it was necessary to Save Lives. Had we acted otherwise – say, by staying open and not doing very much – this, too, would’ve been marketed as the Best Way to Save Lives, and many millions would’ve believed it just as sincerely as they believed in lockdowns. To this comes the fact that Life-Saving in one form or another is profered as justification for a wide range of modern political pathologies, from mass migration schemes to climate change. Especially in ageing European countries like Germany, where an ever-growing number of pensioners and their health anxiety dominate national discourse, there are few better ways to sell noxious political programmes to the masses. Without our naive Life-Saving ethos, it’s not clear to me we wouldn’t have had lockdowns, though they would’ve required a much different kind of argument.

The extent to which states can be said to act upon clear motives at all is a further problem. A longstanding plague chronicle argument, is that modern managerial government doesn’t have goals, motivations or purposes in any human sense. Our countries every day do all kinds of truly insane things behind paper-thin justifications that bear no scrutiny. A lot of what is maligned as “conspiratorial” discourse, on both the left and the right, represents an effort to reimpose logic on state actions, generally by positing that the stated goals are a pretence for some deeper, hidden purpose. Most of the time, these analyses just aren’t convincing, and they function to obscure the blunt reality that we find ourselves beset by an incomprehensible post-liberal political order, in which state actions have been farmed out to a vastly complex network of stakeholders, NGOs, academics, bureaucrats and special advisory committees. For every area of policy the constellation of forces will be different, and nobody has any clear understanding of how the system works – not even the most powerful individuals in the midst of it all. Everything the state does is the sum of these thousands of different forces. What complicates this picture even further, is the fact that those responsible for policy formulation don’t act directly to shape outcomes in the outside world. Their motivations are almost always institutionally mediated, and for this reason much more confined and limited in perspective. They want to secure promotion and grant funding, they want to be thought well of by their peers, they want to satisfy their superiors, and many other petty careerist personal things of this nature.

To say that “climate change policy” is motivated by a desire to reduce carbon emissions, then, is merely to outline a descriptive thesis from outside. Such a thesis will sink or swim insofar as it explains actions of the system as a whole, but no such motivation is present in the system itself. The apparatus of modern governance is a vast inhuman machine consisting of human components; it doesn’t have thoughts any more than a storm system does. And in this sense, I think Saving Lives as the motivation behind lockdowns and mass vaccination is not quite right. Popular supporters of mass containment certainly saw these policies as Life Saving, and this helped enable them. The state itself, however, was playing a rather different game, one which fell (depending on the country) somewhere on a scale from “virus suppression” to “virus eradication” – lives be damned. The pandemicists’ abandonment of prior mitigationist plans entailed precisely deprioritising Life Saving in favour of a new, pathogen-centred approach.

“That may very well be, eugyppius, but what of the people at the start of it all, before lockdowns were taken up by the system? Surely they had human motivations, even if the regime cannot.”

This is true. The Neil Fergusons, Tomas Pueyos and Christian Drostens who sold lockdowns to their countries and the world surely did so for specific, personal reasons. The problem is that these reasons are very elusive. In fact, the more I read their early statements and their leaked correspondence, the more elusive they seem to me. Their words and actions, however, have a very clear and persistent sinister undertone, which is not a mere artefact of retrospect. Their mysterious coordination with each other, their willingness to engage in highly manipulative messaging and risk magnification, their reliance on foreign agents to launder research and strategies from China, and their constant efforts to justify with pseudoscientific findings apparently preconceived conclusions, are all very unsettling. The ambient Life-Saving ethos of modern society surely helped them win the argument in the moment and get away with it in the longer term, but whatever they thought they were up to, was something much different.


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