Our Enemy, the government

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Emeritus Professor Ramesh Thakur summarises the main arguments of his just published book

The years of living with increasingly oppressive Covid restrictions and mandates is a tale of many villains complicit in tyranny and a few heroes of resistance. It’s a story of venal, incompetent politicians and brutish police – thugs in uniform – acting at the behest of power-drunk apparatchiks.

Medically idiotic, economically ruinous, socially disruptive and embittering, culturally dystopian, politically despotic: what was there to like in the Covid era?

  • Billions, if you were Big Pharma.
  • Unchecked power, if you were Big State.
  • Power over the whole population of a state and fame with extended daily TV appearances on all channels, if you were a chief medical officer.
  • More money and power over the world’s governments and people for the WHO.
  • Template for action for climate zealots.
  • Dreamtime for cops given free rein to indulge their inner bully.

But anguished despair, if you were a caring, concerned citizen who loves individual freedom and autonomy.

The existing frameworks, processes and institutional safeguards under which liberal democracies operated until 2020 had ensured expanding freedoms, growing prosperity, an enviable lifestyle and quality of life, and educational and health outcomes without precedent in human history. Abandoning them in favour of a tightly centralised small group of decision-makers liberated from any external scrutiny, contestability and accountability, produced both a dysfunctional process and suboptimal outcomes: very modest gains for much long-lasting pain.

In two World Wars, many risked their lives to protect our freedoms, but in the last three years, so many gave up freedoms to prolong lives. There evolved a co-dependency between the uber surveillance state and a Stasi-like snitch society.

Confronted by the coronavirus pandemic as a ‘black swan’ event, most countries chose the hard suppression strategy with variably stringent lockdown measures. There should have been more caution because of the history of failed catastrophist warnings from Professor Neil Ferguson, the Pied Piper of pandemic porn; the massive economic costs which also have deadly impacts; the draconian infringement on individual freedoms; and the availability of other more targeted strategies rather than the mythical ‘do nothing’ alternative.

The science-denying policy interventions inflicted devastating social, economic, educational, health and mental health costs, especially on young people in the long term even though they were at negligible risk of serious harm. It should not, could not possibly have been a surprise to any health specialist that as social creatures, human beings are scarred by social isolation enforced through state diktats promoting the message that humans are disease-ridden biohazards.

For the vast majority of poor people in developing countries, on the one hand Covid was rarely at the top of deadly killer diseases, on the other hand, lockdowns proved to be cruel, heartless and deadly. Their plight was neglected by the very people and countries that loudly trumpet their kind and caring credentials in being concerned about vulnerable and marginalised communities.

Among the most shocking developments as the pandemic dragged on was the degree of coercion and force used by some of the best known champions of democracy and liberty. The boundary between liberal democracy and draconian dictatorship proved to be virus thin. Tools of repression like unleashing heavily armed cops on peacefully protesting citizens, once the identifying traits of fascists, communists and tin-pot despots, became uncomfortably familiar on the streets of Western democracies.

Lockdowns destroyed the three ‘Ls’ of lives, livelihoods and liberties. Governments effectively stole nearly three years of our life. Pre-emptive press self-censorship helped to normalise the rise of the surveillance-cum-biosecurity state in the name of keeping us safe from the virus that is so deadly that hundreds of millions had to be tested to know they’ve had it. Canada’s Freedom Convoy laid bare the stark reality that lockdowns are a class war waged by the laptop class on the working class, by the cultural elites on the great unwashed outside urban centres, and by the virtue signallers on independent free thinkers.

Australia provoked international incredulity at the brutality of its authoritarian measures to “crush and kill the virus“. The defining image of the pandemic state of siege in Australia will remain the case of Zoe Buhler, the pregnant mum handcuffed in her lounge room in front of her children. The episode is the very definition of a police state. Having crossed that Rubicon, how do we walk Australia back? A good start would be criminal prosecution of cops executing dictatorial edicts and of the officers and ministers authorising such action.

Vaccines were initially recommended and subsequently mandated on the slogan that ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’, ignoring the admission implicit in the slogan that they do not protect the vaccinated. Opposition to vaccine mandates hardened with evidence of gaslighting on the benefits, denialism on the collateral harms, refusal either to conduct or else to publish the results of cost-benefit analyses, and banning of alternative treatment options. The policy conclusion is to lift mandates in public settings and prohibit companies from imposing them in most business settings, leaving it instead for people to make informed decisions in consultation with their doctors, without pressure on the latter from drug regulators. And take back all those who were fired for refusing the jab.

The longer the health authorities pushed COVID-19 vaccination, exaggerating its benefits, downplaying its rapidly waning efficacy, ignoring safety signals on its list of harms and banning alternatives, the more attention turned to the role of drug regulators enabling pharmaceutical interventions rather than acting as watchdogs on behalf of public health and safety. Health authorities and regulators shifted the balance decisively from being individual-centric in liberal democracies to the collective safetyism of technocrats and experts.

The WHO’s performance proved patchy. Its credibility was badly damaged by tardiness in raising the alarm, the shabby treatment of Taiwan at China’s behest, the initial investigation that whitewashed the origins of the virus, and by flip-flops on masks and lockdowns that contradicted its own collective wisdom developed over a century as distilled in a report in 2019. This makes it all the more surprising that there should be a concerted effort underway to expand its authority and boost its resources by means of a new global pandemic treaty and amendments to the binding International Health Regulations.

In reporting on Covid, journalists abandoned their cynicism towards official claims and instead became addicted to fear porn. A critical and sceptical profession would have put the Government’s and modellers’ claims under the blowtorch and subjected them to withering criticism for the magnitude of errors in their predictions. Instead, we went “from disinterested journalism to Pravda in a single bound“, as Janet Daley put it in the Telegraph. Indeed, all institutional checks on overreach and abuse of executive power – legislatures, the judiciary, human rights machinery, professional associations, trade unions, the Church and the media – turned out to be unfit for purpose.

We have had to relearn two abiding verities: once governments have acquired more powers, they rarely relinquish them voluntarily; and any new power that can be abused will be abused, if not today by current agents of state then sometime in the future by their successors. Like people with command responsibility when crimes against humanity are committed by foot soldiers, the highest level decision-makers need to be held to account. This is important to ensure misdeeds are punished, victims are helped to achieve emotional closure, and future acts of comparable malfeasance are deterred.

Will Covid illiberalism be rolled back or has it become a permanent feature of the political landscape in the democratic West? The head says to fear the worst, but an eternally optimistic heart still hopes for the best.

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. His new book, Our Enemy, the Government: How Covid Enabled the Expansion and Abuse of State Power (Brownstone Institute, 2023), is out now.

This article is a republication of an article originally published here by The Daily Sceptic.

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  • Prof Ramesh Thakur

    Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Educated in India and Canada, Ramesh has held full time academic positions at universities in Australia, Canada, Fiji and New Zealand. He is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, principal writer of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s 2002 UN reform report, a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Commissioner and one of the three lead authors of its 2002 report on R2P. He served for five years as the Editor-in-Chief of Global Governance. His recent books include The Group of Twenty (G20) (Routledge, 2013), The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (Oxford University Press, 2013), Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015 (Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, 2015), Nuclear Weapons and International Security: Collected Essays (Routledge, 2015), The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge University Press, 2006 and 2017), and The Nuclear Ban Treaty: A Transformational Reframing of the Global Nuclear Order (Routledge, 2022).

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