Will We All Be Poor After Corona?
Will We All Be Poor After Corona? Istock

The Covid pandemic will shape the outlook for years to come. In good ways and bad. At the beginning of the lockdowns, I often warned that shenanigans would follow (also see AmericanThinker: Beware of tyranny more than covid 19. Now that some countries have entered a third round, the entirety of the experiment is open to the naked eye. The sight is not so pretty.

Freedom House, a think-tank in Washington, counts 80 countries under lockdown orders where democracy and human rights took a turn for the worse. The list covers dictatorships grown nastier and democracies sunk into quasi police states. Governments to the right and left have taken advantage of a general state of alarm. A journalist named H.L. Mencken wrote, long before the pandemic, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

When people have a pandemic to alarm them they will clamour to be led to safety. Some put their faith in rocky health experts, others in office holders arrogant as satraps. Both, with the help of big media, find it easy to spread panic and dread. Freedom House counted 91 countries using Covid as an excuse to harass commentary that displeases the powerful. Groupthink is fiercely enforced. Lockdown is the one correct position, and everyone must be for it.

There are pandemic elections to go with. Ruling parties suspend them because of being ‘afraid’ of the super-spreader. In Hong Kong pro-democracy candidates were expected to do well in the September election. Citing the risk of Covid, pro-China candidates put the election back a year.

Russian President Putin used the panic cunningly. First he shifted responsibility for strict lockdowns to regional governors. He then relaxed them and took the credit. A pseudo-referendum to allow Putin to stay in office until 2036 was another bright scheme. Citing public health, he extended voting to a week, and – note this well, US Democrats – he allowed voting at home, in courtyards, in playgrounds and on tree stumps. The ballot was impossible to verify and Putin declared a resounding victory – so impossible that Parliament voted to make the trial electoral system permanent.

Will all this panic and string-pulling recede with the pandemic? Not if it lasts long enough to get rulers hooked on it. Here we should identify two sorts of tyranny. One is well-meant, the other is not. C S Lewis the classics scholar, author and theologian, wrote in ‘God in the Dock’ about tyranny of the well-meaning sort. “A tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Clerics were among the ‘moral busybodies’. Once upon a time they used unspeakable cruelty to protect the monopoly of Catholicism and the Pope in Rome. Protestants bore the brunt, to teach by example, to spare Catholics the torments of purgatory. Evil means were deployed to prevent evil.

CS Lewis was a theologian, not a social scientist, and had nothing to say about the other tyranny: evil for evil sake. The masses do not suffer for their own good, or for the approval of the persecutor’s conscience. They suffer in the cause of some cruel and callous scheme. The murderous maniacs of the 1900s fall in this bracket: Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot offered neither penance nor reward, earthly or eternal. Their subjects lived through hell and died, often willingly, for some crackpot utopia.

Some lords of lockdown are kith and kin of those terrible twins. Some order lockdown for our own good, to save us from Covid. Others order lockdown to exercise power, for the sheer thrill of it. Liberty gets trampled, lives and livelihoods crushed.

The well-meaning tyrants come in different guises and degrees of how well they mean. The political class and attendant health advisors run the show. Who else would – God above? Who needs to? Pandemics in the 1950’s and 60’s equalled the killing power of Covid, but countries let pandemics play themselves out, in the way they tend to do. No government abolished freedom and demolished a country. Not so Britain’s Boris Johnson who was among the first leaders to do both, starting with the slogan: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” The first edict worked all too well: town centers and public places became haunts for ghosts. The plea to protect the health system proved superfluous: as it mostly did elsewhere, the system quickly created over-capacity. No. The wrecking ball was the command, ‘Stay home’. It, the lockdown, was the deadliest in all Europe. If it saved anyone from Covid death, staying home definitely took lives and livelihoods wholesale and willy-nilly. It made the wrecked survivors, the workless, a burden to themselves and the country.

Then you get the American state of Florida. Did it pay a price for giving tyranny a wider berth than New York or California, which puts residents through hell, for their own damn good! Ask fleeing New Yorkers and Californians: why flee to Florida?

To spit on lockdowns, curves refuse to flatten, infection rates head where they like, and one in a few hundred of the infected continue dying with Covid. None of it stops lords of lockdown egging on their countrymen to greater vigilance, even as lockdown tallies spike taller than Covid tallies. How we hug a faulty lifejacket while we sink! The authors of The Price of Panic present graphs of infection rates from which it cannot be seen when lockdowns began and when they ended. The infection rate, we never learn, is no more dependent on lockdown than crime is dependent on jail time.

There is a whole political class aware of that, and so rides on lockdown to do evil. The quest for safety, it grasps, is all-consuming, and surrenders power into the laps of those who crave it. Also the patronage at their disposal is a money-printer. Fortunes are made from milking the market for items and services that hapless subjects have to have to feel safe. Panic is obscenely profitable. Tumble people into a contagion and they’ll pay through the teeth to get their hands on test kits or face shields, or even more on the long awaited vaccine.

It seems too easy for adherents of lockdown to put their consciences to bed by going for broke. ‘Don’t let your guard down until it’s all over. The goal (which began with preventing hospitals being overrun) has turned into stopping Covid deaths. Until the goal is reached, forget that selfish yearning for liberty. Co-operate!

Is it the right goal? Many religious scholars are adamant it is. Saving a life comes before all else. Yes, the economy suffers, but if lockdown saves one infinitely precious human being, so be it.

But what if we can show that multiple infinitely precious human beings have to lose their lives or livelihoods to save that one, who dies anyway? What then? And what is the limit to how many lives may be taken to save the one? Lockdowns, to believe the World Bank, have plunged hundreds of millions in Thirdl World countries back into dire poverty. The UN reckons that 490 million people in 70 countries will become poverty-stricken, reversing a decade of gains. How many lives saved will make it worth ruining 490 million others? Is there a barter rate of exchange? And what if those saved live in luxury, while those ruined on their behalf are dirt poor?

Evidently Rabbi Lord Sacks, who was a scholar and moral philosopher, thought along similar lines. It came to him that the laws on saving our countrymen, far from being absolute, are just moral brain-teasers, for teasing and bathing in their divine glow. To try out the ‘sanctity of precious life’ principle on a global pandemic is to try out killing a cockroach with a bazooka.

Still the sanctity principle has great beauty. The contemplation of it can let the mind of a great scholar soar. “The fact,” says the late rabbi, “that nations, in the face of the pandemic chose life was a significant victory for the Torah’s ethic of the sanctity of life.”

It is what it is. Many of those nations, in their heart of hearts, chose life as a token. Death and ruination they chose as inescapable facts. Choosing both, those nations set a brain-twister to beat them all. How did the life they chose to save connect to the 490 million lives they chose to let penury and death take care of?

Rabbi Lord Sacks had a practical brain to go with his deeply insightful one. He saw through the tinsel curtain. We have no business playing the sanctity card to justify locking down all and sundry. The decrees of lockdown are not unlike cattle trading. The seller masks the defects by giving the animal a blinding good shine. Lockdown is no more scientific than is getting a good price for your decrepit cow.

A rabbi can put it more eloquently, and delicately. ‘The sanctity of life is a high value but not the only one. What matters are consequences. A ruler or government must act in the long-term interests of the people. That is why, though some will die as a result, governments are gradually easing the lockdown (as) the rate of infection falls, to ease distress and restore suspended liberty.”

Suspended? Would-be tyrants and desperados presiding over collapsed economies would disagree. Obstinate Covid is a gift heaven-sent. Strongmen fondle it with both hands, prolonging lockdowns under the pretext of fighting Covid. Did they look up Benjamin Franklin, I wonder? “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

A society that divides off a privileged from a dispensable class is a paradise for control freaks. Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, is one. Angela Marsden’s tearful video would send a thrill down Newsom the tyrant as he watches a ‘deplorable’ subject pouring out her pain. A brutal lockdown can destroy a whole class of business owners beyond hope for recovery, something which no financial crisis has done before. Persecutors in the Newsom mould create unemployment of fabulous proportions, not restricted to the working class, but seizing swathes of enterprising people like restaurateurs.

Los Angeles, indeed, is in the grip of office bearers who could have stepped out of Sodom and Gomorrah. District Attorney George Gascon devised a method to get people to comply with Mayor Garcetti’s malignant stay-home order. The DA will make city streets too dangerous for those who dare venture out their doors. Mr Gascon belongs to a breed of radical prosecutors who are eviscerating law and order so that not too many felons of colour get arrested.

His office will not prosecute a range of offenses. They include driving without a licence, trespassing and resisting arrest. His double whammy is well thought out. On the one hand, the law-abiding will lock themselves indoors; on the other hand law-breakers get a free pass to make trouble on the almost police-free streets.

Some good may rise out of the plague year. If it does, a new social contract must be forged.

Steve Apfel is an economist and a cost accountant, but most of all a prolific author of non-fiction and fiction, published in many journals and sites. His books include: ‘The Paymaster’ (Fiction); Hadrian’s Echo (Non-fiction); ‘A bias thicker than faith’ (non-fiction, for publication soon), and ‘Balaam’s curse’ a WIP biblical novel.