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OPINIONSocietyMay 12, 2020

A modest defence of the coronavirus contrarians

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Yes they’re annoying and mostly wrong, but the Covid sceptics fulfill a vital societal role, argues Danyl Mclauchlan.

Most contrarian coronavirus theories go something like this. The response to the virus – the lockdowns, global panic, border closures, economic meltdown – is a huge over-reaction. Governments have made decisions based on scientific models forecasting mass fatalities, which were flawed, and have proved to be false. Coronavirus is not actually that bad. Most people who get it never even know they have it. Or, if it is bad, it is no worse than the flu – which killed 80,000 Americans in the winter of 2017-2018! – and the economic damage caused by the response to the virus will lead to a higher mortality rate than the pandemic itself. The cure is worse than the disease! And this is especially true here in New Zealand where our lockdown is much harsher than Singapore’s Sweden’s Australia’s.

In some versions of the theory all of this is just a massive blunder; in others it is a conspiracy perpetuated by scientists and politicians to destroy the private sector, raise taxes and establish a police state. And of course the mainstream media is complicit in all of this: they’re failing to ask the hard questions, failing to hold the government to account because they’re infatuated with the prime minister or financially dependent on the state, or just too stupid to understand what’s happening. .

There’s no one central person or outlet promoting coronavirus contrarianism. It is visible through social media monitoring tools as a series of wildly popular viral emails, Youtube clips and Facebook shares, like this (paywalled) NBR take by former ACT MP Richard Prebble, or this critique by Dr Muriel Newman, also probably-not-coincidentally a former ACT Party MP, or this column by UK-based conservative columnist Toby Young, and this interview with Lord Sumption, a former senior judge in the UK (coronavirus contrarianism is a global phenomenon), and the voices of the ‘Plan B’ academics, led by Auckland epidemiologist Simon Thornley, who vigorously opposed New Zealand’s lockdown and complained that they were being censored by the media (they were widely covered).

The Plan B group’s call was the front-page lead on the Dominion Post, April 14.

The politics of coronavirus contrarianism sloshed around a little before it reached its current state. Many of the early voices warning about the global threat from the mysterious Wuhan outbreak came from the tech industry. Tech’s thinkers have long worried about the existential risk posed by respiratory pandemics, but left-wing media commentators duly mocked them as idiot techbro amateur epidemiologists and anti-Asian racists. We needed to listen to the experts, the discourse went, and the World Health Organisation itself had declared that the virus was less harmful than the flu and was well contained by the Chinese government. Anyone panic-buying masks or stockpiling toilet-paper was a moron.

Then the virus went global, Donald Trump became a coronavirus contrarian, declaring that the disease was a hoax, and the discourse pivoted. Fear of the virus and support for the lockdown became orthodox left-wing positions, and scepticism towards same were taken up by thinkers on the right. (The New Zealand public, largely oblivious to all of this, overwhelmingly supports the lockdown.)

The virus is a ripe area for sceptics and contrarians. There have been a number of failed expert predictions and flawed models, including the “flattening the curve” policy solution popular with epidemiologists in the early stages in the pandemic, until the famous paper from Imperial College pointed out that it overestimated the ICU capacities of modern healthcare systems by several orders of magnitude. This came on top of the much-maligned WHO responses and the IHME forecasts in the US. And because the virus is novel there’s still no consensus around vital questions like the lethality of the pathogen, or how contagious it is, or why it has devastating impacts on some people and not others, or why some people are so much more infectious.

This means you can go shopping on social media for experts who validate your worldview – Stanford’s John Ioannidis is wildly popular – and point to countries experiencing a (thus far) benign pandemic and ask “Why aren’t we listening to them and doing that?” Epidemiologists trying to model the disease are faced with the tricky problem – ubiquitous in the social sciences and often unsolvable – that humans can change our behaviour in response to a model. If you predict a high fatality rate and the population starts social distancing as a response, resulting in few deaths, contrarians can triumphantly point out that your model was wrong.

The contrarians might be right about some things, or even everything, although this feels more and more unlikely by the day. (The great “economy versus the lockdown” debate seems to feature very few economists taking the side of the economy.) But the virus might prove impossible to eliminate or contain, and in a year’s time we might still be cycling in and out of lockdown with our economy in shreds, while Sweden has herd immunity and no more community transmission. Alternately, we might be doing fine, and Sweden might experience a second wave of infections during that country’s flu season and face months of severe lockdown, tens of thousands of deaths, nightly rounds of refrigerated trucks moving the bodies to mass graves. Nobody knows. And the virus is so heterogeneous – the impact of the pandemic differs wildly around the world and even within some countries, seemingly contingent on seasonality, climate, population density, the age structure of the population, the level of air pollution, probably a host of other factors that have yet to be identified. Which means that Sweden might be fine, but if we copied their approach the results for us might be disastrous. Or they might not. Nobody knows.

People enjoy the warm spring weather at Hornstull in Stockholm on April 21, 2020, (Photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

Most governments making hard decisions under uncertainty look at multiple scenarios and try to avoid the worst cases, while contrarians can pick and choose a happy combination of best cases. “Why don’t we just have no lockdown and no pandemic?” They liked Sweden and Singapore a few weeks ago, Australia today. It’s true that Australia looks like they’re having a better lockdown than we are. Maybe we should have done what they did. It’s also true that they’re a lot wealthier than us. Last week their government hired 20,000 redundant Qantas employees and trained them to do track and trace, and they’ve rolled out a smartphone app for automated contract tracing. Our prime minister wants us to contract trace by keeping diaries. It’s helpful to be rich in a crisis.

The neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow has this theory about contrarians. She argues that they might be an evolutionary strategy, that social insects like bees often have population subsets that are “socially unresponsive” and reluctant to go along with whatever the rest of the hive is doing. This pays off on the rare occasions when the rest of the hive does something dumb and gets wiped out. Maybe our own contrarians fulfil a similar function: wrong most of the time, correct occasionally when it counts. It’s a more generous way to think about a group who are often a bit tedious and cranky.

Science, politics and the media are institutions that rely on a certain culture of contrarianism in order to have value: MPs, researchers and journalists who assume that bureaucrats, established experts and/or the government are always right and always trustworthy are not very useful. We’re currently experiencing a moment of national unity, and this is mostly a good thing, but there’s always a certain amount of conformity and intolerance towards dissent built into nationalist sentiment, so we’re seeing politicians and journalists who critique or question the government come under sustained attack from the government’s supporters and the public. The fiercest backlash has been directed towards Simon Bridges – which I get: I too find him hard to like – but whose job title is, literally, Leader of the Opposition, and the parliamentary press gallery, who’ve dared to ask impertinent and disrespectful questions of the prime minister and her officials.

There are always cranky, conspiratorial anti-government critiques circulating online, and there are always supporters of the government-of-the-day screaming that the media are a fifth column and dissent is treason. But both of these phenomena seem very intense right now. Probably because we’re all stuck stuck at home, and anxious and bored, and watching the livestreamed press conferences and select committees and either feeling patriotic and supportive of the state, or oppressed and tyrannised by it. And media-bashing is every lazy pseudo-intellectual’s favourite pastime (as an aside, it’s been very revealing to see how many of our media and political experts – both self-appointed and those who have advanced degrees in these subjects, comment on them and even teach them at tertiary level – have revealed that they’ve never actually seen a political press conference before, and have no idea how the news is made, or understand why we have an adversarial political system or the rule of law.)

I trust the prime minister a lot more than her critics do. But I also believe that a lot of her cabinet ministers are incompetent, and others are highly unscrupulous, and that this government makes operational and policy blunders on a scale we haven’t seen in our last few decades of technocratic centrism (as I was writing this the news broke that the entire lockdown may have been illegal). And they’re currently making huge decisions based on incomplete information because there is no expert consensus or reliable data available.

So I think there’s value to disrespectful questions and politicised critiques, and even some of the contrarianism, even if a lot of it is misguided or in bad faith, or simply wrong. And I think we need a space for those critiques in our mainstream politics and media instead of shouting it down and leaving it to circulate on the shadowy fringes of the internet. Because the experts are not always right and the government is not always trustworthy. If contrarians warn about the danger to our freedom in this moment, and it makes us more vigilant and we remain free, does it mean the contrarians were wrong?

Keep going!