Sunday, October 18, 2020

Science or Right-wing Libertarianism?

  The “Great Barrington declaration” on the COVID-19 pandemic has called for an immediate resumption of “life as normal” for everyone but the “vulnerable”, fuelled these notions by casting doubt on the utility of lockdown restrictions. “We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity”, it stated. The declaration’s core assumption is that population immunity will be achieved by allowing life to go on as normal and shielding only the most vulnerable from the virus.  The thrust of its argument is based on a false opposition between those who argue for lockdown and those who are against it, when in fact lockdowns are one of numerous measures that scientists have called for, and are seen as a short-term last resort to regain control. And shutting away the most vulnerable as life continues as normal is not only inhumane, but impossible: by this measure, the carers, household members and frequent close contacts of vulnerable people would also need to isolate. Moreover, young people with pre-existing conditions they don’t yet know about can be equally susceptible, and “long Covid”, with its debilitating host of symptoms, affects people of different ages.

The signing ceremony had been carefully orchestrated for media attention, with a slick website and video produced to accompany the event. Within hours of its launch, it had seeded political and ideological impact disproportionate with its scientific significance. Its three signatories were later  to be received by Alex Azar, the US secretary of health and human services, and by Scott Atlas, recently appointed as Donald Trump’s health adviser, who tweeted  that “top scientists all over the world are lining up with the @realDonaldTrump #Covid_19 policy”. And on a call convened by the White House, two senior officials in Trump’s administration cited the declaration. The trio of scientists who fronted the declaration were able to put the weight of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions behind their statements – Stanford, Harvard and Oxford – giving the declaration a sheen of respectability. The views of these scientists about lockdown and the pursuit of herd immunity are no doubt sincerely held (though, notably, not published in any peer-reviewed scientific articles)

When scientists disagree, we expect them to provide evidence for their position. Yet the declaration’s many contentious statements are unreferenced – and the manner of its launch seems designed to amplify publicity over substance. If anything, the tactics employed in this performance have serious implications for the public’s trust in scientists.

The truth is that a strategy of pursuing “herd immunity” is nothing more than a fringe view. There is no real scientific divide over this approach, because there is no science to justify its usage in the case of Covid-19.  The president of the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences describes the declaration’s proposals as “unethical and simply not possible”. The science is clear: attaining herd immunity to coronavirus via uncontrolled infection is a fringe view, peddled by a minority with no evidence to back up their position. 

It is already clear that the declaration is being used to legitimise a libertarian agenda. It was a piece of political theatre. Indeed, some authors have questioned if it was ever anything about health, or whether its motivations were always purely economic; as the professor of political economy Richard Murphy put it, the declaration was “the economics of neoliberalism running riot … revealing in the process its utter indifference to the interests of anyone but those who can ‘add value’ within that system”.  

The American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), where the declaration was signed, is a libertarian thinktank that is, in its own words, committed to “pure freedom” and wishes to see the “role of government … sharply confined”. The institute has a history of funding controversial research – such as a study extolling the benefits of sweatshops supplying multinationals for those employed in them – while its statements on climate change largely downplay the threats of the environmental crisis. It is a partner in the Atlas network of thinktanks, which acts as an umbrella for free-market and libertarian institutions, whose funders have included tobacco firmsExxonMobil and the Koch brothers. Rightwing free-market foundations and institutions have long attempted to savage the public reputation of well-intentioned policies such as those aimed at curbing ecological threats and limiting smoking.

We see at play in the Great Barrington declaration: discredit the scientific consensus, spread confusion about what the right response is and sow the seeds of doubt. It seems that lockdown restrictions aimed at bringing the virus under control are merely the latest target in this rightwing stealth campaign.

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