Zero Covid: totalitarian? A cult?

A picture of three or four men wearing masks, holding up a sign saying "We need a Zero Covid strategy", on a rainy day outside Downing Street, London.
A small demonstration for Zero Covid in Britain outside Downing Street. (Source)

I saw a piece by Freddie Sayers (former editor-in-chief of YouGov, now at UnHerd) billed as a look “inside the Zero Covid campaign”, a report from the conference of the “Covid Community Action Summit”, a pro-elimination group, the aim of which was to “share evidence and political advice to help campaigners lobby Western governments to abandon any notion of living alongside the virus, and instead to follow the lead of Asia-Pacific nations in aiming to eliminate the disease entirely within their borders”. The movement has a number of ‘believers’ among scientists who appear in the media regularly, notably Devi Sridhar, as well as MPs who believe in the strategy explicitly or in not so many words, among them Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Hunt. He accuses them of a “a unanimity of world view … that was unsettling; a fusion of overt progressive-Left politics with an ironclad certainty about their interpretation of the science”, referring to people who do not share their conviction as conspiracy theorists, deniers or “herd immunity apologists”.

Sayers’ criticism is that they do not look at “the cost” of achieving and maintaining Zero Covid within a society: first that you would never be able to relax border controls, and second that it is a totalitarian goal best achieved by an authoritarian state such as China. He quotes David Rennie of The Economist saying that you have to scan a QR code to do anything or go anywhere and to have a Covid test to enter or leave Beijing, leaving nobody with any privacy; “it’s very hard to know where Covid containment starts and a Communist police state with an obsession with control kicks in”. But the same isn’t true of other countries which implemented a harsh lockdown early on and stringent border controls and quarantine policies since, leaving their people able to enjoy normal life but not foreign travel, unless they agree to quarantine on return. Australia and New Zealand are not totalitarian societies and their governments are on different sides of the political divide but have both been fairly successful in keeping most of the country Covid-free much of the time. New Zealand has had better success, principally because it’s a fairly small, non-federal island nation while Australia has multiple states over a much wider area.

Sayers tells us that “British voters have not chosen to reject liberal democracy, no matter what the epidemiological allure of a ZeroCovid regime”. British voters were not given a choice in the matter any more than voters anywhere else were. It’s possible that Boris Johnson read the public mood, but that mood was influenced by a long-standing mistrust of politicians that has much to do with the Tories’ other main policy — Brexit — and this has only grown stronger over the course of the past year with one revelation after another of politicians and advisers flagrantly breaching lockdowns, contracts going to political insiders, policies chopping and changing over the space of a week (including the original lockdown which was being denied the Friday before it was imposed). Even during the relatively relaxed period last summer, we had to wear masks when we shopped and keep our distance from everyone else, neither of which are the case in Australia or New Zealand most of the time; the roads were gridlocked as people resumed leisure activities but avoided public transport and local authorities blocked off minor roads to facilitate “low-traffic neighbourhoods”. The country turned itself into a giant leper colony, only for the UK to be the origin of a new, more virulent virulent strain of the disease.

The main problem with achieving Zero Covid in the UK is the same one that was a major stumbling block for Brexit: our food supply. Much of our fresh fruit and vegetables come on trucks from Europe, and we don’t have the infrastructure right now to get produce into the country, and especially to places further north, without the driver coming in with it and possibly running into contact with other people at service stations and logistics depots (logistics companies make efforts to minimise such contact, but cannot eliminate it entirely). We would have to look at how other countries, including Australia and New Zealand which are both English-speaking democracies with similar cultures to our own, secured their food supply while ensuring that nobody entered the country without being quarantined. In the medium to long term, some relaxation of the border and quarantine regime could be achieved by establishing a bloc of ‘safe’ countries which also have the same bio-security rules, such that you could travel between those countries but not into or out of the bloc without going through quarantine. (This would obviously be difficult if the bloc included us and Australia and New Zealand, since flights to both those countries tend to stop in the Middle East or Asia.) The development of more rapid testing for Covid would cut the quarantine time to a few days for those who turn out not to be infected.

The comparison of strong public healthcare and social security with totalitarianism goes back a long way: we recall that Winston Churchill threatened the electorate in 1945 that if Clement Attlee’s Labour party, with its promise of a national health service and welfare state, won the election, they would “have to fall back on some form of Gestapo” to implement it; the voters saw through his rhetoric, no doubt offended given that Labour politicians had contributed to Churchill’s war cabinet and Labour voters had participated in the war effort itself, and voted Attlee in. American conservatives use similar rhetoric to ward off the ‘threat’ of a public healthcare system in the USA, with talk of ‘communism’ and even raising the spectre of “NHS death panels” deciding who lives and who dies. In fact, many democratic countries have not needed any kind of secret police to get people to pay for a national health system; in contrast from fearing the police, people have one less fear, that of illness bankrupting them, of having to sell their home to pay for a hospital bill. That doesn’t happen in the UK. In countries which have eliminated Covid, people do not have to worry about infecting others or being infected by just being around other people. There’s plenty to criticise both Australia’s and New Zealand’s governments about, but as British police raid students’ flats on flimsy grounds, they have not needed a Gestapo yet.

It could well be that it’s no longer practical to pursue Covid elimination in the UK; perhaps that ship sailed last March or even February. Every democracy that has achieved a low to zero Covid casualty rate is either physically or politically an island nation: New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan — countries not closely integrated with their neighbours nor dependent on close surface links with them, as we are with Europe. Whether or not it’s a realistic goal for the UK today, it’s not totalitarian to think a serious health threat should be eliminated when this would mean freedom within our own borders.

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