How Two Conflicting COVID Stories Shattered Society
Authored by Gabrielle Bauer via The Brownstone Institute,
The story went like this:
There is a virus going around and it’s a bad one. It’s killing people indiscriminately and will kill many more. We must fight it with everything we’ve got. Closing businesses, closing schools, canceling all public events, staying home…whatever it takes, for as long as it takes. It’s a scientific problem with a scientific solution. We can do this!
There was another story simmering under the first one.
It went like this:
There is a virus going around. It’s nasty and unpredictable, but not a show stopper. We need to take action, but nothing so drastic as shutting down society or hiding out for years on end. Also: the virus is not going away. Let’s do our very best to protect those at higher risk. Sound good?
[Editor: this is an excerpt from Blindsight Is 2020, by Gabrielle Bauer, now available from Brownstone.]
The first story traveled far and wide in a very short time. People blasted it on the nightly news and shouted it to each other on Twitter. They pronounced it the right story, the righteous story, the true story. The second story traveled mainly underground. Those who aired it in public were told to shut up and follow the science. If they brought up the harms of closing down society, they were reminded that the soldiers in the World War 1 trenches had it much worse. If they objected to placing a disproportionate burden on children and youth, they were accused of not caring about old people. If they breathed a word about civil liberties, they were told that freedumbs had no place in a pandemic.
The first story was a war story: an invisible enemy had invaded our land and we had to pour all our resources into defeating it. Everything else—social life, economic life, spiritual life, happiness, human rights, all that jazz—could come later. The second story was an ecological story: a virus had entered and recalibrated our ecosystem. It looked like we couldn’t make it go away, so we had to find a way to live with it while preserving the social fabric.
The two stories continued to unfold in tandem, the gulf between them widening with each passing month. Beneath all the arguments about the science lay a fundamental difference in worldview, a divergent vision of the type of world needed to steer humanity through a pandemic: A world of alarm or equanimity? A world with more central authority or more personal choice? A world that keeps fighting to the bitter end or flexes with a force of nature?
This book is about the people who told the second story, the people driven to explore the question: Might there be a less drastic and destructive way to deal with all this?
As a health and medical writer for the past 28 years, I have a basic familiarity with infectious disease science and an abiding interest in learning more. But my primary interest, as a journalist and a human taking my turn on the planet, lies in the social and psychological side of the pandemic—the forces that led the first story to take over and drove the second story underground.
Many smart people have told the second story: epidemiologists, public health experts, doctors, psychologists, cognitive scientists, historians, novelists, mathematicians, lawyers, comedians, and musicians. While they didn’t always agree on the fine points, they all took issue with the world’s single-minded focus on stamping out a virus and the hastily conceived means to this end.
I have selected 46 of these people to help bring the lockdown-skeptical perspective to life. Some of them are world famous. Others have a lower profile, but their fresh and powerful insights give them pride of place on my list. They lit up my own way as I stumbled through the lockdowns and the byzantine set of rules that followed, bewildered at what the world had become.
I see them as the true experts on the pandemic. They looked beyond the science and into the beating human heart. They looked at the lockdown policies holistically, considering not only the shape of the curve but the state of the world’s mental and spiritual health. Recognizing that a pandemic gives us only bad choices, they asked the tough questions about balancing priorities and harms.
Questions like these: Should the precautionary principle guide pandemic management? If so, for how long? Does the aim of stopping a virus supersede all other considerations? What is the common good, and who gets to define it? Where do human rights begin and end in a pandemic? When does government action become overreach? An article in the Financial Times puts it this way: “Is it wise or fair to impose radical limits on the freedom of all with no apparent limits in sight?”
Now that three years have gone by, we understand that this virus doesn’t bend to our will. Serious studies (detailed in subsequent chapters) have called the benefits of the Covid policies into question while confirming their harms. We’ve entered the fifty shades of moral grey. We have the opportunity—and the obligation—to reflect on the world’s choice to run with the first story, despite the havoc it wreaked on society.
I think of the parallel Covid stories as the two sides on a long-playing vinyl album (which tells you something about my age). Side A is the first story, the one with all the flashy tunes. Side B, the second story, has the quirky, rule-bending tracks that nobody wants to play at parties. Side B contains some angry songs, even rude ones. No surprise there: when everyone keeps telling you to shut up, you can’t be blamed for losing patience.
Had team A acknowledged the downsides of locking up the world and the difficulty of finding the right balance, team B might have felt a tad less resentful. Instead, the decision makers and their supporters ignored the skeptics’ early warnings and mocked their concerns, thereby fueling the very backlash they had hoped to avoid.
Side A has been dominating the airwaves for three years now, its bellicose tunes etched into our brains. We lost the war anyway and there’s a big mess to clean up. Side B surveys the damage.
Many books about Covid proceed in chronological order, from the lockdowns and vaccine rollout through the Delta and Omicron waves, offering analysis and insight at each stage. This book takes a different approach, with a structure informed by people and themes, rather than events.
Each chapter showcases one or more thought leaders converging on a specific theme, such as fear, freedom, social contagion, medical ethics, and institutional overreach. There’s oncologist and public health expert Vinay Prasad, who explains why science—even very good science—cannot be “followed.” Psychology professor Mattias Desmet describes the societal forces that led to Covid groupthink.
Jennifer Sey, whose principles cost her a CEO position and a million dollars, calls out the mistreatment of children in the name of Covid. Lionel Shriver, the salty novelist of We Need To Talk About Kevin fame, reminds us why freedom matters, even in a pandemic. Zuby, my personal candidate for world’s most eloquent rapper, calls out the hubris and harms of zero-risk culture in his pithy tweets. These and the other luminaries featured in the book help us understand the forces that shaped the dominant narrative and the places where it lost the plot.
Along with the featured 46, I’ve drawn from the writings of numerous other Covid commentators whose sharp observations cut through the noise. Even so, my list is far from exhaustive. In the interest of balancing perspectives from various disciplines, I’ve left out dozens of people I admire and no doubt hundreds more I don’t know about. My choices simply reflect the aims of the book and the serendipitous events that placed some important dissenting thinkers in my path.
To maintain the book’s focus I’ve stepped away from a few subplots, notably the origin of the virus, early treatments, and vaccine side effects. These topics merit separate analyses by subject matter experts, so I respectfully cede the territory to them. And what they find under the hood, while obviously important, doesn’t alter the core arguments in this book. I also steer clear of speculations that the lockdown policies were part of a premeditated social experiment, being disinclined to attribute to malice what human folly can readily explain (which is not to say that malfeasance didn’t occur along the way).
In case it needs to be said, the book does not discount the human toll of the virus or the grief of people who lost loved ones to the disease. It simply argues that the path chosen, the Side A path, violated the social contract underpinning liberal democracies and came at an unacceptably high cost. If there’s a central theme running through the book, it’s exactly this. Even if lockdowns delayed the spread, at what cost? Even if closing schools made a dent in transmission, at what cost? Even if mandates increased compliance, at what cost? In this sense, the book is more about philosophy and human psychology than about science—about the trade-offs that must be considered during a crisis, but were swept aside with Covid.
The book also calls out the presumption that lockdown skeptics “don’t take the virus seriously” or “don’t care.” This notion infused the narrative from the get-go, leading to some curious logical leaps. In the spring of 2020, when I shared my concerns about lockdowns with an old friend, the next words out of her mouth were: “So you think Covid is a hoax?” Some two years later, a colleague gave me a thumbs-up for hosting a woman from war-torn Ukraine, but not without adding that “I didn’t expect it from a lockdown skeptic.” (I give her points for honesty, if nothing else.)
You can take the virus seriously and oppose lockdowns. You can respect public health and decry the suspension of fundamental civil liberties during a pandemic. You can believe in saving lives and in safeguarding the things that make life worth living. You can care about today’s older people and feel strongly about putting children first. It’s not this or that, but this and that.
The pandemic is both a collective story and a collection of individual stories. You have your story and I have mine. My own story began in the Brazilian city of Florianópolis, known to locals as Floripa. I lived there for five months in 2018 and returned two years later to reconnect with the gaggle of friends I had made there. (It’s ridiculously easy to make friends in Brazil, even if you’re over 60 and have varicose veins.)
March was the perfect month to visit the island city, signaling the end of the summer rains and the retreat of the tourist invasion. I had a tight schedule: Basílico restaurant with Vinício on Monday, Daniela beach with Fabiana on Tuesday, group hike along the Naufragados trail on Wednesday, just about every day of the month packed with beaches and trails and people, people, people.
Within three days of my arrival, Brazil declared a state of emergency and Floripa began folding in on itself. One after the other, my favorite hangouts closed up: Café Cultura, with its expansive sofas and full-length windows, Gato Mamado, my go-to place for feijão, Etiquetta Off, where I indulged my sartorial cravings… Beaches, parks, schools, all fell like dominoes, the world’s most social people now cut off from each other.
My friend Tereza, who had introduced me to ayahuasca two years earlier, offered to put me up in her house for the next month, amid her rabbits and dogs and assorted Buddhist and vegan lodgers. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. But Prime Minister Trudeau and my husband were urging me to come home, and as much as I loved Brazil I couldn’t risk getting stranded there. I hopped on a plane to São Paulo, where I spent 48 hours awaiting the next available flight to Toronto.
When I finally got home and flung open the front door, Drew greeted me with his right arm stretched out in front of him, his hand facing me like a stop sign. “Sorry we can’t hug,” he said, fear traveling across his face. He pointed to the stairs to the basement. “See you in two weeks.”
There wasn’t much natural light in the basement, but I did have my computer, which kept me abreast of the memes of the moment. Stay home, save lives. We’re all in this together. Don’t be a Covidiot. Keep your social distance. The old normal is gone. It felt alien and graceless and “off” to me, though I couldn’t yet put my finger on why. Ignoring my misgivings, I slapped a “stay home, save lives” banner on my Facebook page, right under my cover photo. A few hours later I took it down, unable to pretend my heart was in this.
Every once in a while I would go upstairs to get something to eat and find Drew washing fruits and vegetables, one by one. Lysol on the kitchen counter, Lysol in the hallway, paper towels everywhere. “Six feet,” he would mumble as he scrubbed.
The fourteen days of quarantine came and went, and I rejoined Drew at the dining table. On the face of it, the restrictions didn’t change my life much. I continued to work from home, as I had done for the past 25 years, writing health articles, patient information materials, medical newsletters, and white papers. All my clients wanted materials on Covid—Covid and diabetes, Covid and arthritis, Covid and mental health—so business was brisk.
Even so, the new culture forming around the virus troubled me mightily: the pedestrians leaping away if another human passed by, the taped-up park benches, the shaming, the snitching, the panic… My heart ached for the young people, including my own son and daughter in their dreary studio apartments, suddenly barred from the extracurricular activities and gigs that made university life tolerable for them. People said it was all part of the social contract, what we had to do to protect each other. But if we understand the social contract to include engaging with society, the new rules were also breaking the contract in profound ways.
Stay safe, stay safe, people muttered to each other, like the “praise be” in The Handmaid’s Tale. Two weeks of this strange new world, even two months, I could countenance. But two months were turning into the end of the year. Or maybe the year after that. As long as it takes. Really? No cost-benefit analysis? No discussion of alternative strategies? No regard for outcomes beyond the containment of a virus?
People told me to adapt, but I already knew how to do that. Job loss, financial downturn, illness in the family—like most people, I put one foot in front of the other and powered through. The missing ingredient here was acquiescence, not adaptability.
I connected with an old-school psychiatrist who believed in conversation more than prescriptions, and scheduled a string of online sessions with him. I called him Dr. Zoom, though he was more of a philosopher than a medical man. Our shared quest to understand my despair took us through Plato and Foucault, deontology and utilitarianism, the trolley problem and the overcrowded lifeboat dilemma. (Thanks, Canadian taxpayers. I mean that sincerely.)
And then, slowly, I found my tribe: scientists and public health experts and philosophy professors and lay people with a shared conviction that the world had lost its mind. Thousands and thousands of them, all over the planet. Some of them lived right in my city. I arranged a meetup, which grew into a 100-strong group we called “Questioning Lockdowns in Toronto,” or Q-LIT. We met in parks, on restaurant patios, at the beach, and between meetings stayed connected through a WhatsApp chat that never slept. Zoom therapy has its place, but there’s nothing more healing than learning you’re not alone.
To those who have traveled a similar path, I hope this book provides that same sense of affirmation. But I’ve also written it for the Side A people, for those who sincerely upheld the narrative and despaired at the skeptics. Wherever you fall along the spectrum of viewpoints, I invite you to read the book with a curious mind. If nothing else, you’ll meet some interesting and original thinkers. And if their voices help you understand Side B, even a little, we all win.