Dr. Paul Frijters: COVID Policy Much Deadlier Than COVID
“We are living through huge food price increases … And in a way, that’s on us.”
Much of the world has spent the last two years modeling how different policies will reduce COVID-19 cases or deaths—with little to no regard to how they damage humanity. Today, I sit down with a man whose job is to actually quantify these harms.
Paul Frijters is a visiting professor of wellbeing economics at the London School of Economics, a social philosopher, and co-author of “The Great Covid Panic: What Happened, Why, and What to Do Next.”
“There’s kind of a madness that’s crept into the population looking for other crazy things to do … We are as it were in a madly stampeding herd,” Frijters says.
Jan Jekielek: Dr. Paul Frijters, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Paul Frijters: It’s great to see you, Jan Jekielek.
Mr. Jekielek: Wonderful pronunciation. You’re the author of The Great COVID Panic: What Happened, Why, and What To Do Next. This isn’t the typical book about COVID that you’ll see on the bookshelf. When did you first realize that something was going very wrong?
Dr. Frijters: It would have been early March 2020. Up until then, in January and February, I went along with what was happening in the media and what the medical authorities told us we had to do. I basically didn’t give it much thought. I thought, “Well, who knows? Maybe this is a terrible disease like the plague.” In which case, it’s going to be all hands on deck and we’re going to do draconian stuff, because we would anyway if there is that kind of lethality.
But looking at the early data, I wasn’t too worried, and neither were my students, or my society, which I thought of as both the Netherlands and England, because my dad was Dutch and my mother was English, and I was living in London at the time. But then, suddenly, my students started to be very, very anxious and the government was clearly moving towards lockdown.
I said, “What is going on here?” Then, I started to look into the data myself. I had been a professor of health economics for 10 years in Brisbane, Australia, and I knew how to read the models, and I knew where to look for the viral and immunology stuff. I could read the Diamond Princess (cruise ship) data. I could read the data that was coming out of Wuhan about how the virus was really only affecting the elderly and even then only a small minority.
Then I used the skills that I had acquired in London in the previous five years on understanding well-being. I had developed a methodology for measuring lots of different effects and different dimensions. I could apply that to what was coming in terms of disruption. I could evaluate, “Okay, how many lives are we going to lose in the future, because of the enormous crash in the economy that is now being created by the various closures?”
I could calculate what the mental health crisis would look like. I laid that out against the best estimates as to what these lockdowns were supposed to do. It was like comparing a mountain with a mole heap, and the mountain was the cost. The mole heap was the benefits and the best state of the world. So, the costs are going to be a mountain, and the benefits, at best, a mole heap. What the hell is going on? Something weird is going on.
Then you start to look at child psychology. You start to see it in terms of a panic. You start to see it in terms of institutional overreach, with the medical authorities running away with their own power lust. Then, you start to look differently at the modelers and what everybody else is doing. That’s when I really thought, “Okay, something is amiss,” and I went into a highly analytical mode.
I thought, “Okay, I’m going to research this. I’m going to get to the bottom of what is going on and what we should do next.” Already in March 2020, I started writing pieces on, “How should we reform our institutions?” Back then I was still stupid. I was still believing, “Look, in a month’s time we’re going to see that this was stupid.”
I was convinced that the craziness would only last a week or two. Then, it would become clear to people what they were doing to their jobs, to their economy, to the lonely, to the elderly, and their own kids. I thought it would be a blip. But wow, two weeks turned into two years. Many curves have crashed, but it wasn’t the COVID one, was it? The curve that crashed was the healthiness of our lives, the quality of our social interactions, the ability to travel, and our freedom. Lots of things got crushed, but not COVID.
Mr. Jekielek: Early on, when you said you were “stupid”, did you reach out to your peers and professors in economy and other related disciplines? What were they saying?
Dr. Frijters: Yes. One of the first indications that something was amiss was by an Australian colleague of mine, Robert Gregory. He’s a very smart, switched-on guy, who was in China in January and February, I believe. He emailed me. He said, “Look, this is going to be very big.” He too couldn’t really see what the fuss was about, because he had also looked at the data and said, “Look, compared to the cost, this doesn’t look worth all this effort.”
I reached out to Gigi Foster, a long-time co-author of mine, also on this particular book, but also to some of my students and to fellow professors, “Can you believe what is happening? Most of those I contacted were like-minded, “Oh, no, this is weird stuff that is going on.” Then we formed a bit of a group.
Of course, there were those who were fully going along with the madness, and that was a nasty surprise. But we then started analyzing it as a group and exchanging information and helping each other with media appearances. It was clear that we thought we were one of the very many academic groups gearing up into anti-mode, if you like.
But that wasn’t the case. There weren’t all that many, but they were there more internationally. So, then you find your international brothers and sisters, as it were. There has been a huge fraternizing among the academic community that has seen this as a problem. We sought each other out. Now, here we are at the Brownstone Institute, people from four or five continents.
Mr. Jekielek: For myself and many people that might be watching this, early on we were just simply unaware that this discussion was being had. We only heard a very different side of the story. So how did you square that?
Dr. Frijters: Yes. The reaction of the media was a huge surprise to me at the beginning. I thought there would be much more diversity. In some places like Australia, there were media outlets like The Australian with Michael Crichton, but also Sky News, who had their reporter who was very much against the lockdowns.
So you did have these green shoots of reason. But the vast majority of the media, including in Britain, the US, and much of Europe were indeed highly complicit. They had a very propagandist style and were more than happy to go with full fear. It became clear, via the Great Barrington Declaration, that in fact there were many, many more of us, and were just keeping silent.
That declaration by Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta reached close to a million scientists and interested intellectuals all over the world who signed on to what was a much more sensible approach to the pandemic—look after those most vulnerable, and let the rest get on with their lives, because life has to be lived.
Something like, and you probably know the numbers better, 700 to 800,000 people signed up within a few weeks. That was a real signal, “Okay, we are not alone. We are not alone.” There must be particular reasons as to why so few voices are heard, but in terms of petitions by top scientists around the world, this is unprecedented. You won’t find this for climate change. You won’t find this for lots of other things that are contested by special interests.
If you started to look carefully within every country, there were groups of doctors speaking out very bravely, and often losing their livelihoods as a result. There were policemen who were speaking out because they didn’t want to beat up demonstrators. There were teachers speaking up because they wanted to teach their kids, rather than force them to be at home and forgo all that learning and all that social interaction.
There were mothers speaking out, there were lawyers speaking out, and court cases were happening everywhere. There really was a lot of resistance activity in the world, but it was just that the mainstream media wasn’t reporting on it. But there was that whole underground of resistance which should have been the mainstream, but was de-platformed, as we now would say.
When that became clear to me and my fellow resistance fighters, you no longer feel alone. You know that there are many, many millions around the world who are putting their livelihoods at stake to stand up in their own communities and do something. In that sense, there’s been a resurrection of civil society, and that has been very heartening to watch.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. That is fascinating. How did you channel your resistance other than writing this book?
Dr. Frijters: Effectively. This was in collaboration with Gigi Foster, and also with other academics from around the world. You decide to do what you’re best at. “What are my skills and how can I throw them into the balance?” I am not a great media personality. I’m not a politician. I’m not a great organizer at setting up an institute like Jeffrey Tucker. I don’t run a school. But I do analytics.
I am a well-being, cost-benefit guy. So that’s what I did. I wrote methodological books. I’m also very much a systems thinker who spends a long time thinking about how institutions function, and how we can improve them. I’ve worked for many governments around the world, helping them in various policy areas. So, I could write about that, “How does the bureaucracy function, and what went wrong? What could be done better?”
“How does this kind of aspect of the world work?” I knew about health, so I knew how to read the models. I knew what was wrong with them and how science functions. I saw that as my task, putting into perspective all the various aspects of our social economic system, and really explaining to the rest of the resistance what the hell is going on. But I am also looking at where our hope lies, where the weak points are in terms of the elites that have now risen, and also at the forces that have now risen. “Where should we look to in the future for a brighter future?” And so, I thought, “Okay, that’s what I’m good at. So I’ll do that.” And then, you team up with others who are good with other stuff.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re going to talk about all this, especially your well-being methodology. I wasn’t aware of it for a long time, but it seems obvious once I understood a little more about it. Before we go there, right now we have these big multilateral organizations meeting in Switzerland.
Right now at the World Health Assembly there have been policies over the last two years which a number of people in this resistance would describe as a power grab. So how do you view that from your looking at these institutions and how they function?
Dr. Frijters: Definitely, there has been a power grab, but I tend to think of that as the power grab of lots of small Mafia-like corporations. They are all looking at how to play the field, how to get the most out of it for themselves, and they’re subject to all kinds of influences. So the WHO will not be in one room with 10,000 other important players and strategizing how they’re going to grab power from the world population in the coming two years, because you can never get that kind of conspiracy off the ground.
But what you can do as WHO is to move with your sponsors, your major backers, and put out a plan on how to get more power. What you can do as WHO, if an institution like the European Union or a particular country is looking to siphon off their own responsibility for the failures by making it a World Health Organization failure, you can double down on your mistake by pretending this is now world policy, which effectively is what’s going on now.
Then you’re going to go, “Oh yes, we’d like more power, please. No, of course, we all did the right thing.” You will make that trade. We get to be responsible with more power. So I tend to see this very much more as opportunistic power grabbing. And in a way, one way to think of that is as if these are all separate firms and they’re all playing in a market. And in this market, the money comes from governments. It can come from Bill Gates Foundations, or other very rich individuals.
It can come from departments. It can come from think tanks. But it can also come from consumers. They’re essentially shopping around for the narratives that they can tell via which they get more money, power, and prestige. There are winners and losers in that. We haven’t heard much from the FAO (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) in this period, because it doesn’t have a very happy message.
The airline industry hasn’t been getting more powerful, because they have lost a lot of position. The non-internet firms have lost a lot of power too, because the internet firms have grabbed it. So it is a winner and loser landscape. The winners have run riot, as winners do. In that sense, I don’t see evil people. I see opportunistic people.
Humans are all a little bit opportunistic and they were in the fortunate position to be able to grab more power in particular ways. And they went for it. I hate to say it, but most of us would have done the same. So I tend to blame the system. I tend to look for systemic solutions rather than saying, “These are evil people. We need to get rid of them and replace them with others,” because I always believe that others will be the same in similar circumstances.
So I look to change the institutions. This is very much a type of “American Revolution” thinking. They didn’t trust anybody. They were afraid that anyone among them would be the king. So they wanted a system in which no one needed to be trusted. It’s very much a separation of power here in America. I’m very similar minded. We should not confuse good governance with good people.
Good governance has to do with good institutions, in which everybody is slightly mistrusted all the time. That’s what we should go to. It has become too centralized, with too much power concentrated in too few hands. That needs to change.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, that was actually something new to me. They actually created it to be inefficient very much in the vein of what you’re talking about.
Dr. Frijters: Totally. We’re going towards that kind of time again. In a way, in the last 50 years we’ve been lulled into the fantasy that everything is possible. There are no limits. Government can be good or the business leaders can be good and we’re such a nice species. We’re going to solve all the problems. It’s the “Yes, we can” mentality of world politics.
The UN is a dream factory, which brings out that kind of thing as well, “We’re going to be all things to all people in all generations.” That’s not how they fought at the time of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. They had just come off the back of many, many centuries of autocratic rule by princes and kings who had their own interest in mind, not that of the population.
These American revolutionaries were merchants and some were slave owners and they knew full well the darkness of the human soul. So they didn’t expect anything different. They didn’t want their institutions to be based on good people who do good things, which was something seen as very stupid at that time.
You don’t trust. You trust competition between people. And yes, you build inefficiencies. You build in competing powers. You build in power rotation, all kinds of mechanisms, the separation of the states, and lots of things. We’re going back to that kind of time again, where we have to become honest once again about what humanity is.
We didn’t need to be honest for a long time. We could be lulled into the fairy tale that we’re good people if only we give everybody a chance. Now we’ve got to deal with the reality that we’re an opportunistic species. We have to set up our institutions in such a way that opportunism doesn’t destroy us all.
Mr. Jekielek: I suspect that you have started to explain it already, but I’m not sure I see it entirely. How do you explain elite media, elite bureaucracy, the deep state or the administrative state, these huge bureaucracies that have been developed both in the U.S. and around the world that hold a lot of power? A lot of these bureaucracies function in lock step to create a perception that, actually, there’s only one way to view this. And if you don’t view it this way, there’s something probably wrong with you, which you just mentioned.
Dr. Frijters: Yes. I see that as the outcome of a longer standing process. The media has become more and more connected over the world, not just in the last two years, but over the last 30 years. The stories that we surround ourselves with have become more and more similar, and there is more and more similar entertainment as well.
Within that kind of environment, the politicians start to sing from the same hymn sheet. They start to have very similar opinions. Within that kind of environment, if a huge shock comes that has an emotional contagion to it, the panic and the fear is spread via social media first. Then it spreads in mainstream media channels, first in China, then East Asia, then Europe, then the U.S., and then Latin America. Then all the politicians fall in line because if they don’t, they will be pushed aside.
With this COVID panic, out of sheer survival, they saw the stampeding herd and thought, “Well, I’m the leader now. If I don’t go along with this herd, I won’t be the next leader. So I’m going to go along with this. I’m going to be this herd leader.” These are opportunistic politicians. They start looking around, “Who can I give the favorable contracts to?” People come to them, “Shouldn’t we test everybody via my company? Shouldn’t we give everybody vaccines and masks via my company?”
So then you’re in a new environment where lots of things are changing. I don’t know if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, but as Littlefinger said, “Chaos is a ladder.” Here we definitely see chaos as being a ladder, with all these little opportunities to make more money and to grab more power. We’ve seen that kind of free-for-all where there’s been lots and lots of opportunity-grabbing by thousands of people all over the world.
And so it’s that. So in the stampeding herds, those smart, savvy, politically-oriented operators have outfoxed the rest of us.
Mr. Jekielek: And then there are some people, including yourself and the Great Barrington folks who say, “Hey, wait a minute.” Isn’t there potentially a huge cost in taking that position?
Dr. Frijters: Yes. And I do think for myself. I haven’t had many negative reactions on this. But I have not been in the limelight as much as the three leaders of the Great Barrington Declaration who have suffered a lot personally. My co-author, Gigi Foster, was really out there in Australia and was hounded for a while. But I know and support many people in many countries who have really been at the tip of the spear, particularly in the media, and by God, their life has been tough.
Up and down the Western world, lots of doctors got fired for speaking out or for giving their patients sensible information about the risks and benefits of both early treatments and vaccines. That was certainly labeled as misinformation. Whereas, up until 2020, that was the legal duty of every doctor. But now it’s become implicitly mandated to lie and break the law.
I very much sympathize with all the people who’ve dared to speak out and have suffered for it. That’s happened to many of my friends and to a large degree still continues now. But I do sense the tide is turning, at least in the U.S.
Mr. Jekielek: Traditionally, the doctor-patient relationship was sacrosanct. There would be some guidance from a body like the CDC or the FDA, depending on what type of issue. But the doctor was responsible, and that was very clear. It wasn’t expected to follow some sort of overarching guidance that is the same for every patient, because not every patient is the same. This is obvious.
Suddenly they became unobvious to these large institutions. This is what makes everyone suspicious, doesn’t it? They are suddenly dictating all sorts of things, in academia, in government, and in these multilateral institutions. The concentration of power seems to have shifted. Is this the logical conclusion of this process that you’ve been watching?
Dr. Frijters: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Please tell me more.
Dr. Frijters: I think more of the latter. So it’s definitely been a power grab by the CDC, obviously, and famously. But if you look at what has happened in the last 20 years, it’s already the case that doctors had to deal more and more with hospital administrators. They were tapped on the shoulders by ethics boards. They were sent memos by government agencies and the CDC and the National Health Institute.
More and more, they were living in an environment in which they were supposed to do lots and lots and lots of red-tape documentation. There was a huge amount of regulation. It is even worse in countries outside of the U.S. They had already been reduced to puppets, to a certain degree. An physician-in-training would now be a kind of lackey for the first 15 years of their professional existence—three years of just doing exams, doing as you’re told, being a good boy or a good girl.
You go into residency for another three years and then an apprenticeship system. Finally, you start out in a junior practice and you are basically close to your forties before you’re actually supposed to be responsible. So after being such a follower, and treated like a minion who should just follow orders, it’s not so strange to think you’ll just keep doing that.
This kind of creeping bureaucratization, controlling every aspect of everything, has been creeping in for the last 20 to 30 years, and not just in the U.S. This is true throughout the Western world. Bureaucracies, including in private companies, have just been growing. There is more and more centralization.
This is not just true of government. This is also true of large corporations. The number of memos that the CEO will send round as to corporate social responsibility or the latest ethical thing that they’ve done has grown just exponentially. As we say in our book, “We now wade through molasses every day.”
How many forms did you fill out this morning? It’s that kind of thing. Do you even know what you consented to when you downloaded an app? You couldn’t possibly know, because that would have required a whole week just to read it. We now go along with it, because it’s become too complex. It’s just easier to comply.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a kind of legalistic society that has emerged. There is an incredibly litigious society in America. In the last few years, I learned of the term, safetyist. Let’s just play it safe, because who knows what will happen? Who knows who will sue us? Who knows what kind of trouble we could have? At least we can be safe. But you argue that this inordinate focus on safety can actually create huge harms.
Dr. Frijters: Totally. The Achilles heel of safetyism has always been that it’s never been about the proportionality of the risks and the benefits. Safetyism has always been about a threat that’s visible now, and I have to be seen as doing something about it. But there are two questions there. Do you actually do something about it? And what harm are you doing while you are seen as doing something about it?
The doctor’s oath, the Hippocratic oath, is “Do no harm.” Safetyism in that sense is just illegal. If you don’t ask the question, “What harm am I doing,” you are violating your oath. This proportionality principle is also in the Nuremberg Code after the second world war. The German Nazis, of course, also abused public health laws and said, “Oh, everything is for the health of the population. We’re going to excise the unhealthy element.”
And so, the proportionality thing is built into public health laws. We have to ask the proportionality question, with at least some semblance of a cost-benefit analysis or else ask, “What harm am I doing?” You need to have a reasonable view of what benefit you’re having. If you’re not openly stating that, then as far as I have been able to ascertain, and I take my cue from lawyers here, we’re looking at illegal actions.
In a sense, those illegal actions have become normal in the last 20 years, because it’s all been about appearing to be safe. But is it truly safe? We’ve seen that with the lockdowns. Take the initial cry, “We’ve got to flatten the curve.” The question was not asked, “What is going to get crushed if we flatten this curve? What are we giving up?” That is the cost question.
But even the benefit question wasn’t asked, “What good is flattening the curve, actually?” It was, “Oh, well, then the hospitals won’t be over-subscribed.” But hospitals are regularly oversubscribed. That is a yearly occurrence, but it’s not the end of the world. Then people help in the community, in the family. You have nurses coming around.
And so, what would the cost actually be if some people can’t go to hospital, just like they wouldn’t be able to every year? It’s a peak season. That question wasn’t asked, and it wasn’t answered. Almost like a totem of faith, it was just presumed, “There will be huge benefits if we don’t overload the hospitals.” I ask, “Why?” I’m the economist asking, “How much is this going to cost us?”
By not asking and answering that question, again, it leads to this safetyism where we’ve got to be seen as doing something. That’s really an abrogation of duty, and it’s illegal as far as I can tell. But also, there’s cruelty in that. There is a disregard for everything one is destroying. They say, “Oh, I must be seen as doing the right thing on this,” They do not ask the question, “Who am I actually killing via my actions? Whose lives am I destroying?”
That’s the banality of evil. That’s exactly what Hannah Arendt talked about. That is lulling yourself into destroying other people’s lives for just this tiny little obsession. Yes, that is just very, very bad and we’ve got to oppose that. We have to think of better systems in which the proportionality question is baked in.
Mr. Jekielek: In New York City, right now as we speak, two to four year olds are required to be masked in schools, the only group of children. Knowing the data, how can this policy be possible?
Dr. Frijters: I know. Isn’t it awful?
Mr. Jekielek: It’s unbelievable to think about. This is my theory—it’s deference to the loudest, most histrionic person or a few people that are definitely afraid that their children will die. So you blanket-apply a policy for everybody based on that. There is really no benefit.
Dr. Frijters: Yes, I know.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s certainly off the charts.
Dr. Frijters: I totally agree with the proportionality, yes. I don’t know an awful lot about New York these days, but I know that they’ve been really crazy the last two years. I don’t know what the reasoning is, but I see it very much as a herd phenomenon. Once the herd is stampeding, it tramples, and it doesn’t look at where it tramples. But subtle cues can suddenly push it in another direction.
It can transform into a war tribe, and suddenly you find yourself in another war, either with Ukraine or with Russia, or in a war about climate change, or whatever it is. Then that becomes the obsession of that particular day, the obsession du jour. This notion that small kids should be masked, which is horrible, becomes like this totem of faith again. It’s like we’re back in the middle ages. “Put a cross on them and the devil won’t get to them.”
Where is the garlic for when the vampires are coming? It’s that kind of mentality. In their heads they have come to this notion that masks are a good thing and protect people. Instead they really just constrict their airways, trap the bacteria between their mouth and that mask, and cause sores. It makes it difficult for these toddlers to recognize faces, basically disrupting their cognitive process for their whole lives. These are skills they will never learn and never get back.
Instead of looking at that, there is this blank staring, this obsession, which can be shared by a whole group. And yes, histrionics plays into this, but there also has to be permission for that. If somebody starts shouting out in the streets, “We should all commit suicide,” I don’t think everybody will commit suicide. There’s always a limit somewhere.
So it’s got to fit in with the previous narrative. It’s got to be in the direction in which the herd had been stampeding and would like to stampede a little bit further, because it’s feels good to stampede.
Mr. Jekielek: I find this particularly disturbing, because most of these restrictions have been taken away. There’s talk now of getting some of them back, because there’s a surge. But from what we know about the Coronaviruses, it surges. It’s going to happen. There’s really no zero-COVID.
Let’s talk about that, zero-COVID orthodoxy. I just had an interview with Michael Senger, a gentleman whose thesis has a lot of very compelling elements. He believes the Chinese regime instituting this unprecedented mass lockdown policy and celebrating its great success basically influenced everybody else to pick the same policy, which nobody previously would really agree to, except in some very specific circumstances, like island nations. What is your take? There’s certainly a herd mentality here. I can see that. But where does the zero-COVID idea come from, and how does this issue of proportionality fit in?
Dr. Frijters: Yes. I see the zero-COVID mentality very much as the logical outgrowth of thinking of a disease as something that is alien to humanity, something that you can excise like it’s dirty. It’s like we are contaminated and life can never be good unless we’re totally decontaminated.
The Nazis had a philosophy that if something was alien to the body, it must be excised. In their case, that meant gypsies, Jews, socialists, and all kinds of other groups they didn’t like. But this idea of zero-COVID also says, “That’s dirty. Basically, the devil is there. We’ve got to oust the devil no matter what, at all costs.”
So it’s a very primitive, medieval mindset, considering what a long history humanity has had with viruses and bacteria, and that we actually are bags of viruses and bacteria. We’ve got lots of them everywhere. We live in that soup. And so, to excise all of that would…
Mr. Jekielek: It would kill you.
Dr. Frijters: It would kill us.
Mr. Jekielek: It would kill you.
Dr. Frijters: We need them.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes.
Dr. Frijters: We need them. So it’s really crazy thinking. But it’s very popular because it fits into our stories of good and evil. That’s evil, so I must get rid of it. On the China story, I did research on China for many years to get a little bit on top of how they think, and what their mentality is. So my reading is slightly different from that of Michael Senger, but it’s 90 per cent the same.
My reading is that, within China, first there was a social media outburst. Outside of the authorities in Wuhan, the doctors spoke up and they captured the local imagination there. The Chinese authorities tried to suppress that because they don’t like panic. This is a disruption of the social order that they find very important. But they couldn’t contain it.
And so, they decided, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” So then they went all macho, “We’re going to fix this. We’re going to be all draconian. Then, of course, they had the problem that to the rest of the world, this looked like crazy because nobody had ever done something like this. According to all the blueprints and the WHO itself, the damage of doing this would far outweigh any benefits. So you shouldn’t do any of this.
In my opinion, the Chinese were very instrumental in propagandizing lockdowns, and were very successful at that. There were other reasons as well as to why it took off from the media. But I do believe that Chinese authorities quite consciously tried to help that along. And that is not so much to do any damage to us, and that’s why I differ from Michael Senger.
I don’t know if he quite understands the Chinese authorities’ mindset or the constraints they have. They don’t care what we do for our sake or to damage us or to help us. That’s not how they think. They care what we do because that tells their population whether the leaders have done the right thing or not. So if we all follow the mistakes of the Chinese authorities, it stops looking like a mistake to the Chinese population.
They then think, “Oh, the Americans did it. The Europeans did it. It must have been the right thing, and we led the world. Then they’re all proud of their leaders. That was the object. The object is internal propaganda. The West doesn’t yet conceive of Chinese politics in that way. We think that they’re strategic and that they’re busy, “How can we plot the damage to the West.”
That’s not really how they think. They’re much more busy with themselves than they are with us. And so, I think that’s a mistake in thinking about China that Michael Senger has there. But the rest I buy. Yes, they propagandize. Also, there would have been funds of the WHO, plus other ways they have tried to influence our media narratives.
But it makes a huge difference whether or not they do that for internal propaganda or external damage, because if it’s all to damage us, then of course they wouldn’t second time round be stupid enough to destroy their biggest economic hub, Shanghai, and to lock down their own country,and also to, by the way, suffer huge reduction in births, which has happened in China.
In 2020, it’s something like 30, 40 per cent less births inside the cities, that’s a huge loss. They really have hampered themselves. That’s not something you do to harm an enemy. That’s something that occurs because you’ve been stupid yourself.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Dr. Frijters: You’re hurting the wrong population. Why do they do that? Well, the Chinese leaders convince themselves of their own propaganda. It’s, “Oh, we did the right thing. We’ve got to show we’re tough again. We’ve got to save the Chinese population.” The fact that they’re actually hurting their own population, they’ll try to bury that because that’s happened many times in the last hundred years.
The Chinese leaders have tried to bury a disaster. That happened in the Great Leap Forward, where 10 to 30 million people probably died. They basically hid that from their own population and said it was a bad harvest due to bad weather. And of course there was also the Cultural Revolution. They increasingly are trying to hide the losses from that.
So it fits their own politics that they’ve done this. This is not some deep strategy towards us. Nobody’s that smart. It’s also not what they care about.
Mr. Jekielek: So zero-COVID basically sweeps the world with a few exceptions, and these are the policies that are instituted. You’re getting a ton of data coming in from all sorts of places. Presumably, you’re plugging them into your wellness system. I don’t know if you have an AI working with your parameters. So what really happened? What was the cost when you look back now?
Dr. Frijters: The cost was very similar to the cost anticipated and openly predicted in publications right at the start of the pandemic. There are dozens of areas that had costs, but let me mention five big ones. One cost and a obvious one that we’re becoming more aware of is the damage to children. If you don’t have children in school, their skills are going to deteriorate, particularly if they don’t have parents at home who are educating their kids, and who have laptops at home.
There are the parents who don’t care that much, or they just are working hard to make ends meet. Then all the kids have is the television and the internet. Those kids are not going to accumulate skills, and they’re also going to lose social abilities. They’re not going to interact with other kids, because they’re stuck at home. They’re not supposed to be with other kids, because that is proclaimed to be dangerous.
That’s going to cost them emotional development. It is going to cost them social development, and social intelligence. It will cost them for the rest of their lives. In that sense, we have scarred a whole generation of kids, and they’re not going to get these skills back. This is a done deal now. If it were easy to get back, we would have done this education differently.
Now we know that we’ve scarred them for life, a whole generation of American children and European children. It’s even worse in parts of Africa and Asia, where sometimes schools have been disrupted for almost two years. Some of the girls are never going to come back to school. They’ve been married off. It’s a totally different trajectory that they’re now on. So that’s one big cost.
We could see that coming, because in April 2020 we could already see it in the very early data coming out that pointed to the anxiety of children, and their inability to learn. Then reports were coming out of various educational institutions in mid-2020. Some international organizations were ringing the alarm bells, “A disaster is happening with the education of our children, particularly in the poor parts of this world due to these school disruptions,” not due to COVID, but due to policy.
Then another disaster that has happened is the mental health issues of all the lonely people, of the people who cannot sit at home and have a wonderful home environment with five other people. Maybe they have an abusive husband or maybe no one else is there. They are not allowed to see their mother and their father in retirement homes because they’ve been locked away and going into dementia more quickly and dying more quickly. People are not allowed to date, and they can’t marry, and they can’t travel.
Their lives have been blighted by almost two years of social isolation. We are not a species meant to be alone. We are very much a social animal. We need to be touched. We need to be around people. We need to feel their presence around us, joke, banter, have sex, all kinds of things. That’s who we are. That is how we live. We live with and for other people. Disrupting this has horrible effects on our mental health.
Roughly speaking, in the UK, we found that mental health problems almost doubled. The depression rate went from 15 to 30 per cent. We find similar things in the U.S., and that is an enormous loss. So in terms of the quality of life, you should think that the quality of life may be reduced by something like 10 per cent for the population on average.
Now you think, 10 per cent is not so much. But think of that. If you take 10 per cent away from the whole population, that’s like taking one year away from one in 10. So in a million people, you are taking away a hundred thousand years of life. How much is a COVID death? Is one COVID death a hundred thousand years of life? I don’t think so. Nobody lives that long. On average, a COVID death probably means that we lose three years of life.
So a hundred thousand years of life is then the same as almost 30,000 COVID deaths in terms of equivalence, in terms of quality of life versus length of life. And so, there’s nowhere near 30,000 people dying out of a million after just one year. We’re now two years in and we’re much more looking at two to 3,000 per million. The ballpark figures don’t stack up. The loss just in terms of mental health alone far outweighs, in terms of this accumulator, what life is about, and far outweighs even the wildest guesses as to the benefits of these lockdowns in terms of reduced COVID deaths.
There are other big ticket items on the cost ledger. There have been the businesses, and the people forced to stay at home and be unemployed. That has meant that government debt has racked up. Government debt is very critical, because it’s got to be paid off. The reality is, as we know from the Nobel prize winner, Angus Deaton, in his book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, if you reduce that debt, you will reduce welfare costs in the future, you will reduce government education costs, and you will reduce healthcare costs.
You’re going to cause a lot more mental health problems and a lot more deaths in the future via less health services, a less glowing economy, then you could possibly have saved this time round. Government debt in that sense is hugely critical, and we have numbers on that. For instance, how does UK government money get converted into lives? Well, the money is used to buy medicine.
When the UK government buys medicine, they have a rule of thumb in mind, for one year of life, they’re effectively willing to pay something like 25,000 pounds, which is roughly speaking, let’s say $35,000. That’s how much the UK government spends to buy one year of life, $35,000. Well, $35,000 for one year of life. So for three years of life, we’re up to a bit over a hundred thousand dollars. Hence, that’s what a COVID death would be equivalent to. That’s what in normal times they would be willing to pay for it.
When we work out how much the UK government’s actually paid to maybe avert a COVID death, we’re into the tens of millions of dollars. Whereas normally, they’d only be willing to pay a hundred thousand, just based on the fact that they could buy medicine, which saves other people those same three years of life that they’re otherwise forgoing.
Basically, we’re able to use these ballpark numbers to say how important government debt is going to be. Hence, we can really now predict the disruption that’s going to come in the coming decades. Now there is an alternative where the society can pay. It can pay back the government debt or it can have hyperinflation, which is roughly what we’re going through now.
By so much money printing, we’re basically impoverishing everybody via inflation and disrupting the whole economic system. We’ve also learned in the past that hyperinflation is even worse. It’s so disruptive. It’s so disruptive to the economy, but also to people’s social lives. All the investments that have been made in skills will cost us even more, probably.
So one way or another, we’re in for a hard time, and that’s entirely due to the government policies over the last two years. We didn’t need to have that horrible time, but it’s coming and we are living it. We are living through huge food price increases, and we pretend it’s caused by the Ukraine conflict. But the food prices were already up something like 50 to 70 per cent above the low level of 2019, and that was due to supply disruptions.
That was due to the COVID restrictions, to disruption of international trade, to stopping lots of people moving, and stopping the agricultural system from performing optimally. That’s going to lead to food riots. That is already leading to famines in many parts of the world. And in a way, that’s on us too. The effect that we have had on the rest of the world via the trade disruption and the other disruptions is horrendous.
Sunetra Gupta has written about that very nicely. And so, there’s that. There’s that, and the mental health crisis. There’s lots of other things we could talk about concerning the disruption of the health system itself. The notion that doctors and hospitals are only there for COVID means, they’re not there for cancer. They’re not there for diabetes. They’re not there for treating dementia or preventing dementia.
It’s taken away from other things. To give a trite example, which I don’t know about in the U.S., but in the UK, IVF (in vitro fertilization) services were stopped because they were deemed inessential. If otherwise, a child could not be born, IVF services are as essential as they come. And it matters a lot. Normally, IVF accounts for 3 per cent of births in the UK. Well, that’s 3 per cent less births by government dictate.
And so, that’s an enormous loss. It’s a loss to the unborn baby, obviously. But it’s also a loss to the would-be mothers, and the would-be fathers. Their lives have now been blighted as well, just by a stroke of a bureaucratic pen. “We are flattening the curve and you shall not be a mother or a father because that’s unimportant.” I mean, the cruelty inherent in that is just awful, isn’t it?
I’ve given you the five biggest ticket items. We also talked about unemployment, but those are the biggest ticket items from a well-being perspective. The well-being perspective is that you think of the pursuit of happiness. It is in the preamble of the American constitution, but being scholars, we take it seriously as well.
We say, “Look, we really are going to think of government as being there to have as many happy years as possible enjoyed by the population. That then becomes the goal. That becomes the reason for government, which is the enlightenment reason for government. On Capitol Hill, you can see that in various inscriptions. That’s how Jefferson and the American revolutionaries thought about it.
We take it seriously. So we actually measure the well-being that a person has, and that a population has. We derive that from the opinions that people themselves have of their lives. We don’t say their lives are good. No. We take their opinions about their lives, almost as if it’s a democratic vote. We ask them, “How satisfied are you with your life overall these days?”
It’s your opinion about your life, and whether you’re satisfied with it. Then we take that as the measure, “Okay, how do you evaluate the life that you have?” Then we work out, “What life did you have and what disruptions have there been to that? How good is your health? Have you got married this year? What are your career prospects?” It’s about verything that may matter to you in life.
We have an enormous literature. We have something like 200,000 studies on this since the 1930s, which tell us pretty well how important various aspects of life are for the enjoyment of your life. That then allows us to go to the future, “If we take this away from you, how much will that cost you? What if something prevents you from being married?” We know that it’ll cost you about one point on that zero to 10 scale.
For one year, that’s roughly what we call that one well-be. That’s roughly what it will cost. We know if you get the depressed, it will cost three to four well-be over a period of two years, and then you’ll just recover. We’ve got all kinds of rules of thumb as to how important important parts of life are. And so, we were able to say beforehand, “Don’t do the social isolation. That’s a really, really costly thing to do.”
We brought out reports and papers and we tried to be in the newspaper, all to no avail, of course. But we tried to fight the good fight. In hindsight, we can use these lessons to build systems, to prevent a recurrence, and to much more quickly have that kind of knowledge much more broadly disseminated and known about.
So there’s also a way to go for government, in which you need people who know about that huge literature and who know about these relative magnitudes of what’s important and what you should and should not disrupt. That should be at the table when a decision is made. Only disrupt that one thing, or create a benefit of equal magnitude into the proportionality principle.
Mr. Jekielek: Among the leaders of these nations, how well do you think it’s known that this policy has been a horrible mistake?
Dr. Frijters: That’s a very difficult question, Jan, no one likes to think of themselves as evil or having done the wrong thing. If you’re a government leader and you panicked, you went along with the panicked and you gave your friends lots of contracts. You’re now in a group of people who has enriched themselves, and you’ll get pats on the back daily as to what a wonderful job you’ve done, because you’re powerful.
You’ve become richer and people will admire that. Desirable men and women will come up to you for the things that they want from you. Are you then really going to reflect and read the literature that’s critical? You know it exists, but you’ve said that was propaganda. Are you really going to allow, in your own mind, the thought that you’re actually on the wrong side of history, and you’ve hurt your own population?
Very few politicians are psychologically capable of that. You either have to be such an evil person that you just don’t care, or pathologically you don’t see that as your job. The majority probably does not realize that, and doesn’t want to see it. Probably to their dying breath will maintain that they did the right thing. “In hindsight,it was the only thing we could have done, and we didn’t know. Think of how many repentant Nazi leaders there were. Not that many.
Mr. Jekielek: This explains why we might be constantly feeling this threat of having the same policies imposed again to all the same ill effects, against a much lesser version of the same so-called problem. But you also have some solutions here. Let’s just say, at this point in our discussion, the future doesn’t look good.
Dr. Frijters: I agree that the future, the coming three, four years, looks bleak. The food crisis is with us, harvests takes time, replanting takes time. We are already experiencing, and going to get more famines, and more civil wars in large parts of the world. Not in the U.S., but the U.S. is not the only country that matters in the world.
We are seeing inflation. We are seeing the destruction of lots of people’s livelihoods. In New York, the damage to children is still ongoing. There’s a madness that’s crept into the population looking for other crazy things to do. “Let’s start a nuclear war with Russia,” for instance, or, “Let’s shut down all activity which remotely has anything to do with carbon emissions,” or, “Let’s flog ourselves on the back for anything an ancestor did 700 years ago.”
Yes, we are in a madly stampeding herd. But I am hopeful in the longer run. I’m not sure we’ll do the same kind of craziness again. The reason for that is that these costs, even though politicians don’t want to see them, are real, and people feel them. They will start to squeal, and they will squeal more and more and more.
Then a mechanism kicks in, which is really where a lot of the hope comes from, particularly from an economic standpoint, which is competition. Somebody somewhere figures out, if I don’t do this as a politician, or a state, or a company, or a country, then I can do way better. I don’t have all this damage. And I can attract all these ambitious go-getters who can build up my economy and my country. Let’s go that way.
The U.S. is lucky in that it is a confederation. You have all these states with their own policies, which are like little laboratories. South Dakota was one of the small ones which went its own way and with all these mandates said, “We’re not going to do that. Its neighbors saw that it did better, and had almost the same COVID outcomes, but just not the social and economic disruption, and not all the losses.
Then of course Florida followed the right example, and Texas followed the right example. The Republican Party switched from being pro to anti. Within US, its competitive forces got away from this. The good people are leaving California and going to places where you can have real life. So people vote with their feet, businesses vote with their feet, and that breaks this because then new competitive forces come up inside politics, which is, somebody’s going to undermine you.
Your opponent is going to say, “We’re not going to do this again.” And then even if you say to yourself, “Look, we should have done this,” you still start to promise, as a politician, “Of course, we won’t do this again.” The damage and the magnitude of the damage is forcing a rethink upon politicians everywhere, to different degrees and at different speeds.
America is leading the Western world, to a large degree, because in places like Australia, they are nowhere near this level of a reckoning. There we’re still talking full madness in terms of how wedded they are to the narrative that they have done well, and this was the only thing that they could possibly have done.
In the longer run, there are now all these lessons as to what we should not do and the institutions that we should build to avoid a recurrence of this. So the question is really how bad is it going to get the next five to 10 years as we go through the trough and then the upswing again. Do we need a second world war-type, even worse catastrophe to slap us into consciousness again to get the adults to return to the room.
All that, I don’t know. I used to be more positive and I still think it’s probably not going to be so bad, particularly in the U.S. Parts of the EU I think will be worse than the U.S. I think the U.S. is on a better trajectory. The competitive forces are starting to be strong. In the EU, they’re nowhere near as strong.
Mr. Jekielek: But then you have the Nordic countries?
Dr. Frijters: Yes. And OAU.
Mr. Jekielek: That followed Sweden, right?
Dr. Frijters: Yes, that’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: Basically, right?
Dr. Frijters: Scandinavia. I know Scandinavia. But there’s only something like 25 million people living there. It’s only a small part of Europe. The unfortunate thing about Scandinavia is they didn’t want to be different from the rest of Europe. They don’t want the role of, “We’re better, come to us.” They want to return to the fold or to the rest of the European nations.
That’s not what we need. We need some proud European countries to say, “We’re not going to do this anymore. We’ve all been offered the fairies and this is the last time we do something like this. In that sense, Eastern Europe is more like that. Poland is more like that. Romania is more like that. Switzerland is more like that.
Mr. Jekielek: What about the UK though? The UK seems to have dropped most of its mandates.
Dr. Frijters: It’s true. But the UK also has this huge medical health establishment who loves the ideas of rolling lockdowns, and that they could order them in the next wave. So they are making all this noise about monkeypox and whatever else can come out of some nook and cranny in the rest of the world.
There’s an enormous establishment there which doesn’t want to let go. They would love next winter to shout out, “Hospital, and tests!” The UK, in that sense, is a little bit on the cusp. I’m not quite willing to say which way it’ll go. Among the operational ones of the conservative party, the penny has dropped.
Interestingly enough, in the most respectable of financial circles, the penny has dropped. The Bank of England, they are now anti-this stuff, because they know how devastating this is for the future of Britain, and they’re true nationalists. They don’t want this. But, of course, a large part of the rest is oblivious to the cost of all this. They have tried to bury this.
The politicians don’t want to own up to this either. So they’re stuck in a hard place. They want to say they’ve done the right thing. Well, if you want to say that, how are you going to prevent doing the right thing again? It’s a deep problem for you as a politician. And so, it’s not clear how that’s going to roll.
Of course, the Labor Party in the UK is totally for lockdowns. And as far as I understand, it is still “Oh yes, let’s lock down again because that’s the safe thing to do.” They love this idea of power concentration. I wouldn’t be willing to call the UK at this point. I do think in the long run, it won’t be as mad as the EU, but will it have another bout of madness? I don’t know. Maybe.
Mr. Jekielek: As we finish up, there is an interest in having all the answers come from a central authority. Some people like myself would call it authoritarianism. How does this play into all these dynamics? I’m sure you’ve thought about this.
Dr. Frijters: Yes. We have seen a growth of authoritarianism and what you might just describe as fascism. It is the growing together of corporate power with government power and the absolutism of that. We’ve seen a lot of that in the U.S. too with Big Tech censorship, basically doing the government’s bidding, and with big pharma. There is a lot of insider takeover of the US institutions.
But this is also true of many parts of Asia,many parts of Europe, and certainly Australia. There has been authoritarianism. A large part of the population has loved it, despite the damage that this has done to their own kids or to their own grandparents. They like that. They like this notion of the strong men or the authority who will sort it out and the joy of the stampeding herd, if you like. But, again, I’m hopeful in the long run.
So while I see the large degree to which we are now much more authoritarian than we were before, again, I’m an economist. I ask myself, is authoritarianism efficient? Does it win in the long run, because in the long run, if you’re not efficient, you lose countries and systems. People will just move out.
It’s like the story of Eastern Europe, which was Soviet-controlled, and Western Germany, which was not. Well, they were crawling out of the gates. Large parts of Eastern Germany basically fled to Western Germany before the war was instigated by the Soviets. You’ve got to keep them in, or else, in a certain moment, because they’ll run away.
I believe that is still true. Authoritarianism is deeply inefficient. We’ve seen that during the COVID times. We’ve seen the increase in government debt, the reduction in well-being outcomes, the reduction in health care, and reduced education output. It’s not an efficient system. We would have copied the Soviets rather than the other way around.
It’s still inefficient. It’s a matter of when will competition prove it to be inefficient? When will democratic and other competitive forces move it off the agenda? We will get a restoration of many of our freedoms and a restoration of the idea that we need competing thoughts. We need competing stories as to what is good and what is bad, what is true and what is not, and have a free marketplace.
No one owns the truth. The truth is far too complex. We only see bits of it, and different people must compete for the different bits, so that society as a whole learns what the good and the bad decisions were in an almost evolutionary manner. For that, you need diversity. You need to see the space of experiments.
We will return back to that. Like with the American revolution, we will learn the reasons for why we should appreciate this. Once again, we will start thinking about our institutions. With this great COVID panic, we also really put a lot of effort into thinking, “Well, how can we update our democracies? What should we do differently in terms of our institutions?”
Two of the thoughts we had is that you can try and do something against the social contagion. It’s almost like a weather system, the emotional weather system of humanity, and it’s prone to storms, storms which travel from country to country, which can blow away politics and all kinds of expertise.
But you can try to prevent the strength of storms. You can try to batten up the hatches. You can try to push against these things and see them coming. And so, we have quite detailed plans for that. But we also have quite detailed plans for giving much more power to the citizenry to break the link that there now is between concentrations of wealth and direct bureaucratic control of things.
For instance, let’s avoid the Anthony Faucis of the world who are deeply conflicted with their various fingers in the pie, but also let’s avoid the various sponsors who move him. You want to break that. One of the suggestions we have is that for that kind of position, but really for that whole layer in society, we want to use citizen juries.
We like the idea of having 20 Americans from all over America choose who would be the head of the CDC. They choose within two weeks, and they use their own criteria. Nobody tells them the criteria. They basically can choose how to search. They may not find the best person. That’s not the point. You find an independent person who’s reasonable, and that is so much better than whomever else the politicians are going to come up with via the special interests that tag them. You are way, way better off.
I would also like to see this with judges. I’d like to see this with certain aspects of the media. I’d like to see this with universities. I’d like to see this with hospitals. I’d like to see that kind of system whereby we put that power on the hands of the citizenry, the citizenry jury who basically appoints the top positions within the bureaucratic system that we have in this country and other countries. That would be a good way to break that link between money and power.
Mr. Jekielek: That is clearly a revolutionary thought. I can just imagine the pushback this comment is creating right now with some of the people that might be surreptitiously watching this show. Paul Frijters, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Dr. Frijters: Great to see you, Jan.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Dr. Paul Frijters and myself for this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek. The Epoch Times is growing quickly, and we’re currently hiring an associate producer to join the Epoch TV team to work on both American Thought Leaders and Kash’s Corner.
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