A new book by Canadian scholars warns about politicians and bureaucrats making decisions out of fear and panic and implementing COVID-19 policies that are disproportionate to the problem.
“The chief emotion associated with a moral panic is fear. In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, fear has fuelled many disproportionate reactions, especially in regard the medical responses to the pandemic,” says the book, titled “COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic.” It is authored by political scientists Dr. Barry Cooper and Dr. Macro Navarro-Génie, both senior fellows with think tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
“The focus of any analysis of moral panic is whether an issue is distorted and exaggerated in such a way as to produce an obvious over-reaction on the part of social and political authorities. … Instead of promoting their ability to keep their citizens safe, governments (especially in Canada) tried to scare them and were successful, at least in the short term.”
“We’ve been making decisions [based] on fear and on a certain form of panic,” he said.
The book notes how inaccurate modelling early in the pandemic contributed to the sense of panic. In mid-March, professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London released a report that predicted tens of millions of deaths worldwide based on his epidemiological model. According to the authors, Ottawa heeded such flawed advice, leading to policies such as large-scale lockdowns that were not warranted.
But Ferguson’s model has since been found to be greatly flawed, according to the Montreal Economic Institute and others. Navarro-Génie and Cooper cite research by data scientist/computational epidemiologist Chris von Csefalvay, who found numerous problems with Ferguson’s modelling, including that it was 13 years old and was written to model an influenza pandemic.
The authors add that some have even benefited from the sense of panic.
“There are people who have benefited from this, not necessarily monetarily but in terms of power,” Cooper, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, said in an interview.
Cooper and Navarro-Génie say “political actors” and “moral entrepreneurs” saw the opportunity to use the pandemic as a means to expand and consolidate their power.
“A year ago, they were completely anonymous bureaucrats. … Now everybody knows who they are and if you don’t think that these actual individuals find that exhilarating, you have to be remarkably naive with respect to human nature. Of course they enjoy the notoriety, and they enjoy the ability to make decisions for the rest of us,” says Cooper, noting the book’s reference to “power-knowledge,” a term coined by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault.
Navarro-Génie argues that governments should make decisions based on “rational arguments, on thoughtful consideration, and on well-considered justifications, [because if] we base policies for an entire country … on the basis of fear and panic, then the whole edifice of public policy kind of falls apart.”
The book notes some of the harms caused by lockdowns, and Navarro- Génie expands on that in a related blog, listing resulting problems such as bankrupt businesses, loss of jobs, and mounting debt, as well as spikes in suicides, drug overdoses, family breakdowns, domestic violence, and child abuse.
“We know that locking people down produce[s] an enormous amount of consequences that are harmful to public health,” he says. “Not just to the economy and not just the businesses, but to people’s health, people’s mental health and people’s physical health.”
In terms of scientific pushback, Navarro-Génie said Stanford University professor and epidemiologist John Ioannidis “started criticizing the models and published dissenting models from the existing ones authored by Ferguson” from the very beginning but he was “virtually ignored.”
“The media at the mass level has not been serving the public in that they have either ignored or are simply not covering these debates that are still going on,” he says, adding that media have either been persuaded by the discourse from officials or there are “fewer journalists in the media that are able to follow what tend to be somewhat complex issues.”
The book says that when media reports “are filled with the ruminations of columnists masquerading as amateur epidemiologists, doomsday predictions, and the demand for great sacrifices are as inevitable as the intended consequence: an enhanced moral panic.”
The authors note that when U.S. President Donald Trump returned to the White House after being hospitalized with COVID-19, he tweeted that people should not fear the virus and should not let it dominate their lives, but he was “sharply criticized, mostly by the mainstream media.”
Released on Dec. 7, “COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic” is co-published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Haultain Research Institute and is available on Amazon.