By Professor Ramesh Thakur: Australian National University.
Already by early- and mid-2020, hard data should have rung alarm bells on the doomsday narrative being peddled by modelers like Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London of catastrophic mortality counts without lockdown.
Data were readily available from the Diamond Princess cruise ship (712 of 3,711 elderly people on board were infected and 14 died), Sweden, the USS Theodore Roosevelt (736 of the 4,085 young and fit sailors who disembarked tested positive, 6 were hospitalised and 1 died) and the Charles de Gaulle (60 percent of 1,767 crew members tested positive, 24 were admitted to hospital and two to ICU, with no reported deaths)
Why then did the so-called health and infectious diseases experts keep calling for lockdown? Noah Carl posits three answers: benefits were concentrated on elites (the laptop class) demanding lockdown while costs were widely dispersed; the benefits were immediate while the costs were downstream (delayed screenings and checks for treatable illnesses if detected early, immunity debt, cancelled childhood immunisation programs, out of control public debt, inflation, educational harms, etc); and benefits were more easily and immediately measurable than costs and harms.
Frightening and Terrifying the Populace
With help from the media, social media and police, people were frightened, shamed and coerced into submission and compliance with arbitrary and increasingly authoritarian government edicts. The intense and unrelenting propaganda unleashed on the people by governments using sophisticated tactics of psychological manipulation and enthusiastically amplified by the media was astonishingly successful in a remarkably short time.
In a six-nation poll of advanced industrial democracies (UK, USA, Germany, France, Sweden, Japan) published in mid-July 2020, people overestimated coronavirus cases by between 2 and 46 times the confirmed cases (11-22 percent of the population), and Covid-19 deaths by between 100 to 300 times confirmed deaths (3-9 percent). The compliance rate for wearing masks ranged between 47 percent in the UK and 73 percent to 84 percent in the US, France, Germany and Japan for indoor public spaces, and between 63 percent to 84 percent in public transport.
The outlier was Sweden, with 14 percent and 15 percent compliance in the two settings. Even though Sweden’s Covid metrics are widely known by now not to be worse than those of the others, governments and public health authorities are still in denial on the ineffectiveness of wearing masks as an infection control measure.
Faced with a national medical emergency, implementing radical policies in blind panic is not as good as sending the reassuring message: ‘We’ve got it, no need to worry. She’ll be right.’ Instead governments actively spread and amplified fear. Massaging people’s opinions in order to ensure compliance with radical new measures became a more important task of government than managing the country calmly through the crisis.
In the 1950s, US psychologist Albert Biderman developed a coercion chart based on eight techniques to extract confessions from American POWs: isolation, monopolisation of perception, humiliation and degradation, exhaustion, threats, occasional indulgences, demonstrating omnipotence, and trivial demands.
All have been used to impose public health fascism (‘Faucism’ was a popular neologism) by the unethical weaponisation of fear. In A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic, Laura Dodsworth comprehensively exposed how fear was brandished by behavioural scientists to control citizens.
The Orwellian-sounding Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) came up with the equivalent of ‘PsyOps’ on citizens by such means as co-opting the media to increase the sense of personal threat ‘using hard-hitting emotional messaging’ and promotion of ‘social disapproval.’
Frederick Forsyth compared the covert tactics to frighten Britons into compliance with the tactics of the former Soviet Union and East Germany to scare East Berliners into supporting the Berlin Wall for keeping them safe against the menace from the West. Almost 50 psychologists and therapists asked the British Psychological Society to investigate the ethical basis of deploying covert ‘nudges’ to promote compliance with a contentious and unprecedented public health strategy.
On 14 May 2021, The Telegraph published a report that scientists who had advised the UK government on how to ensure compliance with coronavirus policy directives by increasing public fear now admit their work was ‘unethical,’ ‘dystopian,’ and even ‘totalitarian.’ One member of SPI-B said they were ‘stunned by the weaponisation of behavioural psychology’ and ‘psychologists didn’t seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic and became manipulative.’
Yet, UK media regulator Ofcom said nothing about state brandishment of fear using taxpayer-funded propaganda. Instead on 23 March 2020 it issued a directive that any report on Covid with content that ‘may be harmful’ would face statutory sanctions. Accuracy of criticisms was no defence. On 27 March it warned against broadcasting ‘medical or other advice which … discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance.’
The German government also allegedly commissioned scientists to create a model to justify preventive and repressive public health measures. In Australia, Queensland’s chief health officer Jeanette Young’s logic on school closures was also fear-fuelling: ‘it’s about the messaging.’ Canadian David Cayley commented that masks promote the ‘ritualisation of fear.’
The Sacralisation of Lockdowns
In the first year of the pandemic, a team from Otago University in New Zealand (my former university) published an interesting study that provided some explanation for the strong public support for lockdown measures. This support came despite known or predicted collateral harms, including loss of livelihoods, elevated mortality from neglect of other diseases and ailments, ‘deaths of despair’ from greater loneliness, and police abuses.
The answer, they said, is the moralisation of restrictions in pursuit of a Covid eradication strategy. People did not take kindly even to mere questioning of the restrictions. With many governments deploying state propaganda to the full to instil fear of the disease and shame all effort to question restrictions, the moralisation deepened into sacralisation.
This offers a plausible explanation for why people who so warmly embrace the moral framework of diversity, inclusion, and tolerance (the DIE framework) in social policy settings ended up supporting vaccine apartheid for those hesitant to get jabbed by shots with worryingly thin efficacy and safety trials before approval for public use.
Vilification of Scientific Dissent
Even after the data made it indisputably clear that SARS-CoV-2 was not a once in a century but closer to once in a decade disease outbreak, and that the virus curve was going to follow its own trajectory untethered to policy interventions, authorities were too heavily invested in the narrative and continued to pretend the virus was far more lethal, non-discriminatory and infectious than in reality.
They concentrated all messaging in their own single points of truth and to maintain public support, they demonised and denigrated legitimate scientific debate on the lethality of the virus, the effectiveness and ethics of lockdowns, masks and vaccine mandates, and the harms inflicted by these interventions.
This effort would have faced many more challenges but for the prior success in turning the debate from a scientific discourse into a moral imperative and the successful enlistment of media and social media to the effort.
The Crushing of Public Dissent and Protest
‘Social’ distancing is deeply dehumanising. Isolation robs people of social support; exhaustion and fatigue weaken mental ability and physical capacity to resist; monopoly perception eliminates information at variance with compliance demands. The shocking arrest of Zoe Buhler in Victoria was a very public demonstration of omnipotence in inflicting degradation and humiliation, as was forcing women to wear masks during labour.
Enforcing 5-kilometer travel limits, and mask mandates on solitary fishermen and farmers driving tractors in lonely paddocks, made sense as the enforcement of trivial demands to develop habitual compliance. Obedience is doing what you are told, regardless of right and wrong. Resistance is doing what’s right, heedless of consequences.
The opening sentence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms ‘the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ as ‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’ Putting ‘inherent dignity’ before ‘inalienable rights’ was deliberate. Take away people’s dignity and you take away their humanity, enabling the state to commit atrocities at will and sustain a long-term abusive relationship with citizens.
State propaganda whipped up public emotions with public shaming and social ostracism of sceptics and recalcitrants. This helps to explain why and how science was turned on its head by replacing scepticism with cult-like absolutism: if you cannot question, that’s dogma and propaganda, not science. This hit peak stupidity with Fauci’s narcissistic claim that attacks on him were really ‘attacks on science.’
Media Bribery and Bullying
Many media outlets became financially beholden to governments for massive advertising that promoted the lockdown, mask and vaccine narrative. Some also had ‘global health reporters’ embedded with money from the Gates Foundation. The NZ government set up a NZ $55 million subsidy scheme over three years (2020/21–2022/23) called the Public Interest Journalism Fund. Jacinda Ardern’s government further reinforced New Zealand’s collective moral fervour by proclaiming its doctrine of the health ministry as the ‘single source of truth’ on anything to do with coronavirus, including public health interventions. Canada set up a five-year $600 million federal fund in 2018 to help media outlets that was supplemented with a $65 million subsidy as ‘emergency relief’ in 2020, whose recipients were not publicly identified.
The media fanned the flames of fear through a relentless daily diet of panic porn. For example on 10 February, after Iowa lifted all pandemic restrictions, a Washington Post headline said: ‘Welcome to Iowa, a state that doesn’t care if you live or die.’ Opinion polls in the US, UK, Ireland and France showed the tsunami of false beliefs about the numbers infected and killed, their average age and Covid’s rank among all causes of death.
‘A climate of fear is preventing experts from questioning the handling of the pandemic, with reputations smeared, jobs lost and even families threatened,’ said Lucy Johnston. Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff lamented that instead of reporting ‘reliable scientific and public health information about the pandemic,’ the media ‘have broadcast unverified information, spread unwarranted fear [and] promoted naïve and inefficient counter measures such as lockdowns.’
Ramesh Thakur, a Brownstone Institute Senior Scholar, is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, and emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.