Source: David Robb

It is now over a year and a half since we first learned of a new disease that proceeded to spread worldwide and wreak havoc on our civilization.  Actually, it wasn’t the disease that caused such destruction, but rather the heavy-handed actions by governments across the globe to employ questionable measures they justified as necessary to protect their populations.

We can now employ hindsight to see what worked and what didn’t and learn what we can.  As serious as the disease itself was, in many ways, the responses were far more severe, with longer-lasting consequences.  If we do not learn our lessons now, we are likely to repeat mistakes in the future, with perhaps even greater costs.

We can be sure that there will be future diseases, future challenges, every bit as serious as the COVID pandemic will happen with as little warning as we had for COVID.  How we respond then will depend on what we have learned now.

One of the biggest lessons learned is how little respect our governments have for civil liberties, including supposedly constitutionally protected rights.  Freedom of religion, of association, of travel, and even of speech was curtailed in the name of protecting the population.  Were these actions necessary? 

The most extreme abridgments took the form of lockdowns, sometimes known as “stay at home” orders.  Under these lockdowns, people were prohibited from leaving their residences except under specific limited conditions.  They were presented as necessary measures to “flatten the curve” — that is, to reduce the spread of the disease and delay infections so as to keep health services from being overwhelmed. 

A first lesson is that these lockdowns didn’t work.  Numerous recent studies demonstrate that there was no significant change in the course of the epidemic attributable to a lockdown, and further, lockdowns actually seemed to increase infections and mortality in proportion to the severity of the lockdown.  Part of the reason for the failure appears to be the high proportion of “essential workers” who were able to move about with relative freedom.  In addition to police, fire, health care, and other obvious services, truck drivers, agricultural workers, food production and distribution services, and many others fell into the category.  In most places, these workers represented 30 to 70 percent of the workforce unconstrained by lockdown orders.  While computer models showed that lockdowns should have an effect, they consistently assumed 100 percent lockdown participation.  High unlocked populations invalidated the computer model projections, yet the models were still used for justification.

This brings us to the second lesson: overreliance on certain “scientific” experts.  With the decline of religious authority, people have sought replacements.  Science has taken on much of the vacant role, with certain figures gaining credibility by speaking with certainty and authority.  Unfortunately, that isn’t science.  Real science, especially under dynamic circumstances such as a pandemic, consists of many different viewpoints with much debate and disagreement. 

As information is shared and debated, a certain convergence develops.  Science is much more about eliminating ideas that don’t fit the facts than about providing certainty.  Politicians, however, need to deflect criticism, so certain “experts” have learned to speak with assurance and provide advice and guidance to politicians, even though their certainty is unwarranted and their advice often wrong.  This mutually beneficial arrangement absolves politicians of blame for bad policies while enhancing the prestige and power of self-proclaimed experts who bear no responsibility for resulting bad policies.

A third lesson is that authorities were granted too much power under various “emergency” orders — powers that they used virtually without restraint for extended periods of time.  Many of the normal mechanisms that would restrain state power, such as legislative and judicial methods, as well as the ability of the people to demonstrate and petition, were prohibited or severely curtailed.  As a result, even though many objected to this arbitrary exercise of power, they were prevented from taking effective measures to oppose it.  Although these arbitrary measures were known early in the pandemic to be of little value in protecting public health, there was no effective ability to introduce better measures, such as focused protection and conventional quarantine measures.  While the societal consequences of these actions have been extreme, including the destruction of thousands of businesses, high suicide rates exceeding those of the disease, loss of a year of schooling, and massive growth in authoritarian government, there were no consequences for those authorities who imposed their draconian edicts.

A fourth lesson is to be found in the contemptuous dismissal of the competence of the general populace, coupled with massive disinformation campaigns by both government and media designed to manipulate rather than inform.  Too many saw the pandemic as an opportunity to exercise power and implement programs that would, under normal conditions, never be accepted.  The fact that protective mechanisms have proven effective, such as avoiding those obviously ill and practicing good hygiene, were being practiced out of normal self-preservation well before governments undertook to impose their own rules demonstrates the wisdom of the general populace. 

In fact, lockdowns and associated actions often prevented communication and the spread of information on effective measures and therapies.  Media sources, who now see their job as telling people what to think rather than providing them with information to form their own opinions, participated by labeling disfavored ideas as “disinformation” and even completely blocking exchanges, entirely based on their own opinions without substantiating evidence.

Many other lessons can and should be drawn from events of the last eighteen months.  The question now is what to do. 

Clearly, most, if not all, of the damage done is a result of overreach of power by state authorities.  Many of the authorizations for these excessive powers were enacted over fifty years ago.  It is past time that such authorizations be revoked or modified.  While there is some justification for limited emergency powers, they should be restricted both in scope and in duration.  They should prohibit actions that would circumvent or compromise basic constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech, of assembly, and of a free press.  They should exist for no more than two weeks without legislative oversight and approval and should be subject to termination solely by legislative or judicial action without approval by the empowered authority. 

Further, it will be essential to protect the free flow of information.  The censorship, manipulation, and outright lying of various media and government sources are inconsistent with a free society.  Especially in the case of the internet, the cancelation, deplatforming, censorship, and other manipulations of information must not be permitted in this new public square.  Regulators must recognize that the populace is capable both individually and collectively of identifying and rejecting bad information, so long as there is a free exchange.  It is not the place of a government or of the media to decide what people should know or what they should believe.

In essence, the basic lessons are that our best policies and responses to future pandemics and other emergencies lie in the restoration of the basic freedoms that were stolen through administrative overreach, and that trust in the ingenuity and wisdom of the people provides the best source of solutions.