Pandemic policies: 'safetyism' and its unacknowledged costs

When the first Covid-19 lockdown rolled into my city of Toronto, I tried to convince myself that I supported the measure. I even posted a “stay home, save lives” banner under my Facebook cover photo. But I wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all myself. The banner came down a few hours later.

Like Rachel Johnson, sister of former UK prime minister Boris Johnson, I recoiled against the lockdowns and the culture that sprang up around them on a cellular level. Nothing about this strange new world — the shaming, the snitching, the runaway panic — seemed right or strong or true.

In the months and years since that bleak time, I’ve often asked myself why I had such a visceral aversion to the lockdowns, social distancing circles, masks, and the rest of it. After all, I was 63 when the pandemic hit — not a grandma, but certainly old enough to be one. Why didn’t I, like so many of my age-mates, cheer for policies ostensibly designed to keep me safe?

The online warriors would have me believe my misgivings sprang from selfishness, but I knew that wasn’t it. I had a solid marriage and had been working from home as a medical writer for 28 years. The lockdowns hardly caused a ripple in my material circumstances. It’s just my soul that was hurting.

Slowly, as I devoured articles by intellectuals all over the world who shared my discomfiture — scientists, doctors, bioethicists, philosophers, novelists, economists, and others — I began to understand what was troubling me. Giorgio Agamben, the illustrious Italian philosopher known for his work on biopolitics, spoke directly to me when he decried the separation of “bare life” from meaningful living. Lionel Shriver, the spirited UK novelist of We Need to Talk About Kevin fame, spoke eloquently about the value of freedom and the steep cost of throwing it away. I considered their insights at least as important as what epidemiologists had to say, and it occurred to me that it might be valuable to gather them all in one place.

A peek inside the book

When the opportunity to write a book about the pandemic came along, I couldn’t pass it up, even if it put my career as a medical writer in jeopardy. (It hasn’t so far.) Called Blindsight is 2020, the book was published earlier this year by the Brownstone Institute, and has recently become available as an audiobook.

A blend of reported journalism, polemic, and personal storytelling, the book showcases 46 scientists, ethicists, writers, and other thinkers who reflect on the societal harms of the Covid-19 lockdowns and mandates. Through their voices, the book explores the cultural forces that led the world to lock down, devalue civil rights, and lock out dissenting perspectives. Key themes include the abuse of the precautionary principle, the dangers of top-down collectivism and government overreach, and the role of personal freedom and civil liberties in a pandemic.

The book takes the position — shared by many scientists, as it turns out — that managing a pandemic is not just about containing a virus, but about steering the human family through a societal upheaval. An upheaval that threatens not just lives, but livelihoods. Not just lung health, but mental health. Not just heartbeats, but hopes and dreams.


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The thought leaders featured in the book address these tensions head-on. Individually and collectively, they argue that we can mitigate risk, but not eliminate it, and that we cannot manage a pandemic humanely without making some tradeoffs. None of them “deny” the virus; they simply understand that mitigation strategies will not succeed unless they respect biological realities, civil rights, and human nature.

Safety first: says who?

Some people have argued that “safety comes first.” But at what cost? As frightened people missed cancer diagnoses, as people deprived of social contact sank into despair, as people lost businesses they had worked for decades to build up, the costs of the Covid mitigation policies kept piling up. Not just that, but the policies threw the young (who had their lives ahead of them) and the working poor (who couldn’t shelter at home) under a bus.

During Covid, the public’s preoccupation with “safety at all costs” reflected an ongoing value shift toward what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, authors of the 2018 bestseller The Coddling of the American Mind, call “safetyism.” The book defines safetyism as “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

Society was already leaning hard into safetyism before the pandemic. Covid just built on this momentum. No rule was too costly or absurd if it promised an extra increment of safety, and the experts promised us that the rules would do just that.

Ah yes, the experts. From the get-go, we were advised to listen to them and avoid “doing our own research.” But which experts? Why were we listening exclusively to epidemiologists and public health experts? Where were the mental health experts? The child development specialists? The historians? The economists?

After all, pandemic policy is not just about controlling an infectious disease. It’s about balancing the need to protect life and to live it, to stay safe and stay sane, to risk a respiratory illness or a mental breakdown — trade-offs you don’t need a PhD in viral load kinetics to have an opinion about.

“Although we can’t all be experts on epidemiology, we are all equally qualified — and, in a democracy, all obliged — to think through those questions ourselves,” says Stephen John, a senior lecturer in the philosophy of public health at the University of Cambridge.

Winston Churchill went a step further: “Expert knowledge is limited knowledge, and the unlimited ignorance of the plain man who knows where it hurts is a safer guide than any rigorous direction of a specialised character.”  That’s it, exactly. The experts don’t know where it hurts.

As an essayist and memoirist, I also enjoy weaving some storytelling into the mix. From therapy with a Zoom shrink and attendance at a freedom rally to a trip to lockdown-free Sweden and an LSD trip on a lake, I recount several personal experiences that sprang from my despair about the Covid policies.

If you have shared my despair, I hope the thought leaders in the book speak to you as they spoke to me. But I also wrote the book to help those on “the other side” understand why some of us chafed at the policies they cheered on. Because if there’s anything we all need, as we absorb the shockwaves from the past three years, it’s more understanding.

BLINDSIGHT IS 2020 currently sold on Amazon stores as a print edition, e-book, or audiobook. Spanish speakers can find it here.

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Gabrielle Bauer is a Toronto health and medical writer who has won six national awards for her magazine journalism. Along with Blindsight is 2020, her books include Tokyo, My Everest, co-winner of the Canada Japan Book Prize, and Waltzing The Tango, a finalist for the Edna Staebler Creative Nonfiction Award.

Image credit: Pexels

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