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Covid-19, One Year On, Pt II: The Limits of Politics

March 26th, 2021 | 16 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

One year ago today, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US passed 85,000, surpassing China where the virus had begun, and giving us the unenviable distinction of being #1 in the world. Today, America still holds that distinction, with over 30 million confirmed cases of the virus and more than half a million deaths, outpacing other nations by a large margin — although a handful of smaller countries have suffered more severely in per capita terms. And although few nations have been wholly immune to the equally virulent contagion of social unrest and political dysfunction, perhaps none has witnessed such profound fraying of the social bonds during this seemingly interminable year than America.

I wrote two weeks ago that perhaps the greatest tragedy of the virus has been the collapse of any shared narratives about the trial that we have all weathered. Adversity can be a source of great strength for any community, if it forces the members to draw together and lean on one another for support — common objects of fear can help remind us of the common objects of love that ground political agency. But when we cannot even agree on what we should fear and why, adversity is liable to tear loose already weak bonds, turning us against one another in mutual recriminations and finger-pointing. So it has been these past twelve months. If we are to make anything valuable out of what we have all suffered, it must begin with seeking to reconstruct a shared narrative, a common understanding of the threat this virus posed, the actions that were taken, and the lessons that were learned. Such a task would call for the skills of a modern-day Thucydides, and far outstrips my feeble abilities or a medium such as this. But in this I will at least seek to clear the ground of a few of the half-truths and comforting illusions that lie strewn across our political landscape.

No Easy Answers

The first thing to say is that any truthful narrative of the pandemic must reject all of the political narratives that have been spun. It is certainly tempting for those on the Left to pin the blame for half a million lives on Trump and his cronies, telling a tale of irresponsible Republicans who gambled away human lives for the sake of profit and a grotesque caricature of “freedom,” and insisting that “if we had only followed the science,” it would all have turned out so well.

Likewise, many on the Right can spin a narrative of power-hungry or at least short-sighted liberals who took draconian measures that proved a waste of time in the long-run, failing to prevent significant loss of life and causing devastating economic fallout. Both can point to plenty of examples and data to lend plausibility to such narratives, but taking a global perspective should shatter all such illusions that we can pin our tribulations on a particular set of human villains, or that we could have easily avoided them if we’d just listened to some neglected prophet.

Looking at the Americas and Europe, we can find examples of governments that enacted strict early lockdowns with near-term success, followed by complacency and later disaster (e.g., Czechia: 2,314 deaths per million); governments that enacted strict early lockdowns with long-term success (e.g., Oregon: 560 deaths per million)[1]; and governments that imposed strict lockdowns repeatedly, and tried to exercise caution about easing restrictions, but with only limited success (e.g., Great Britain, 1,852 deaths per million, and California, 1,447). We can find examples of governments that tried to manage with more limited restrictions, trusting to citizens to make responsible choices, and managed decently but not great (e.g., Sweden: 1,307 deaths per million) and those that did quite poorly (e.g., Arizona: 2,301 deaths per million). We can even find examples of governments that simply threw caution to the winds and let herd immunity take its course, and had healthy enough populations that their healthcare systems bent but did not break (e.g., South Dakota: 2,174 deaths per million), and others where herd immunity has proven to be an ever-receding mirage, as new variants reinfected areas that had already been burnt over in previous waves (e.g., Amazonas province, Brazil: 2,845 deaths per million and still steadily rising).

Even if the United States had weathered the pandemic as well as a country like Germany, we would have nearly 300,000 COVID deaths to date, slightly more than half our current total. That is just about plausible, had political circumstances been different, especially given our younger population, but it is hard to imagine any realistic scenario rosier than that. However much bloodguiltiness Trump might bear, it isn’t 500,000 lives. To be sure, most East Asian countries did far better than the West in containing the spread of the virus, with per-capita death rates 95% lower on average than those in Europe or America, and limited economic disruption.

But given the wide gulf in cultural expectations about conformity, freedom, and government activism, it is wildly unrealistic to think that America could have matched such outcomes. And although our abysmal early response in terms of testing, tracing, and quarantining will be a lasting stain on the record of the late great United States, once the initial opportunity at containment was blown, any subsequent political actions could have only a limited impact on the course of the virus. You might think that Gov. Whitmer (D-MI) was a hero and Gov. DeSantis (R-FL) unfit for public office, or vice versa, but the stubborn fact remains that both states saw pretty similar health outcomes.

Some might take these statistics as evidence for the denialist slogan “lockdowns don’t work,” and that it hardly matters what restrictions one enacts; the virus will have its way regardless. That is ridiculous; any glance at the epidemic curves of any nation or state will reveal regular and vivid correlations between the dates when restrictions were enacted and the dates infection rates turned downward, as well as correlations — albeit fuzzier ones — between the relaxations of restrictions and increasing cases. The point is that in the real world, data are noisy enough to be enlisted in the service of almost any political narrative. The decisions of high-level political leaders are only one variable: just as important are the decisions and compliance levels of local leaders, of law enforcement officers, school boards and church leaders, businesses and individuals.

Indeed, since Walmart in America has more employees than the labor forces of one-third of US states, its masking ordinance has a much greater impact than South Dakota’s. Population density and climate are crucial major factors in the rate of COVID-19’s spread, and age and race demographics have significantly affected rates of morbidity and mortality. And if the public health data are too noisy to draw simplistic conclusions, the economic data are even more so, belying efforts to Monday-morning quarterback about what balance of restrictions and liberties would have minimized unemployment without sacrificing too many lives.

The point is also that however necessary strict lockdowns may have been in the early days of the virus, when we were flying blind, and perhaps as temporary circuit-breakers later on — especially when the new highly-contagious variants appeared — there are no easy answers on what policies should have been enacted and which should not. We were told from the beginning that this pandemic was going to be a marathon, not a sprint (although most of us seemed deaf to this warning, imagining that “flattening the curve” was something you could do over a long weekend and then get back to normal life), and every marathon runner has different tactics and pacing. A lot more humility is in order before conservatives can blame Governors Newsom (D-CA) or Northam (D-VA) for tyrannical overreaction or liberals can blame Governors Abbott (R-TX) or McMaster (R-SC) for reckless irresponsibility.

The Technocratic Gap

In short, although the pandemic exposed any manner of particular political failures, more importantly it exposed the limitations of politics generally — at least in the modern West — and the vast gap that has opened up between our technical scientific knowledge and the practical capabilities of our politics. In the first part of this retrospective posted two weeks ago, I compared the pandemic to a hurricane. Frequently over the past decade, meteorology buffs like myself have been awed by the immense advances in forecasting power, with many of the most significant hurricane catastrophes of recent years predicted days ahead of time with a pinpoint precision unimaginable a generation ago. And yet despite these advances, death tolls from natural disasters are on the rise. The scientific commitment to predict has not been matched by a political willingness to prepare, or the public trust needed to act on warnings. Increasingly in America, we prefer to resort to acts of heroism in the wake of tragedies, rather than taking meaningful action to prevent them.

So it has been with COVID-19. Despite the countless insults thrown at the scientists from the Right, and the hundreds of misinformational memes aiming to convince people that we’ve been conned by phony forecasters who haven’t a clue, the track record of the epidemiologists has been fairly astounding. Consider for instance the much-maligned IHME model which gained prominence early in the pandemic for its predictions of hospitalizations and deaths. Although hospitalization metrics were pretty noisy early on, its March prediction of 160,000 US Covid deaths through the beginning of August verified almost exactly, as did its prediction that deaths would peak at around 2,500/day in mid-April. Later modeling of the second and third waves proved remarkably precise as well. As early as last February, when data was almost non-existent outside of China, researchers had estimated that the actual infection fatality rate of the virus was probably between 0.5 and 1.0%, possibly as high as 1.5%, but that these numbers were skewed heavily toward the elderly, with at least 5/6 of deaths occurring in those over 65, although they made up only 1/6 of the population — a proportion subsequently borne out wherever the pandemic struck.

The landmark Imperial College study that frightened everyone into lockdowns in mid-March 2020 (projecting 2.2. million deaths in the US without massive suppression efforts), assumed a 0.9% infection fatality rate. The actual infection fatality rate of the virus in the US through February 1 appears to have been in the range of 0.5-0.75%,[2] but it was almost certainly close to 1% early on in the pandemic when various life-saving treatments and clinical best practices had not yet been established. And although few of us were willing to hear it, the epidemiologists were also telling us loud and clear last spring that this would be a marathon, not a sprint, that multiple rounds of lockdowns might prove necessary and that life would not return to normal until well into 2021. Examples could be multiplied; and of course we must also marvel at the astounding scientific achievement of half a dozen highly effective vaccines being brought to market within a year of initial development, an achievement unparalleled in medical history.

Many readers, however, might find themselves rather flabbergasted by the previous paragraph. After all, few sentiments are so widely entrenched in many quarters, especially among my fellow conservative Christians, as the belief that the experts blew this one, that the threat was wildly exaggerated. Many believe the threat was willfully exaggerated; others, more charitably, say that the initial alarm was understandable, but now we know better. And yet the opposite is demonstrably the case: we now know with much more detail and certainty almost exactly what we were told, with astonishingly accurate guesswork in the midst of the fog of war, a year ago.

Whence this disconnect? How could it be the case that the virus is almost exactly as bad as we were told, and yet a vast number of us have internalized the casual certitude that the forecasts were all something of a bust? Part of the problem, to be sure, is the paradox of success. The Imperial College study, after all, said, 2.2 million deaths if dramatic action weren’t taken, but dramatic action was, and nearly 2/3 of those deaths will turn out to have been averted.

Another huge part of the problem is surely our sensationalistic media, which had forfeited much of its credibility before the virus hit, and has done little to redeem itself since. Many Americans did not form their expectations based on the scientific predictions but based on the breathless warnings of doom emanating from their favorite cable news hosts (just days after those same hosts told us there was nothing to worry about). But there’s a deeper explanation, I surmise, an explanation that sheds considerable light on the almost boundless capacity for self-delusion that we have revealed over the past year.

In his masterful book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the legendary psychologist Daniel Kahneman relentlessly exposes how poorly humans do at assessing and responding to risk. In particular, he notes, most of us are remarkably incapable of making sense of statistics. Confronted with a large number or statistical measure, most of us engage in what Kahneman calls “intensity matching.” We construct some kind of mental image that matches in terms of subjective emotional intensity the force of the bare number. For most hearers, the prediction that 100,000 might die of COVID is immediately translated into a mental image of anguish and death that roughly matches their impression of such a huge number; if anyone dared to say “1 million dead,” this conjured up a vision of hospitals overrun, bodies rotting in the streets, and the virtual collapse of civilization.

Thus, when I warned friends that the virus could well kill a million people in the US, I was accused of being an outrageous sensationalist, and heard as predicting doomsday, instead of soberly noting that the US might record 33% more than its usual three million deaths over the coming year. (Of course, were the epidemic concentrated into just two or three months, this would be a catastrophe — hence the urgency all along of decisive curve-flattening measures — and inasmuch as the vaccines have rendered many of these deaths preventable, we can hardly accept them with equanimity.)

This phenomenon of “intensity matching” explains why so many have evinced a marvelous capacity for self-delusion, scoffing in March 2020 at claims that COVID would kill more than 20,000 Americans and in April at claims that it would kill more than 100,000, but then smugly declaring, “See, I told you so!” months later as deaths marched steadily into the hundreds of thousands. What they mean is “I never believed that bodies would be piling up in the streets, and it looks like I was right all along.” Indeed, people as a whole do a very poor job of translating back and forth between actual risks and statistical measures. One recent study reported that 28% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats believed that 50%+ of COVID patients required hospitalization, and a large majority of both parties believed the rate was over 20%. The actual number is 1.5-2%, which is still more than enough to overwhelm our healthcare system without significant mitigation. This survey seems to suggest that most Americans still radically overestimate the threat of COVID.

But while that is clearly the case for solo Portland joggers wearing masks on hiking trails, it is clearly not the case more broadly, especially among Republicans, many of whom radically underestimate the severity of the virus on other measures and oppose even measures like masking. What the survey actually shows, then, is that most people have no clue how to make sense of numbers, and can simultaneously believe that the virus hospitalizes enough of its victims to cripple any healthcare system and that it is mild enough not to require significant public health measures.

The upshot of all of this is to throw into profound doubt the viability of democratic politics in a technological age. Prudent public health measures require accurate risk assessments, flawless translation between statistical measures and real-world impact — but such translation does not come naturally to us. East Asian countries have weathered the pandemic extremely well because even when democratic on paper, their societies are accustomed to technocratic governance. Most ordinary Koreans are probably no more able to accurately gauge the threat level of a pandemic than most ordinary Kentuckeans. The difference is that they make no claims to be able to do so.

This hardly represents an exoneration of our own technocratic elites, who still deserve much of the opprobrium visited upon them over the past year. The fact is that Kentucky is not Korea, and democratic politics is first and foremost an exercise in rhetoric. And the first rule of rhetoric is knowing one’s audience. Far too many of our political elites have tried to impose technocratic governance on a restlessly democratic populace, thinking they could bypass the art of persuasion and manage their populations like a mathematical model. Rather than leading by courageous example and transparent communication, many resorted to schoolmarmish hectoring, cut corners on their own rules, and concealed inconvenient truths. For myself, I have had little doubt throughout that most (though not all) of the measures taken have been entirely constitutional, and justifiable both by the God-given purposes of government and by the exigencies of the crisis.

But as any student of history knows, in politics perception is reality. In the American Revolution, it matters little if one can mount a case that Parliament was constitutionally justified in all its actions; the fact is that it was perceived as tyrannical, and should have had the sense to realize that it would be so perceived. To enact measures that cannot command broad public assent is to commit oneself to a Pyrrhic victory at best, and at worst a total forfeiture of authority. To be sure, I’d hate to have been in any of their shoes; as noted above, this pandemic has left none of us with easy answers, and crippling partisan polarization, coupled with mendacious media elites who care more about ratings than human life, has no doubt made life a living hell for most governing authorities. Still, it is clear that today we face a critical deficit of statesmanship, and should another such crisis strike our nation in its present state, it is unlikely we can survive.

The Virus of Individualism

Ultimately, however, we have bigger problems than statistical illiteracy or tone-deaf elites. The greatest malady afflicting our culture is not a virus, but an individualism so deep-seated, so all-pervasive, that a great many of us, even in the Church, have completely lost the capacity to think in any other terms. When the pandemic first struck, I naively thought that it might at least cure the West of the mental disease of libertarianism, with its absurd assertion that I can make choices for my own life that have no impact on those around me. At the very least, I hoped, it could provide traditional conservatives with a powerful argument against evils like abortion or same-sex marriage. Just as a virus, asymptomatically transmitted, can hijack an individual’s personal recreations into the occasion for ever-widening-ripples of suffering, so our individual lifestyle decisions cannot but have implications for society as a whole.

However, nowhere so much as among so-called traditionalist conservatives has the pandemic so reliably revealed a reckless solipsism, an individualism so reflexive that it is simply assumed: “well, yes, we are taking some extra risks by holding this event, but that’s just our personal decision, isn’t it?” The reductio ad absurdum of this mentality was for conservative Christian anti-maskers to begin waving posters inscribed with “my body, my choice,” a reductio that had already become reality by late April last year. In their reckless assertions of “freedom,” many seemed not merely callous, but simply blind to the profound unfreedom that they were visiting upon their friends, neighbors, pastors, restaurant workers, or business leaders, who had to improvise unpopular decisions in the absence of shared norms, and many of whom were terrorized and boycotted for refusing to join the freedom crusade.

Had it proved true in the end that the pandemic was blown wildly out of proportion to serve power-hungry politicians, that lockdowns didn’t work, or that the economic fallout was not worth it, this would have vindicated the practical common-sense or prudential calculus of some of the naysayers. Such arguments at least were mounted in service of divergent convictions about what the public good required. For many in the modern West, however, no such concept of the public good still obtains.

On both Left and Right, much of society has disintegrated into its constituent atoms, each content to frame its values as personal preferences, and yet — haunted by the specter of a polis that it cannot quite exorcise — enraged to find that others will not share them. This, to be sure, is a political problem of the first order, but it is a problem that politics itself cannot solve. If, against all odds, the experience COVID-19 pandemic can yet help us rediscover that we belong inextricably to one another, and that we cannot live together unless we can reason together about the good, then perhaps, just perhaps, the cure thus achieved may turn out to have been better than the disease.

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  1. The figures in this essay are taken from Worldometers on 3/21/21 and 3/22/21, which has been the best and most accessible global aggregator of Covid data from the earliest days of the pandemic. Due to differences in how probable, suspected, and confirmed cases and deaths are handled by different data sources, these numbers may vary slightly from other sources, but only slightly. I recognize that in the USA, there is a well-established conviction among many on the Right that the death statistics have been systematically manipulated. However, the broad consistency across time and geography of these statistics from sources all around the world over the past year renders such suspicions rationally untenable.
  2. I choose February 1 because after that date, substantial vaccinations of the most vulnerable populations have begun to lower the overall infection fatality rate. As of February 1, roughly 450,000 Americans were reported to have died from Covid, and various studies over the past year have estimated that, especially in the earlier phases of the pandemic when testing was not widely available, deaths were significantly undercounted, so at least 550,000 deaths should be assumed. Deaths lag cases by around three weeks, and as of January 10, 23 million cases had been confirmed. Various studies and models have estimated that these make up only 1/3-1/5 of actual infections, yielding around 90 million actual infections or an infection fatality rate of around 0.6%.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.