Against Covidism

Barring a miracle, this week will see the English public facing a further wave of oppressive regulation that has been ‘justified’ on the basis of the forecasts emanating from a set of epidemiological models. The earlier counterparts of these models have produced some wildly exaggerated predictions: they have failed to accord with subsequent observations and measurements, and by large margins. 

Models, or more generally theories, that fail such a test are normally discarded by scientists, in the same way as would a prospective vaccine that had failed in trialling and testing.  The culture of science requires continual checking of models/theories against observational data and, ultimately, a submission to those observations/measurements/data.

That no such submission of theory to evidence has been forthcoming is, I think, a reflection of the now ideological nature of Covid-19 controversies. In this context, the models themselves can reasonably be regarded as ideological constructs in an everyday sense of the meaning of the word ‘ideology’.  That is they comprise whole sets of assumptions or propositions that, when taken together, lead to a particular view of the world. They become an aspect of what can properly be called science when, and only when, (a) the chief preoccupation of their developers is to achieve conformity with observational data and (b) there is a ready willingness to set them aside when they fail to do so.

Very little of that preoccupation and readiness is observable in the Covid context:  untested assumptions (which are inputs into the models) abound and rather radical deviations of the modelling forecasts from actual out-turns seem to bother their proponents little. Sometimes they appear a bit like Tom in the Tom and Jerry cartoons: sliced and diced by Jerry, Tom is ever able to reconstitute himself and go on as if nothing much has changed.

At a more general level, beyond narrow questions about models, there appears to be an ideological tendency at work which I will call Covidism and define as follows:  it is the political belief that suppression of one, particular human pathogen, SARS-CoV-2, is of sufficient priority to justify far reaching and sustained disempowerment of a whole population by a political executive.

Before teasing out one or two of the extraordinary assumptions/propositions on which such a general view rests, it should be said at the outset that there is nothing necessarily amiss in those public officials who are charged with addressing problems arising from the spread of the virus become engrossed by that particular challenge.  That intense interest might simply reflect a division of labour within government, something that is necessary for effective governance.

The mischief arises when an obsession with suppressing SARS-CoV-2 becomes a dominant influence on the policy development process as a whole, or, put another way, Covidism establishes itself as a ‘hegemonic’ ideology in government.

This is, de facto, a breach of any principled division of labour in government. It doesn’t just say that virus infections are a highly important problem that needs to be addressed, a proposition with which most people would readily agree. Rather, it says that all other considerations are, in comparison, relatively unimportant. That is a judgment about relative importance and it necessarily engages much broader balancing assessments of the effects of public policy.  Only elected politicians, subject to an established system of checks and balances, command the legitimacy required to perform that task.

Whilst the origins of Covidism as a political force might be traceable back to a medical establishment, it has therefore only become a dominant ideology by converting senior politicians to its core, defining belief, or by at least convincing them that these are matters that they should leave to others, e.g. advisors. That this is what has happened is a proposition that can be verified by observing and comparing (a) the attention and effort given to the assessment of the infections, morbidities and deaths the virus causes and to measures/actions taken to reduce those things, with (b) the attention and effort afforded to all other medical, social and economic effects that the responsive measures/actions (not the virus) are liable to cause.

It is striking that no systematic regulatory impact assessments of public health measures/actions taken or contemplated have been conducted and made available for public discussion. ‘Experts’ in various other fields, but with no experience of policy assessment, have pronounced on the anticipated effects of this or that policy measure, but substantiation for those speculations has been notable by its absence. The issues are of huge policy significance, yet there has been a continuing resistance to exposing the speculations to critical examination against evidence and data.

From a political economy perspective, Covidism makes no sense.  The broad objectives of public policy are usually cast in terms of promoting some notion of human wellbeing in the round and, whilst there can be arguments aplenty as to how that should be more precisely understood and measured — as well perhaps as arguments as to whether it is too species-specific (too homo-centric) — that overarching aim carries wide support and consent. 

To explore and make more precise the basis of this ‘no sense’ judgment we might first think of a measure of wellbeing, W, as being dependent on three factors or sets of factors:

A) The SARS-CoV-2 infection rate, I;

B) Public health and social care factors more generally, H; and

C) All other relevant factors, X, which will encompass a very wide range of social and economic matters.

Second, in seeking to promote wellbeing/welfare, W, it can be assumed that policymakers have the power to choose one of a set of measures, m, from a feasible set of alternative combinations of measures, M.  

In general, the set of measures taken will affect each of I, H and X, which can be expressed by writing them as I(m), H(m) and X(m) to indicate a functional dependence. In a typical economics teaching context the resulting challenge of finding the best set of measures (the best policy) would be specified as:

               Choose m from a feasible set M to maximise W(I(m),H(m),X(m)).

That is a well-defined optimization problem. Although its implementation to actual policy choices will pose an array of difficult, practical challenges, the simplicity of the formulation directs the focus to the right issues concerning aims, constraints, and trade-offs.

Covidism does not, however, adopt this approach. Starting from the largely uncontested assumption that, other things being equal, an increase in the infection rate, I, will lead to lower wellbeing, W, in its extreme form the doctrine says:

               Choose m from a feasible set M to minimise I.

That is a very different optimization problem. A wide public policy objective has been displaced by a very narrow, objective: the minimisation of Covid infections.

The two, different optimization problems can be expected to lead to different, and potentially very different, solutions (i.e. to different sets of measures being adopted). And, since it does not seek to maximise wellbeing, it can safely be concluded that the pursuit of such a Covidist agenda will be harmful to social welfare in the round.

In sociology, the shift in the objective function from ‘maximising W(I(m),H(m),X(m))’ to ‘minimising I(m)’ could be classified as an example of ‘goal displacement’, a process in which a means intended to achieve the goals/ends of a wider social collectivity come themselves to become the goals or the ends to be sought, at least for some members of that collectivity.

Goal displacement is ubiquitous in large bureaucracies and one observable form of it, which happens coincidentally to have been the focus of my own, early-years’ research, is the displacement of a business’s or an organisation’s publicly legitimised goals by the goals of its senior management (a body of people who are typically in possession of the influence and power required to effect the transformation in the organisation as a whole). In the case of Covidism, therefore, to my mind the senior management of the NHS and their advisors can be classified as prime suspects in the goal displacement process.

However, as indicated above, for the displacement to occur within a political (rather than a business or bureaucratic) setting, it is, I think necessary for there to be a breakdown in the normal division of labour between policy developers, analysts and assessors on the one hand and political decision makers on the other hand.

What has been described thus far is the extreme form of Covidism, but ideologies are typically characterised by different degrees of zealotry among their followers.  In this case, a less extreme form might allow for some weight to be given in evaluating policy measures/actions to their effects on H and X, but only a small weight in comparison with that to be given to reducing the SARS-CoV-2 infection rate, I.

Even an administrative agency taking this less extreme view would, I think, have very great difficulty in defending its position in the event of any judicial review of its processes and decisions, unless it was compelled to do so by statutory duties.  The Court would immediately point to the failure to give adequate consideration to salient factors and evidence relevant to decisions, namely the effects of measures directed against SARS-CoV-2 infections on wider public health and on social and economic life more generally. The expected judgment would, I think, be that it had acted unlawfully.

Perhaps in implicit recognition of this potential constraint on the unlawfulness of what they advocate, leading Covidists in the UK have tended to resort to a further argument, although it is one that is usually not developed in any substantive way.  Rather it has mostly been put forward as a matter of simple assertion, not clearly reasoned and with no substantiating evidence offered.  The assertion is that getting SARS-CoV-2 infections down is a necessary condition for progress in promoting the other, wider public policy aims. This insinuates that suppression of infections remains a means to an end, and hence that is has not, in fact, displaced the general welfare objective.

There can, however, be no prospect of easy escape via resort to this piece of rhetorical trickery.  The necessity proposition itself has to be substantiated, which requires both (a) that the impacts that measures to minimise infections have on wider public health and on social and economic life be fully considered and evaluated and (b) that those effects have been appropriately weighted.  That has not been done.

The only viable defence against a claim of unlawfulness is, I think, to argue that minimising infections represents a social consensus, i.e. that public attitudes imply the relevant, wider welfare/wellbeing objective reduces to W(I(m)). Put another way, it requires that a substantial majority of the people are, by one means or other, converted to Covidism:  Covidism has to become a dominant belief system in wider society, not just in government,

In Britain there has been a quite explicit attempt to do exactly that, i.e. attempt a conversion of an entire population to a particular view of the world (ideology) and to the social conduct that it entails. As to the means, they have been a mix of persuasion, propaganda, deception, fear-creation and coercion that is broadly similar to those used in historical precedents for this type of exercise. 

Author: gypoliticaleconomyblog

Lifetime student of political economy, retired academic and regulator.

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