World

We Need the Skeptics

Nurse Tina Nguyen administers a nasal swab at a coronavirus testing site in Seattle, Wash., March 26, 2020. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)
I disagree with them. But they at least remind me that we have free men among us.

When a bad thing happens to a good person, we are tempted to rage at God. When innumerable bad things happen to half of everyone we know, we rage at each other. Pandemics and economic depressions inflict that kind of unjust suffering widely. And that is why they are so hotly trailed by anger and scapegoating.

I should know. A friend and I sparred recently. I’m closer to the virus doomsayer camp and believe that these miserable lockdowns, especially the one in New York, will save the functioning of our health-care system and justify itself in lives saved. I have been angry at locals who were slow to embrace social distancing. And I feel justified in that, given the growing infection rate of the population that surround me in my county and the dire reports from hospitals. I have never believed the simple and stupid predictions of millions infected at once and millions dying, which rely on simple exponential math absent social context. I simply have believed that the data lead one to conclude that hospitalization rates for an outbreak of this disease are intolerably burdensome and that all cities and nations that failed to control them with travel restriction, testing, and contact tracing go into shutdowns, harmful as they are.

My friend is a doomsayer of another sort, worried that a public-health scare, one informed by a lot of panic and a good deal of unreliable modeling, is going to cost millions of decent people their livelihoods. In time those conditions will cost many the happiness of their marriages, it will rob them of their homes and of the dreams they worked so hard to keep. It will destroy their confidence in themselves, even if it was just bad luck or timing. I threw the f-bomb at him and he made fun of my temper and told me to take a nap. We were both right, I think. Either way, I’m sorry.

Even as I disagree with many of their assertions, I want to counsel some patience and even appreciation of the virus skeptics. We need them.

In the Untied Kingdom, journalist Peter Hitchens is one such skeptic. Hitchens has a contrarian streak. He was a conservative against the Iraq War long before that was fashionable. He is a champion of claims that chemical-weapon attacks in Syria, ones that whipped up pro-war sentiment, are dubious and false. He is against the foolish anti-Russian hysteria that passes for high-status opinion. Those are the ones where I think he’s right. He thinks Boris Johnson is a boob. On COVID-19, he has made his case on the BBC. He sees that the models that justified lockdowns are proving to be shaky at best.

Hitchens points to mitigating factors. The great bulk of those dying are already very aged and already suffer from various other illnesses. So, how much higher really is the total rate of death? How much does the rest of society really have to fear? And how will anyone explain the cost of lost livelihoods, careers, homes, and nest eggs if these dire warning turn out to be wrong? Hitchens points to a number of other dissenting and sensible-sounding skeptics who should know what they are talking about. He asks, “Who really is taking the unjustified risk here?”

Over stateside, the editor of First Things, Rusty Reno has become a figure of hatred and sport, for a column in which he denounces as “sentimentalism” Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statement “If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”

Reno makes the argument that we are not obliged to do “everything” to avoid death and that his Christian coreligionists are forbidden from doing evil to avoid it. He writes, “We must reject the specious moralism that places fear of death at the center of life.”

I think Reno could have been more careful about how he characterized his opponents. Most of those who disagree with his prudential judgment about these strictures on normal life hope to avoid causing others needless suffering. They are not mere cowards. But Reno has been denounced widely for abandoning his pro-life convictions, though this charge is false. Christians are obliged to forbid killing, and to heal the sick. They are not obliged to prevent every death. Just as they do not counsel trying to prevent every miscarriage by imprisoning pregnant women and monitoring their unborn children, ever at the ready to cut open. Can educated people really be surprised that a Christian who believes in eternal life argues for bravery in the face of danger?

The fact is, we’re taking unprecedented and potentially ruinous action to avoid the wreckage of this virus. “Lockdown” is a word from prison management, it is a tool for controlling riots among prisoners. Now politicians impose it on entire nations, and celebrities enjoin us to it. Some of them do this while praising the plainly dictatorial fury with which China confronted this virus. Quarantine is an ancient defense against disease and may be justified. But anyone who doesn’t fear that this episode will “normalize” these humiliating strictures as a tool of the state is a fool.

Men and women who say such things as Hitchens and Reno often receive a misdirected scorn of the sort that is heaped on the anonymous and heedless revelers on spring break who defy the advice on social distancing and who would be insensible to much rational argument anyway. But these are not heartless men, nor are they pretending to be.

Small and weak nations often have highly conformist public cultures. Try to find much in the way of public criticism and dissent against the authorities from within the confines of the “opinion corridor” in Sweden. See what kind of movement is available when everyone is wearing “the green jersey” in Ireland. The cost of fractiousness — of real effective freedom — is often felt to be intolerably high. An unspoken logic holds that if “our strategy” is failure, at least everyone will suffer together and no one of “us” will be really held accountable.

I disagree with Hitchens and Reno. But they at least remind me that we have free men among us.

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