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13 May, 2020 20:23

Why don’t our governments trust us when it comes to this virus? We need a vaccine against state authoritarianism

Why don’t our governments trust us when it comes to this virus? We need a vaccine against state authoritarianism

The lack of confidence that our political leaders have in us to act sensibly over Covid-19 is chilling and misguided – it’s put our economies in grave peril and is endangering our futures.

As the first tentative steps toward easing the global lockdown starts to unfold across the world, one striking thing stands out above all else: governments do not trust their own citizens to use common sense and act responsibly.

Even in Brexit Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s demand for people to “stay alert” and use their common sense as he made depressingly minute “baby steps” to easing the lockdown this week, was caveated by the threat of an increase in fines for transgressors.

The lack of confidence in the British people and their capacity for good sense was demonstrated by the publication of a 50-page guideline on what UK citizens can and cannot do. This was accompanied by a shiny new Covid-19 ‘threatometer’, which resembles the popular chicken restaurant Nando’s peri-peri spiciness chart. The only thing missing was the specification of the times adults ought to be in bed each night.

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But Britain is not alone in this patronizing and demeaning response. Every country easing their lockdowns in recent weeks have taken the same tentative steps, caveating their relaxation with threats of immediate reversals if new freedoms result in new spikes in infections.

But there is one exception – Sweden. What is truly outstanding about the Swedish experience, in contrast to everywhere else, is that trust has been a core component of their Covid-19 strategy.

Of course, one has to be very careful about making comparisons between different countries. Global death league tables have definitely been used to politicize this health crisis. And it is definitely not legitimate to compare countries with different population densities and age-demographics; different levels of development and thus standards of health and elderly care, different cultures, and the fact that each one is at a different stage of the disease life cycle, without caveating such exercises with numerous qualifications.

But it is legitimate to look at trust, to its presence or absence, in how countries have managed their responses. This speaks to the fundamental political relationship between government and the governed.

Rather than declare a lockdown or a state of emergency, Sweden asked its citizens to practice social distancing on a mostly voluntary basis. Yes, they did impose some restrictions to flatten the curve: no public gatherings of more than 50 people, no bar service and only distance learning in high schools and universities. But unlike every other country, no harsh controls, fines or heavy-handed policing occurred.

Swedes did change their behavior, not under threat, but through reason and common sense. Mistakes were undoubtedly made, particularly within care homes for the elderly – the most vulnerable. Sweden was hardly alone in this fatal error.

But what Sweden has achieved is a flattening of the curve and the bolstering of immunity among the young and the healthy – those at the lowest risk of serious complications from the virus. The health service has not been overrun. Even more significant is the fact that, according to the chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency, Anders Tegnell, the city of Stockholm is projected to reach herd immunity as early as this month.

As distasteful as the term herd immunity might be, this goal is the unstated goal of every country fighting Covid-19. Indefinite lockdowns, particularly the shutting down of economies, is just not sustainable for the amount of time it will likely take to develop a vaccine. Exposing those in society that are not vulnerable to the disease is an inevitable and necessary part of the fight against this disease.

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Lockdowns might have simply delayed achieving herd immunity. And their economic impact threatens to be worse than Covid-19 itself.

The tragic paradox which only time will prove to be correct or not, is that the different routes taken – the Swedish reasoned and trusted one or the draconian lockdowns adopted by almost everyone else – will get us all to the same point – herd immunity. But what our ravaged economies and societies will look like when we get there is the critical question.

No country will be immune from the economic fallout, not even Sweden. Estimates from the OECD suggest that every month of pandemic-related restrictions will shrink the economies of advanced countries by two percent. A global recession, probably a depression, is on the cards. The last country standing might not have an economic leg to stand on.

But the political fallout will be equally devastating. By not trusting their electorates, the political class who have pursued the draconian lockdown have undermined their own democracies. They have shredded personal autonomy and independence, the qualities of resilience which are going to be needed like never before. We might get a vaccine for Covid-19 in the future. But there is no vaccine against state authoritarianism.

The sooner people realise that their governments do not trust their judgment and their ability to exercise common sense, the sooner we will develop a cure for the authoritarian anti-democratic pandemic spreading across the world.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.