In April 2020, Cayley turned his attention to the recently declared pandemic and the measures being taken against it. His purpose was not to offer policy prescriptions but to draw into view ‘the practised certainties that make our current policy seem incontestable’. How was it that, almost overnight, the concept of ‘lockdown’ - previously a measure used by prison authorities against rioting inmates - had come to seem obvious, not just accepted but demanded, on the scale of whole countries? He was struck by the ease with which we grant authority to ‘models’ of how this new disease would spread that could only be based, at best, on educated guesswork. What were the longer trends in our understanding of ourselves and our societies that laid the foundations for such a response and where would this take us next?
Elsewhere in the book:
The work of science can and should inform the decisions we make, but to put science in the position of leading, while the rest of us fall in behind and follow, is to go beyond what can be asked of it.
This long one:
For all the history of mortality statistics, there has never been a moment outside of wartime - and scarcely within wartime, for that matter - when the numbering of the dead has impinged so relentlessly on public consciousness. The box with the big red numbers and accompanying charts became a fixture of the newspaper homepage. The national totals were painted on the placards of protesters at the gates of government buildings, demanding stricter measures. Meanwhile, across the widening gulf of pandemic politics, the same statistics were a focus of scepticism. Questions about co-morbidities and the difference between ‘dying with’ and ‘dying from’ Covid led down rabbit holes of claim and counterclaim.
Let’s assume, if only as a thought experiment, that all the numbers were accurate. Because I want to say that the sceptics would still have a point, somewhat like the intuition I suggested underlies the Deep Adaptation paper. However accurate the numbers are, they do not adequately represent the reality they offer to describe. In the power given to the numbers, this new prominence of a particular way of representing reality, there is something troubling. Because why should it stop here? If the ultimate criterion by which the life of a society is to be structured is the prevention of deaths, then by this logic, we ought to have a dashboard that includes all the other ways that people die. Such a dashboard would be prominently displayed, it would form the basis of governance and the frame of our civic duty, the reference point according to which we should all feel entitled to engage in the moral policing of our own and each other’s behaviour. We should never return to the carelessness of pre-Covid existence, in which we did not base our actions on a constant awareness of ourselves and others as potential vectors of transmission.
If this does not sound like the world you want to inhabit, if you feel that there might at least be some balance required here, then whatever your position on masks or vaccine mandates, I suggest that you should oppose the condemnation and exclusion from the space of reasonable discussion that has been the fate of anyone who tried to articulate their misgivings about the way our governments responded to the virus.
If your sense is that it will stop here, then, without venturing down all the rabbit holes of alternative explanations, I would ask you to join me in wondering what the last three years have been about - since, by the logic of preventing deaths, there is no reason not to go on dealing with every human encounter as, first and foremost, an opportunity for the spread of disease.
The trouble is that this one-sided approach to truth can’t help fueling the other way people have found of resolving the cognitive dissonance. For a significant minority has swung in the opposite direction, treating the whole pandemic as an orchestrated lie. It is hard to get a clear sense of the breadth and depth of adherence to conspiracy theories about Covid, since any attempt to engage critically with the dominant narrative is likely to get you denounced as a wingnut. But faced with a response which seems disproportionate to the disease, and surrounded by friends and family who are convinced that Covid is far deadlier than the evidence suggests, many of our fellow citizens went looking for the hidden agenda, the interests served by lockdowns and vaccine passports.
At the risk of adopting the most unpopular position imaginable after three years of Covid culture wars, I find myself sympathising with all sides: with those who understandably believe themselves to be in far greater danger from the virus than the evidence suggests; with those who saw such exaggerated fear as necessary and desirable; with those who reasonably ask why we should suddenly trust the drug companies, with their history of skewing medical research in the interests of profit, and who mistrust the agendas of Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates.