Saturday, February 6, 2021

Inside the ZeroCovid movement

Inside the Zero Covid campaign | Unherd - Freddy Sayers: 

February 4, 2021 - "As I discovered last week, the first rule of ZeroCovid Club is: do not talk about ZeroCovid Club. 'ZeroCovid' is, after all, a term that elicits confusion and, sometimes, outright hostility. Perhaps that’s why, when leading members of the global ZeroCovid movement met for a three-day international conference last Wednesday, it had a far more innocuous title: the 'Covid Community Action Summit'. But even though this increasingly popular school of thought — which holds that we must not return to normal until the virus is completely eliminated within a country — wasn’t explicitly on the billing, its presence was made clear from the outset. In her introductory remarks, the moderator confirmed to the more than 600 registrants and speakers from across the world that 'we are here to end Covid through ZeroCovid and CovidZero policies'.... 

"Their advocates are among the most regular faces in broadcast media; Professor Devi Sridhar*, one of its most outspoken advocates, has appeared on Channel 4 News 21 times during the pandemic — more than any other expert. There’s a UK ZeroCovid chapter, which last month hosted its own well-attended online conference; the Scottish government is committed to their campaign, alongside Independent SAGE, British trade unions and Labour MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. Meanwhile, influential Tory MPs like Jeremy Hunt advocate a strategy of 'zero infections and elimination of the disease' and routinely refer to the Asian model. Google search results in the UK and US for 'ZeroCovid' are at an all-time high....

"Judging by last week’s conference, ... [t]he campaigners are, for the most part, an impressive, sincere and eloquent group. Many of them are young, telegenic and skilled communicators. But there was a mood — a unanimity of world view — that was unsettling; a fusion of overt progressive-Left politics with an ironclad certainty about their interpretation of the science. They referred to people who disagreed with them as needing to be 'educated': 'deniers', 'right-wingers', 'conspiracy theorists', or, perhaps lowest of all, 'herd immunity apologists'....  The speakers all agreed on one central tactic: to be successful, ZeroCoviders must present themselves ... as being anti-lockdown; it is only in order to quit today’s cycle of restrictions, they say, that we need to eliminate the virus completely.

"But how to convince Western governments? One place to start could be two articles written by Tomas Pueyo, a tech and marketing executive who explained during a session on  'Communications Strategy & Policy” that his blogposts had garnered over 60 million views. They had even, he claimed, contributed to a global policy change on Covid. For him, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t an epidemiologist. His skill was in a different kind of viral transmission: online content.... The outcome of the pandemic, he explained, hinges on winning the comms game: 'The epidemics of the 21st century are going to be fought more in communication than they are in the lab.'

"Such a pithy remark is, of course, typical of communications professionals. But why are they now such a central part of the ZeroCovid campaign? Part of the reason might be the sustained vilification aimed at their opposing fringe group — the so-called 'Covid deniers'. The ZeroCoviders are determined to avoid the same fate. As Tomás Ryan says: 'unfortunately we have been presented as the extreme end of the Overton window — the other end being herd immunity and denialist people.'

"More importantly, I suspect it also stems from the realisation that the implications of a country committing to ZeroCovid are highly political. At the moment, the fundamental offer in Western democracies is: accept these awful restrictions now, and the vaccines will soon offer a way out.... But for the ZeroCovider, at that point we would need to do the opposite of relax. Instead, we would need to use ongoing 'interventions' ... to drive virus levels even lower.... [E]ven if — and that’s a very big if — Britain was able to reach ZeroCovid within our borders, what then? ... if our goal is an entirely Covid-free land, why would we ever relax border restrictions? You’d have to wait until the disease were eradicated on a global scale, which even the most committed activists don’t think is possible for years.... 

"Still, perhaps the thorniest question is what life would be like inside our theoretical ZeroCovid fortress. At last week’s conference, speakers explained that they prefer to use Australia and New Zealand as good examples because they garner a more positive response.... But the country that invented the approach, one which may be a better guide of a large nation pursuing the strategy after a severe outbreak, is China.... ZeroCovid China is anything but normal. Constantly fearful at the prospect of another outbreak, the country’s already expansive surveillance state has ramped up a gear, ready to withdraw liberty at the slightest sign of Covid.... Surely that is the most powerful objection to the approach: that in reality it would require a long-term illiberal regime to achieve and maintain it. ZeroCovid is a totalitarian aim, best delivered by a totalitarian state.... 

"So far at least, British voters have not chosen to reject liberal democracy, no matter what the epidemiological allure of a ZeroCovid regime. For now, the British Government has resisted the campaign’s logic, and the Prime Minister continues to make encouraging signals about easing restrictions and even summer holidays. But as the impact of the vaccine is felt and the number of cases continues to fall, the politically difficult question of what constitutes an acceptable level of infection will have to be addressed. Whatever that level is, expect well-spoken ZeroCovid campaigners to say it is too high. At each hesitant step towards opening up society, expect it to be called irresponsible and short-termist."

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* - signatory of the John Snow memorandum

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