Punctuated Emergence, or: A further defence and closer specification of my view that pandemic policies arise primarily from the unbounded myopia and stupidity of the people who govern us
Conspiracy and coordination were important at the beginning, but national governments and their institutions rapidly assumed the initiative in all areas of pandemic policy.
Arguing the conspiracy-or-emergence question with respect to pandemic policy is a little like weeding the garden. You are never quite done with it, and every few months you find you have something more to say.
In this instance, I must thank friend-of-the-blog Igor Chudov for providing the opportunity. He disagrees with my view that Covid policies owe less to creepy conspiratorial globalists, than they do to the unbounded stupidity of our leaders, boring institutional dynamics, and feedback effects. He’s explained why in an extensive post that everyone should read:
I don’t have an issue with most of the points Chudov raises, though I take a different view of their cumulative significance. I’d note only that the World Economic Forum article he leads with dates to 3 April 2020, long after the entire western elite had embraced mass containment. In general, the WEF merely echo current trends and policy fashions, which makes their real-world influence an obscure matter. It’s additionally important that Event 201, held in October 2019, explicitly rejected lockdowns and mass travel restrictions in the event of a deadly pandemic, preferring instead minimal measures like advisories.
From their Call to Action (emphasis mine):
Travel and trade are essential to the global economy as well as to national and even local economies, and they should be maintained even in the face of a pandemic. Improved decision-making, coordination, and communications between the public and private sectors, relating to risk, travel advisories, import/export restrictions, and border measures will be needed. The fear and uncertainty experienced during past outbreaks, even those limited to a national or regional level, have sometimes led to unjustified border measures, the closure of customer-facing businesses, import bans, and the cancellation of airline flights and international shipping. A particularly fast-moving and lethal pandemic could therefore result in political decisions to slow or stop movement of people and goods, potentially harming economies already vulnerable in the face of an outbreak.
In other words, planners as late as Fall 2019 viewed widespread closures in the event of a pandemic as a risk to be countered via nebulous stuff like “improved decision-making, coordination, and communications.” In this, Event 201 was entirely typical.
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This raises an important, if often-neglected question:
What about the 2020 response was normal and long-planned, and what about it was novel and unexpected?
We don’t need clandestine plots to elucidate measures that the pandemicists have been formulating entirely in the open and promising to deliver for decades. Where they might help, though, is with strange policies and responses that nobody ever heard of before.
Strictly speaking, none of what happened was all that new. Testing, contact tracing, lockdowns, accelerated vaccine development – all were discussed prior to 2020 as part of an increasingly elaborate and authoritarian pandemic toolkit intended to save us (mostly) from pandemic influenza.
The novelty lay entirely in the application of these measures. To understand it, we must internalise the crucial distinction between mitigation and containment. I can’t emphasise this enough; indeed, if I could wave a wand and put one concept into the heads of everyone pondering this matter, it would be this distinction, that’s how important I find it.
Since SARS-1 in 2003 at least, epidemiologists had planned to respond to limited, localised outbreaks via containment. Infection clusters confined to specific apartment complexes, city blocks, or villages would trigger total lockdowns of several weeks, with testing and contact tracing to contain the outbreak before it spread any further. Under containment, you can’t go outside to walk your dog. Everyone gets tested all the time; the tracers follow every transmission chain back to the source. Virus botherers in weird virus suits deliver rations to your doorstep on a stick. Everyone who tests positive is carted off to centralised quarantine. The most widely reported example of containment is what Japanese health authorities did to the Diamond Princess after she returned to Yokohama Port in February 2020.
If containment fails and the virus begins to circulate more broadly, planners envisioned a transition to mitigation strategies. Mitigation is a nebulous cluster of milder measures that, it was hoped, would slow the spread and reduce pressure on hospitals. These measures could involve everything from work-at-home advisories to periodic school closures. It’s true that the pandemicists spent the years after SARS-1 developing ever more authoritarian mitigationist plans, but these were not lockdowns designed to stop the virus. They were, explicitly, about flattening rather than crushing the curve, and they were rooted in doubtful retrospective observational studies of the 1918 influenza pandemic in the United States, which purported to show that periodic school closures could delay (note: not prevent) pandemic mortality.
Where this discussion often goes wrong, is the tendency to mistake the escalating mitigationist visions of western pandemicists for an incipient mass containment plot. This is understandable, but if we maintain an autistic focus on our crucial distinction, we can see that it’s not quite right. Even the famous three-day Ebola lockdown imposed on Sierra Leone in 2014 was a mitigationist measure, because the goal was only to slow the rate of infection, not to beat the virus back or drive the curve downwards.
What happened in January 2020 in China, and then in March 2020 to the rest of the world, was an innovation in theory and practice. Pandemicists decided suddenly to ditch mitigation altogether and attempt virus containment not just in one apartment building, but en masse. All those heavy-handed measures that planners, in a prior era of sanity, had rejected as unscalable beyond the level of the city block, would be applied to whole metropolises, regions and nations, with the goal being to “crush the curve” (rather than flatten it) and perhaps even to achieve Zero Covid by forcing the reproduction number under 1. Diagnostic of mass containment is not its most obtrusive feature, namely lockdowns, but rather mass testing and contact tracing, because the goal in a containment regime is not to slow infections, but to prevent them.
Since the completion of the WHO smallpox vaccination campaign, Western planners had envisioned a pandemic response consisting of months or years of minimal mitigationist measures, followed by accelerated treatment and vaccine development. Studying their wargames and related documents shows that pandemicists before 2020 generally saw it as their duty to forestall public panic and keep economic activity alive. They furthermore assumed that everyone would be deeply grateful for a vaccine and that, if anything, people would have to be prevented from killing each other to get priority access.
What had never been planned was nationwide lockdowns, mass testing and contact tracing to stop a virus circulating across entire hemispheres. How our respective public health establishments ended up discarding their long-standing plans in favour of mass containment, is a question I looked into a long time ago, in two posts on the history of lockdowns. In the interests of furthering this discussion, I’ve lifted the paywall on both pieces:
What you’ll find there, is much evidence that mass containment came to the West via three specific events, the significance of which became apparent only in retrospect:
1) In January and February 2020, all of our governments were pressing ahead with their prior mitigationist pandemic plans. Public health officials talked down the risk of the virus as part of a longstanding strategy to prepare everyone for infection with minimal panic. The WHO dithered, torn internally by a Sinophilic faction eager to minimise events in China, and a more concerned faction eager to ring the alarm. When the Hubei lockdown appeared to succeed, these two factions were suddenly aligned. The Sinophiles could agree that the virus was dangerous but the Chinese solution was effective; the alarmists could finally cry fire. The result was a crucial WHO report published on 24 February endorsing Chinese-style mass containment.
2) Also at the end of February, Italian health officials had begun imposing confined, village-level lockdowns in specific northern hotspots. This was the ordinary localised containment that the pandemicists had always envisioned, but as authorities widened testing, they began to discover SARS-2 community spread just as that WHO report dropped. There’s a great deal that we don’t know about what happened next, but on 8 March, the Italian government embraced the WHO recommendations from two weeks prior, imposing a region-wide lockdown on all of Lombardy. By 10 March, they extended the closures to all of Italy. The closures were accompanied by heavy pro-lockdown propaganda across social media and growing alarm in the press.
3) Finally, Neil Ferguson and his dubious, forever-wrong modelling team at Imperial College London – some of whom had been involved in the early village-level containment in northern Italy – published their inaugural SARS-2 pandemic model on 16 March. This document influenced discussion across the world. It turned early anxiety about ventilator shortages (propagated by China via the WHO) into concrete arguments about how Corona would melt down hospitals, and it was an initial step in the great attempt to make mass containment politically possible (and palatable) to Western populations. Ferguson and his team introduced the idea of technocratic lockdowns, which might consist of only partial and periodic restrictions, rather than universal closures as in Hubei; and they also began to equivocate about what the goals of mass containment actually were. As officially stated, the purpose was merely to hold out for vaccines, which it was hoped would arrive in 18 months. Zero Covid advocates themselves, however – among them a wealth of prominent bureaucrats and politicians across the world – continued to hope explicitly for indefinite virus suppression or permanent eradication.
All three of these events were powerful stimuli, which acted on the public health establishments of our respective countries in different ways. Some places, like Japan, Sweden and Belarus, remained unswayed and stayed open. Italy, at the other extreme, locked down first and hardest, enacting the only Chinese-style lockdown in the West. Everyone else adopted some version of Fergusonian technocratic closures, placing their faith in the voodoo of the pandemic modellers and never-ending, ever-changing litany of One Cool Tricks. Every country that adopted mass containment grafted it onto existing pandemic plans. Accelerated vaccine development continued in the background.
Now, did these three stimuli emerge spontaneously and influence the governments of our respective countries wholly by accident? No, they did not. There were important plots and conspiratorial actors in these early days. By April at the latest, though, mass containment had become a noxious cluster of autonomous, self-reinforcing policies across Western nations, devised and enforced by domestic scientific advisers and public health bureaucrats who were acting on nobody’s initiative but their own. This is what we see, in excruciating detail, in the leaked Hancock lockdown files, and all the other revelations to date.
As for the conspirators: They are to be sought in the earliest months of 2020. China played a very important role here, through its influence within the WHO, and perhaps also via separate channels. A lot has been said about this angle. Less often discussed is the early influence exercised by social media platforms. It’s very unlikely to be an accident that lockdown mania enjoyed such early favour with the Silicon Valley set, including key, mysteriously viral people like Tomas Pueyo; and that all major social media platforms turned into perpetual lockdown promotion machines after 10 March 2020. Tech companies were also some of the clearest beneficiaries of pandemic policies, profiting from local retail closures and increased demand for online shopping, near-universal reliance on work-at-home software, and the idle attentions of billions of house-arrested people.
The people who don’t play any crucial early role, are our go-to globalist villains. The WEF and Bill Gates start demanding lockdowns at the same time as everybody else. Beginning in mid-2020, Klaus Schwab was even pushing his political contacts to declare the pandemic over with, so he could return to ESG concern-trolling. Theories have to be parsimonious and explanatory, and this one just isn’t. It succeeds because it collapses what is actually a complex, multilayered history into a single universal narrative that applies to all countries simultaneously; and because it identifies clear villains and supplies a single, unified reason for the insanity befell us.
Reality is harder than that.
While I can’t compete with all the massive platforms and posters who disagree with me, I can at least, here at the bottom, attempt to head off some common objections.
Many of my critics collapse distinctions between different organisations. They’ll respond to this by saying that “the WEF and the WHO and Gates and China are all the same” or insisting that a WEF affiliation on somebody’s resume makes them a WEF actor. I can’t agree with this approach. It’s not how we discuss organisations or individuals in any other context. If you lower the resolution enough, all you see are blurry shapes and any theory becomes defensible, but that doesn’t make you right.
Others reason backwards from the “lockstep” coordination of our countries in implementing lockdowns to infer a broader, globalist plot. In every country I’ve studied, lockdowns were the subject of heavy reporting, and I’ve tried to describe in the broadest sense how they actually came about. Law and policy throughout Western countries are actually very highly coordinated in many areas. The reasons for this are diverse, but unless you think every swing in stock or cryptocurrency prices is a specific, deliberate, coordinated conspiracy, you must accept that apparent coordination does not necessarily indicate a plot, and may also arise from things like preference cascades and spontaneous order.
There is, finally, a tendency to read grand policy objectives like Agenda 2030 onto specific contemporary events. I understand that this seems compelling, but there’s oceans of globalist aspirational detritus out there, and you can force this vague verbiage into a theory explaining literally anything. Nobody would say that this stuff doesn’t matter, but if you take the opposite approach, of beginning with specific regional or national lockdown policies and following them up the chain, you will literally never end up at Agenda 2030. At the earliest moments of the pandemic, this exercise indeed led to some interesting places; since April 2020, though, you’ll find that everything goes back to local and national politicians, various branches of the bureaucracy, and the public health establishment. That matters.
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