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Artillery Row

The illegitimacy of expertise

Why did the West stop following its own Lockdown rules?

There is a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, but here’s something we do know about the virus; it doesn’t care about justice. The righteousness of your cause doesn’t provide immunity from the disease, large public gatherings and demonstrations in the name of these beliefs don’t confer righteous inoculation against COVID-19. But you wouldn’t know that watching what has unfolded over the past week or so, or listening to political leaders and many public health officials discussing the massive global demonstrations that have taken place in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

After George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, everything changed. The virus didn’t change, but the value judgements that were allowed to be involved in deciding between tradeoffs and risks did

Three or so months into the lockdowns triggered by the global COVID-19 pandemic, they’re essentially over. They aren’t over because the pandemic is over, the Lockdowns are over because events in the past week simply mean they cannot be continued. But the way that they have been ended, and the way that many public heath officials and political leaders have treated these massive global protests reveals something important about how expertise has been used, and misused, during this crisis.

Working in a world of uncertainty, decisions guiding the response to the pandemic were always going to be driven by the need to assess tradeoffs between various bad options. This is the logic that should always have been guiding decisions about how to respond to the pandemic in the first place. Even now, there are all sorts of things we don’t know with any degree of certainty about the virus, like how it spreads, who can spread it, and how to minimize its impact. But in the face of this uncertainty, political leaders and the technical experts that are supposed to advise them still had no choice but to act. Mistakes were of course made, but most people broadly understood and supported the need for lockdowns, and they wouldn’t have been possible without broad public support.

These decisions were, I think, justified. All of this was done ostensibly with a single goal of halting the spread of the disease, of flattening the curve, of “protecting the NHS” and ultimately of saving lives. But we also know that the massive economic contraction and confinement of people to their homes was not going to be without its toll either. The choice was never between lockdowns or no lockdowns, of saving lives versus not saving lives. The economic, social, and psychological toll of lockdowns is real, and we were choosing between various bad options.

Given these tradeoffs and uncertainty, these decisions were not simply about “following the science.” We know that unemployment leads to an increase in suicide and “deaths by despair.” We found out that telling people to stay home and not go to the hospitals was actually too effective, and people have not been going to hospitals when they should be, something that will result in lots of what were preventable deaths down the road. All of these things needed to be weighed in decisions and public guidance that was offered.

In order to choose between these bad options, mere expertise isn’t enough. Of course we never had a true lockdown. People weren’t forcibly confined to their homes, they could still mostly go outside. A new category of businesses deemed “essential” was created on the fly and this privileged caste was allowed to remain open. But the category of “essential” was tied up to the sole goal of preventing the spread of the virus while keeping people alive. Grocery stores obviously couldn’t be closed; churches, however, could be and were.

But with the singular focus of preventing the spread of the virus, these decisions were granted a veneer of technocratic legitimacy. They weren’t based on value judgements, they were based on expert advice with the neutral goal of limiting the spread of the virus. The tradeoffs being made were about preventing preventable deaths, and figuring out the way to navigate the various minefields that differing levels of lockdowns and shutdowns would create. This is one of the reasons it was important that the old principle of ministerial responsibility was used, and seen to be at work, in making the decisions. Technical experts advise, ministers and political leaders decide, meaning that these tradeoffs were ultimately decisions made by responsible and transparent political actors on the advice of technical experts.

But this isn’t really what the tradeoffs are, or should be about, and the events of the last week have exposed that. There is no neutral or purely rational way of making these tradeoffs. So these tradeoff were ultimately going to require some subjective and value judgements. In the last week, across the Western world our political leaders and public health officials have all of a sudden started making decisions under this assumption. What is maddening is how this came about.

The way decisions have been made about tradeoffs until barely a week ago was all about saving lives, and some of the things that were prohibited in the process of this are genuinely heartbreaking. Preventing people from visiting or saying goodbye to their loved ones in their final moments, and restricting funeral size, are devastating decisions that will haunt people for the rest of their lives. Few things are surely more important than letting a child say goodbye to their father. But prohibitions on things like mass funerals or hospital and care home visits are justifiable, if heartbreaking, if the sole goal is to limit the loss of life.

If we’re allowing any kind of value judgements into what counts as “exceptional” during the pandemic, surely this meets the standard. Yet it hasn’t, and nor did countless other fundamental parts of peoples lives and identities, from religious services to weddings. But what we’ve learned in the past week is that actually there are some things that are worth risking the spread of the virus for. And which the state will tolerate.

After George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, everything changed. The virus didn’t change, but the value judgements that were allowed to be involved in deciding between tradeoffs and risks did. All of a sudden, the same people who were barely a week prior condemning anyone breaking the rules as Grandma killers were supporting massive demonstrations against police brutality and racism. This is undoubtedly a just cause and the protests are surely, absent the pandemic, a cause for good. But in the last week all of a sudden we’ve heard from public officials, not least by them demonstrating through their actions, that some things might be worth the risk of spreading the disease and these are tradeoffs we have to make right now. Where was this logic as people were dying alone?

An open letter signed by thousands of public health officials, including many British ones, all of a sudden made clear that values would have to play a role in deciding what to allow and not allow because of the pandemic:

“However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives. Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”

If we are supposed to trust the judgment of public health officials when advising political leaders, these are the sorts of things we should have expected them to be leaving aside, especially given the heartbreaking decisions that have been made. The legitimacy of the decisions made in the past three months depends on this. No matter the justness of the cause, the expertise of these officials maintains at the very least on a veneer of compartmentalization of personal beliefs and separating them from public advice and guidance.

But they didn’t, and alongside these health officials political leaders of all stripes have joined the large global protests against racism and police brutality. The damage this does to the authority and legitimacy of expertise, and the decision makers following their advice, is going to be profound. By revealing that they are not actually making decisions free of value judgements, and that there are things more important than just limiting the spread of the virus, public health officials and political leaders are going to make it much harder for the public to assess their claims and expectations in the future. It also undermines the legitimacy of the painful decisions made over the past three months, and will both delegitmize and fuel anger and a public backlash against the decisions that have been made.

The possibility of mere expertise, while always illusory, has now vanished before our eyes. These protests were impossible to prevent, and firing tear gas to disperse crowds of peaceful protests even if they are violating the social distancing rules would be just as wrong and evil as firing tear gas onto a beach or into a park full of sun worshippers. But the decision by public health officials and leaders to act and talk now as if there are things worth the risk of spreading the virus comes with its own enormous tradeoffs.

Should there be a spike in cases in the next few weeks caused by these protests, these officials will have no authority to demand us retreat into a second lockdown. The first wave of lockdowns was only possible because of widespread cooperation. The trust and good will towards experts and political leaders that enabled this cooperation will be non-existent. Should we have a second wave then, its spread will be much more difficult to control, and if this happens it will most likely be vulnerable people and minorities that are hurt the most. But if there isn’t a spike, even after these mass demonstrations, all the pain we willingly caused ourselves to stop the spread of the virus, and all the devastation we caused, will begin to look unnecessary to many, further damaging trust in public health officials and the pandemic response.

Trying to maintain trust in expertise is itself a tradeoff public officials needed to take seriously, given the possibility of future waves, but this appears absent. Instead, expertise looks to have been politicized, even if for a just cause, undermining one of the key claims to its legitimacy.

None of us have any idea what is going to happen in the coming weeks and month. The cause behind these mass demonstrations was just, and there was no stopping them. But the ripple effects that public health officials and political leaders raising their flags at the moment they chose to do so will be profound. We should all hope that there is no second wave, because if there is, it’s going to be much more difficult to stop it.

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