In case you forgot, the world recently lived through an extended period of totalitarian biomedical surveillance, top-down executive control, and rights-stripping in which unprecedented and unconstitutional policies were introduced suddenly and enforced harshly, and to even question them was often a punishable offense. And when it finally became undeniable that this had all been done in the name of fighting a disease that ended up being only moderately worse than the average seasonal flu, it seemed that a worldwide reckoning was inevitable.* We would have to ask ourselves: How did this happen? How could we make sure it doesn’t happen again?
But no such reckoning has happened. Instead, the world moved on and refused to talk about it again. It feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s as if something so unspeakable happened that politeness demands that it be referred to only in vague one-word gestures. “The war.” “The change.” “The pandemic.”
Despite virtually everyone tacitly admitting that we can go back to living more or less as we had in the before-times, Covid-19 is still a difficult and divisive issue. This is why Toby Green and Thomas Fazi’s The Covid Consensus (Hurst, 2023) is so desperately needed. As the authors consistently maintain, their primary task is not analysis but simply documentation: what happened in the name of Covid must be cataloged, if only so it never happens again. There are straightforward lessons to be learned from the last few years, and the authors do their best to allow the many abuses of power to speak for themselves.
As a college professor hungry for any kind of collective reckoning with the insanity of the past few years, I took the liberty of assigning The Covid Consensus to my class on the politics of the developing world. While the book did provide plenty of opportunity to talk about “covid times” in class, it was also very useful for my course, as it discusses the under-examined impact of Covid policies on the world’s poorer countries. Green’s expertise, in Africa specifically and in the Global South more generally, shines through in nearly every chapter, with most of the book’s many examples of the harms of lockdowns coming from the developing world (which is only appropriate, since that is where most of the world’s people live). And there was no shortage of opportunities to connect the book to other course readings on imperialism and the ongoing extraction of wealth from South to North.
The book’s emphasis on the Third World is as it should be. Despite most of the news of the covid era concentrating on East Asia, Europe, and North America, the Global South is where the biggest injustices landed, and the book drives home this lesson strongly and repeatedly. Not only did the worst consequences of lockdowns occur in the Global South, but lockdowns were pushed on the South from the North, through well-known strongarm tactics of neocolonialism that have consistently pushed neoliberalism, austerity, and impoverishment on the South for the last several decades. These tactics include conditional lending, the influence of global NGOs and their ultra-wealthy backers, and sometimes even implicit threats of regime change.
That the covid response was globalized by imperial methods is no surprise to the authors, both of whom come from the left politically and are well-attuned to identifying such global patterns of injustice. And yet, despite a well-entrenched leftist anti-imperialist tradition, most on the left don’t see the imposition of lockdowns as an acceleration of such neocolonial policies, but as a necessary response to a terrifying worldwide pandemic. If they do happen to get cajoled into talking about covid and lockdowns, they will usually say that it was a good thing we took the precautions we did. I would hope that time will rectify this, and that eventually lockdowns will widely be seen as the humanitarian catastrophe they were, and as the impetus for another lost decade of development, paralleling the lost decade of the ‘80s following the Third World debt crisis, and lost to the same group of predatory Western lenders. However it may be received by its intended audience on the left, the authors make a compelling case.
The book’s subtitle is important here: The Global Assault on Democracy and the Poor—A Critique from the Left. That Green and Fazi felt the need to include that last bit says a lot. The authors take great pains throughout the book to distance themselves from the right, and make repeated efforts to deny any association with “conspiracy theories” about covid. These ritual disownments of deplorable ideas will probably make their arguments more persuasive to many on the left, and I can’t blame them for doing this, given this intended audience. But what is striking is that the book will go out of its way to dismiss conspiracy as an explanation at precisely those moments when it demonstrates that powerful people have indeed tried to cover up a secret plan to influence events. At times, Green and Fazi will even mention an actual documented conspiracy that was uncovered, and then immediately reassure the reader that there is no need for conspiracy theories.
For instance, in chapter four the authors show that risks of severe adverse events from the novel mRNA injections were significantly higher than the public was led to believe, and that pharmaceutical companies were working with governments to keep this information secret, through redactions of documents, secret arbitration proceedings, and even an attempt by Pfizer to keep the data of their clinical trials secret for seventy-five years (p. 173). Then on the next page they say that pointing this out is not evidence of being a conspiracy theorist, even though (as they say two paragraphs later) “secrecy is by definition an element of conspiracy.” Did drug manufacturers not conspire to keep their trial data hidden from the public? If they did, you have a conspiracy theory on your hands. The point is, powerful people do conspire together sometimes, and this can explain important things about how the world works. I empathize with the authors’ desire to not be written off as kooks, but I wish they didn’t give in so easily to the pernicious idea that anyone willing to call a conspiracy a conspiracy must be crazy.
Later, in chapter nine, the authors discuss how lawsuits against censorship uncovered “the mooted existence of a hidden censorship framework in the US government, with the alleged identification of more than 80 federal officials across 11 federal agencies having secretly coordinated with social media companies to censor speech” (384, emphases added). Then on the very next page: “Some critics have seen a conspiracy, but again this is rather a publicly shaped coordination which no one is hiding” (385). But clearly there were secret, hidden, coordinated attempts to conceal the censorship: that is called conspiracy. And observers of politics who dare to use this word—even if they do don a tinfoil hat—are not in any sense more dangerous than the actual conspiracies of the powerful that are documented in this book. The authors give credence to the bogeyman of the “right-wing conspiracy theorist,” a bogeyman who ironically plays a key role in thwarting the ongoing formation of a populist left-right anti-establishment alliance that might actually be able to resist the shift towards authoritarian capitalism that the authors warn against in the book’s final chapter. I only quibble on this point because in a book that is so thoroughgoing, clear, and consistent in its message, this concession to the dominant narrative—that “conspiracy theories” are to be avoided at all costs—sticks out like a sore thumb.
Despite these hiccups, the book shatters with terrible force the many pillars of the covid narrative. Take the calamitous harms of lockdowns, to which the book devotes several chapters. Green and Fazi show not only that lockdowns were extraordinarily harmful to society, but that they were most harmful to the oppressed and marginalized groups that the left claims to speak for. Women lost out: worldwide, the gender employment gap widened, domestic violence skyrocketed, and women had to take on most of the added childcare burden as kids were stuck at home. The kids themselves lost out: they were cheated out of a year or more of educational progress, they became more sedentary and less healthy, and depression and suicide exploded, to name a few. The poor and the middle class lost out to big businesses and small businesses went under. And most of all, the Global South was rocked by the collapse of the informal sector at the heart of their economies, the double shock of rising emigration and the loss of remittances from existing emigrants, rising levels of hunger, the halting of vaccination programs against serious diseases like tuberculosis, and to top it all off, another massive round of public debt owed to Western banks, debt taken on under the duress of locked-down economies, which themselves resulted from neocolonial pressure from the North.
And this is just on the harms of lockdowns in particular. Virtually all the other mainstays of the covid consensus are likewise interrogated: the supposed origin of the virus; the redefinitions of terms like pandemic, vaccine, and case; the supposed effectiveness of lockdowns; the supposed effectiveness and safety of the vaccines; the suppression of other treatments; the public-private censorship complex; the creeping web of social credit and control; the global influence of the growing billionaire class; the exalting of “experts” and “the science” as infallible; the politics of perpetual crisis; the rising authoritarianism of all of this and the left’s various justifications of it—the book is a veritable tour-de-force in these matters. Of course, with a topic this vast, some things will have to be left out. While there was an excellent section on the rapidly shifting public discourse on hydroxychloroquine as an antiviral treatment, ivermectin (about which the media blitz was even fiercer) was not mentioned once. And while Tanzania is not overlooked, its late president John Magufuli, certainly the global leader who put up the stiffest resistance to the covid narrative, and who died under mysterious circumstances, is also curiously absent. Although these examples perhaps suggest a certain hesitancy about topics deemed off-limits, they are admittedly minor points.
But on one major methodological point the book could do better. Chapter after chapter is filled with myriad examples of the horrors of covid tyranny, from the colossal harms of lockdowns everywhere and in virtually every dimension of life, to the vaccine mandates and their assault on bodily autonomy, to the hardening regime of censorship, and many others. And each example is documented meticulously in an endnotes section too long to be printed at the end of the book. (Readers have to find the 100+ pages of endnotes online, an unfortunate fate for a book that seeks to document these harms for posterity precisely so they will not be forgotten).
All of this adds up to the death of the covid narrative by a thousand cuts. But the execution would have been swifter and cleaner if a more systematic analysis had been included. For all the stories and statistics from various countries pieced together into a compelling narrative, it would have been even more powerful to see this information collected in systematic form to drive home the critique at a wider global level. The book rightly identifies, for instance, how covid merely accelerated many worrisome pre-existing trends in society. Perhaps the acceleration of some of these trends, such as growing economic inequality, or atomization and social distancing, could be demonstrated more broadly in an infographic of some sort. Or perhaps a well-chosen graph could have offered a systematic comparison of, say, key mental health indicators in countries that locked down versus those that didn’t. Sweden, Tanzania, and a few other countries that avoided lockdowns get a fair amount of attention, but a more methodical quantitative contrast on some of these dimensions would be helpful. Numbers aren’t always the answer, of course, but even crude one-dimensional measures bring a consistency that would add more weight to the argument, and deflect any possible charges of cherry-picking stories. The argument, as it stands, rests on example after tragic example. These certainly add up to a great deal, but actually convincing the naysayers may require the judicious analysis of—after covid, I hesitate to say it—data.
One preexisting trend that covid definitely accelerated is the seeming political realignment from a left/right axis to a globalist/localist axis, or perhaps an establishment/populist axis. As someone who comes from the left politically, I deeply appreciate the work that Green and Fazi have done here. Some of the most insightful sections of the book are those where the authors pick apart the online left’s complaints about “vaccine apartheid,” or where they debunk the claim that lockdowns would have been fine if only everyone had received adequate compensation from the government. They not only put the lie to the covid narrative writ large, but they live up to the book’s full title by attacking it from the left: that is to say, from a concern for the weak, the poor, and the oppressed, all of whom suffered the most from lockdowns, mandates, and the like.
The irony is that the covid narrative itself worked on this very mechanism. Only by playing on people’s concern for the vulnerable could the arguments for covid exceptionalism prevail. The moral force behind the lockdowns, the social distancing, the vaccine mandates, the conformity, and the censorship—it was all a leftward moral force. The covid consensus, it turns out, survived by twisting our human impulse to care for one another, just like so many war propaganda efforts. Comply with the lockdown or you don’t care about grandma. Send public money to these war profiteers or you don’t care about Ukrainian children. Or Israeli children. Or whichever children will be used to build the next consensus to sell us the next war. Power is at its most persuasive when it preys on our noblest motives.
In this light, the book could be read as a cautionary tale about the perils of moralized consensus formation, or perhaps the perils of group hysteria. At certain points the dangers of political polarization play a leading role. One person might come away from this book resolved to avoid the pitfalls of big government, while another might come away with a new awareness of the danger of corporate power, or the power of billionaires. Readers of Front Porch Republic may read it as a tale of the dangers of centralized power—especially globalized power—over national or local decision-making prerogatives. Green and Fazi point the reader in particular directions, without leading you all the way to a conclusion as to which of these is the prime culprit. But they have done their job and done it well: we now know beyond a reasonable doubt that a massive crime was indeed committed.
Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons