So we’re back here. We are heading towards Christmas. Families plan to get together. The worst seems to be behind us.
Then a new Covid variant appears. The government’s rhetoric is changing. The variant is “extremely worrying”, say the ministers, and “we must act with caution”. There is an immediate travel ban, once again disrupting the lives of thousands of families with no obvious purpose. Labor is ardently demanding the “wearing of a mask in public places”. Seasoned scientists are starting to tell people to prepare to go back, far from normal.
But there is a difference this time: we are not sitting ducks. This country has just set up an unprecedented mass vaccination program. The vast majority of people have some sort of immunity, and most vulnerable people have recently received a booster.
Yet somehow we’re still in “do something!” ” fashion. At the first sign of trouble, calls for blockages, restrictions and vaccine passports rise to a stir. Journalists fill press conferences with endless rounds of questions about why we are not doing more. The question of when exactly we expect to return to a normal level of risk appetite has not been asked, let alone answered.
The forever confined crowd has points on its side, as it always does. We don’t know much about the latest variant. He has many more mutations than the previous ones, they say, and could be even more transmissible. We don’t know if it’s more deadly or milder. We don’t know whether it will escape our vaccines more easily or not. It could all be a disaster, the end of the world, the wave to end all the waves. Or not.
There are some things we do know, however. We know that the new variants are now a permanent reality. We know they will find their way here with or without these unnecessary âtravel bansâ. We know that the rapidly spreading variants will soon become, like others before them, endemic. We know that we have seven vaccines and that we are counting in our arsenal.
We also have strong evidence that this country is now very resistant to Covid. More than 80% of Britons over the age of 12 have received two doses of the vaccine, 28% have received three and up to 14% are said to have contracted the virus since July.
The recent wave, which was really more of a ripple, failed to increase death or hospitalization rates to anything like the levels seen at last January’s peak. Then it started to subside, even before the booster program reached all vulnerable people. Professor Lockdown himself, Neil Ferguson, thinks we could be âalmost on collective immunityâ.
Meanwhile, we have limited evidence that measures other than vaccines actually work very well. Scotland still requires the mask to be worn widely, but its case rate has risen higher than England’s this fall. October cases peaked more than a week before school semesters, suggesting school vacations were not the reason for the ebb.
Total closures, of the kind seen in March of last year, seem to be working, but they are also destroying society. And the debate over Sweden is roaring: the country that has never closed its doors and has experienced death rates far higher than its northern neighbors, but far lower than ours.
Yet even before Thursday’s news on the latest variant, bureaucrats, lazy and risk-averse men were threatening everyone with their procedures and precautions. While most of life has managed to return to some semblance of normalcy, state-run institutions are struggling to break out of the Covid bubble.
Each new title is an excuse for unions to complain that work is not “safe”. Thousands of public sector workers are still sitting at home, depressing productivity, absorbing buckets of fresh public spending, and stifling the economy (just think of the backlog of DVLA truck licenses). All kinds of places, like public museums, always try to require masks to be worn, even though the law does not. The administrative burden and expenses associated with flights abroad have multiplied endlessly.
Schools are among the most prolific in the security-ism Covid, when they should be the ones fighting the most against it for the sake of their students. Bans on shaking hands, masks, canceled nurseries, draconian policies against the disease: everything must still work in the shadow of the virus.
Worse yet, as The Telegraph reported this week, some schools have even taken it upon themselves to impose “blackouts” – week-long “e-learning” rehearsal parties in which teachers sit at home while their students fall further and further behind. Such closures should be illegal.
Instead, with the news of this variant, these kinds of measures will spread. Just when it seemed like the government was right to give us back our freedoms and resist Europe’s new lockdown fever, supporters of Covid’s endless panic took the initiative again. They want to show that freedom can still be suspended at any time and society can still be put in the freezer.
It is already clear that some aspects of life will never return to normal. We will keep crumpled masks in our pockets for years to come. Travelers will forever be forced to fill out unnecessary paperwork briefs to travel anywhere and in many countries they will need to show proof of vaccination. Sticking a cotton swab in your nose every now and then will just be a part of life from now on. These things are dismal, but inevitable.
What we cannot accept, however, is that our fundamental freedoms are nothing more than loans that can be called up at any time. Free societies do not require their citizens to receive new vaccines every year to lead normal lives. They do not allow teachers to close schools with a simple gesture. They don’t put Christmas on hold, close offices, and ban drinking every time something unusual pops up in a lab somewhere.
Last year, as the country entered its third and most depressing Christmas lockdown, politicians backing the restrictions promised us release was imminent. âLet’s not fall at the last hurdle,â they said. âThe vaccine is here! they said. âJust wait for deployment, then enjoy your freedoms. “
Well, the deployment has taken place. The virus is still here, evolving, and it will continue to evolve forever. It’s as good as it gets. We therefore need to know when and how we will go from âCovid modeâ to ânormal lifeâ. With so many panic-mongers resisting change, it won’t happen without a fight. We need to know that the government really wants to win.
Villainous international organizations help China crush freedom
Have we lost the plot? Interpol, the international police agency, has just elected a new Chinese official to its executive committee after the last man, an official named Meng Hongwei, was literally disappeared by the Chinese state. There is no symbol that better represents the state of governance organizations in the world.
Interpol helps its 195 member countries share police information and issues cross-border arrest warrants for people they wish to arrest. One of its four founding principles is ârespect for human rightsâ. But authoritarian regimes have found it to be an excellent vehicle for tracking down the targets of dissidents and ethnic minorities that have eluded them.
In recent years, China has stepped up its use of Interpol to prosecute democracy activists, government critics and prominent members of groups it wants to exterminate. Xi Jinping has launched two campaigns, called “Fox Hunt” and “Sky Net”, the objectives of which are to sweep and extradite critics of his regime abroad. Research by human rights group Safeguard Defenders shows that Chinese state media have bragged about the use of Interpol’s tools in nearly 3,000 cases as part of these campaigns.
The ridiculous affair of Meng and his replacement shows how much easier we are in Beijing. In 2018, Meng, the head of Interpol, returned to China – and never returned. Yet here we are three years later and Beijing has a new head on Interpol’s executive committee. Have you disappeared your own official? No matter! Send another one!
Democratic countries provide over 60% of Interpol’s funding, but as usual we have rendered ourselves procedurally powerless, having diffused voting power among the organization’s many member states.
Yet there are levers we could pull. Dozens of parliamentarians from the International Parliamentary Alliance on China have written a letter to oppose China’s plans to include its leader on the Interpol committee. Where was the campaign at the government level? And what are Interpol’s main funders doing to ensure that its practices respect its legal commitment to political neutrality and human rights? Interpol recently introduced a code of conduct and initiated reforms which it says “will ensure greater transparency”. Its detractors are skeptical.
Recently, Meng’s wife Grace, who lives in France with their children, publicly expressed her fear of Beijing’s long arm for the first time. This power is amplified by organizations like Interpol. And through them, democracies, rather than hampering this activity, help and encourage it.
The world recently got a taste of how China’s “disappearance” system works. Peng Shuai is not your typical government critic. She is a tennis player with a network and fan base across the world. Yet when she spoke about being sexually abused by a senior retired Communist Party official called Zhang Gaoli, she was quickly and effectively silenced.
First, the regime deleted its blog post. Then she disappeared from sight for days. Then she reappeared smiling, attending official events, going to dinner with “friends” (including several unsmiling and official-looking men) and even had a half-hour phone call with Olympic bureaucrats, who then said she was “fine”.
If Peng had known the hell raised abroad by her friends and foreign governments, she might have concluded that her best chance of escaping China and the life of surveillance, gagging and control that now waiting would be to stick to his guns. But she was presumably kept in the dark. Pressure had to be exerted to obtain his cooperation. The usual method would be to take family members hostage. So, with the help of the Olympic apparatus, Beijing neutralized a public relations nightmare.
Last week, I said that China and other authoritarian regimes continue to make mistakes. This week, cowardly international organizations established and backed by the West pulled China out of its own mess. With “friends” like that …