(Image Credit: Flickr account ‘wintertwined’; the image is at this link)
The popular appeal of achieving ‘zero Covid’ is merely the latest instance of humans’ proclivity for totalitarian measures in their search for personal goals. The cost of these measures that is paid by others is of little to no concern.
A MATTER OF DISTINCTION
On several occasions over the last few months, I have come across references to the hashtag ‘zero Covid’. From what I have seen, this means having zero cases of Covid (the emphasis here being on ‘cases’, regardless of their severity – rather than on those serious enough to require hospitalization and/or resulting in death). From a layman’s perspective, this appears to me like a very difficult goal, on account of the following:
- As a pulmonary disease that doesn’t require specific circumstances to spread, Covid can potentially affect every individual,
- We have been told repeatedly and emphatically that Covid is especially efficient at transmitting itself from one individual to another,
- We have also been told in similar terms that Covid engenders mutations that are increasingly more potent and therefore more lethal – much more so compared to other viruses.
- A survey of scientists published in Nature magazine in February 2021 concluded that many of them expect the Covid virus to become endemic, but pose less danger over time. The same opinion, from local experts in Canada, was echoed in a story by CTV News on June 22, 2021.
However, at least in theory, it is scientifically feasible to work to a goal where Covid does not become an endemic virus that shows up regularly or seasonally. Whether this goal is attainable or not is a question for adequately qualified people to explore and hopefully answer. As ordinary people without the necessary background, we can ponder the reasons for the increasingly wider acceptance of the idea in political circles as well as in the general population.
I have seen some doctors point to the history of gaining control over pathogenic viruses such as smallpox and measles (as in this tweet) as corroboration for the idea that ‘zero Covid’ is feasible. In the case of smallpox, the claim is indeed true; the last naturally-occurring case of the disease was in 1977. However, in the case of measles, as the Centers For Disease Prevention & Control (CDC) notes here, “… measles cases and outbreaks still occur every year in the United States because measles is still commonly transmitted in many parts of the world, including countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the Americas and Africa’. Closer to home, Public Health Ontario stated last year that “As of December 19, 2019, a total of 14 laboratory-confirmed cases of measles have been reported in Ontario.”
Given the greater sensitivity to acts of terrorism in the United States, CDC indicates, on its web page for smallpox, the possibility of an outbreak of smallpox occurring “in the event that it is used as an agent of bioterrorism”. This possibility is especially relevant in the case of Covid, because the notion that the virus is of a laboratory origin (as opposed to naturally occurring), which was for a long time dismissed out of hand as a wacky conspiracy theory, is gaining official recognition as a valid possibility now.
Another major difference between Covid and other viruses is that previous instances of gaining control over viruses have not involved imposing catastrophic costs on entire populations; measures were targeted at vulnerable populations only, while the rest of the society was able to go about life in the normal way. This is a relevant distinction because in the case of Covid, each variant that shows up carries with it the possibility of the whole society being locked down again. That is, the possibility exists unless our policy-makers choose to follow a different path henceforth. But that hardly seems likely, in light of the tendencies that they have demonstrated thus far.
With these caveats in place, let us proceed to examine why so many people find a target of zero (of anything negative) to be appealing.
The City of Toronto has a policy called ‘Vision Zero’. Its website explains the policy objective here as:
“The city is committed to Vision Zero and accepts its fundamental message: fatalities and serious injuries on our roads are preventable, and we must strive to reduce traffic-related deaths and injuries to ZERO.” (Emphasis in the original).
In pursuance of this policy, the City announced that during 2020-2021, the maximum speed limits on all arterial, collector and local roads would be reduced by 10 kilometers per hour. This is based on the fact that higher speeds increase the chances of a collision. So, reducing the speed allowed on the roads decreases this possibility.
If we take this argument to its logical maximum, then reducing the traffic speed to zero kilometers per hour results in 100% pedestrian safety. But making such a policy would, of course, be unpopular; people need to get around as well as move stuff, and a speed limit of zero KMPH means no vehicles on the road. So there is necessarily a trade-off – however much we may dislike it – between pedestrian safety and speed of traffic. But acknowledging this trade-off publicly, and thus implying that there will always be some level of pedestrian injuries and deaths in traffic, would also be equally unpopular, if not more so. Therefore, the target of zero fatalities & injuries has to be part of the policy, and more crucially, part of the politicians’ public statements, even when everyone knows that the professed target is unattainable. As I noted in my earlier article ‘The Third Bicyclist’, “Some ideas, initiatives and policies can be continued only if they fail”.
THE POWER OF NATURE
Another area where the target of zero is widely popular is CO2 emissions (very often wrongly presented as carbon emissions – but let’s not get bogged down in that discussion here). To be fair, the end-goal in the fight against climate change is presented in terms of net-zero CO2 emissions. On deeper reflection, however, this is either an oversight or a sleight of hand. If the end-game of energy transition is to achieve a stage where all power generation is via ‘green’ sources, then it follows that in such a (so far hypothetical) world, there will be no CO2 emissions resulting from either generation or use of energy. Therefore, it should rightly be called a ‘zero-emissions target’.
Skipping over this point, let us examine what it would take to transition our energy sources completely to ‘green’ ones. Thankfully for us, Roger Pielke Jr. did the heavy lifting for us in an article published in Forbes magazine in September 2019. According to his calculations, achieving net-zero by 2050 would require commissioning of one nuclear plant every dayfrom September 2019 through to the end of 2050. Alternatively, it would require 1,500 windmills of 2.5 MW capacity to be commissioned every dayin that same time frame. It is worth pausing here to note that ‘commissioning’ means the nuclear plant or windmills beginning to deliver power.
Given the current state of technology, however, the process of transitioning must depend, for the most part, on the energy sources that we are trying to transition away from. So the sheer scale of mining, processing, manufacturing, transport and erection of alternative sources of energy requires a vast increase in the use of conventional sources of energy, including fossil fuels. The exponential increase in these activities would verily decimate the environment. In addition, the need for end-of-life disposal of the green energy apparatus would exacerbate the damage; as shown in this article, a recent report published in the Harvard Business review revealed that the risk on this account had been significantly under-appreciated until now. Plus, both creation and disposal of this apparatus would necessitate a lot of land to be diverted from its present use. The humongous scale of requirement leads one to wonder if there is enough land to spare on the planet for this purpose.
Thus, the objective of achieving net-zero CO2 emissions is not only structurally self-defeating but also hugely counter-productive. But it has become fashionable to treat it as eminently achievable – and that too without much disruption in our lives or the environment. Anyone who disagrees with this, or even dares to question it, is branded as a ‘denier’ unworthy of participating in society. Crucially for this discussion, the number of Canadians who accept the idea of net-zero and the target date of 2050 is much larger compared to those who have any doubts.
What causes people to buy into unachievable and potentially destructive targets? Several possibilities come to mind, each of them acting on an individual to a greater or lesser degree:
- Hypothetical reality: This is best explained by the feeling of elation or dejection that one feels when their stock portfolio makes a substantial gain or loss. The value of the portfolio that is relevant to an individual is that prevailing on the day when they liquidate the said portfolio, or a part of it. At all other times, any prevailing value is purely hypothetical – but we treat it as real, and rejoice at or mourn the change in that value. In the case of Covid, people remember the life before it arrived, and yearn to go back to it. If they are told that such a return would be possible only when there is not a single case of Covid, they are mentally inclined to accept that as an inescapable precondition, because they have already factored in the hypothesized gain as real.
- Confucian priorities: Buying into the goal of attaining zero negative events around them requires people to take the next logical step: that of dismissing as inconsequential the costs that the pursuit of the objective forces upon others. In this context, I am reminded of a sentence that my Kenyan colleague Alfred was fond of quoting (he claimed that it was a quote from the works of Confucius, but I have not been able to verify this claim; nonetheless, the idea it conveys has merit): ‘My toothache is more important than a million people starving to death in a faraway land’. In a jarring manner, it highlights the degree to which humans are prone to be selfish. While many may find the comparison offensive, the truth is that at least to some degree, people value their priorities as higher than those of others. This, of course, has the potential to weigh on their conscience – but there is a way out.
- The ‘Greater Good’ pitfall: In order to enable people to disregard the harms inflicted on others in pursuance of a goal, it is necessary to coat that goal with moral justification. So the goal of ‘zero’ is presented as morally desirable for the society as a whole. People’s primary motivation for adopting that goal is, deep down, based on the expected benefit to them (and their progeny etc., where applicable), but believing that it also makes the society better as a whole makes it easier to cope with the knowledge that there are people being harmed in the process. The maximum that we can expect in the way of (grudging) acceptance is the argument that more people are being helped than harmed. This is a curious stance in a society that embraces the concept of minority rights (and, by implication, the dangers of majoritarianism).
- The smallest minority… is the individual. One of the paradoxes of modern-day Canada is that amid all the talk of minority rights, the right of the individual is often marginalized, if not outright ignored. This is nowhere exemplified better than in our law relating to self-defence. For example, while possession of a firearm isn’t outright illegal (yet), using a legally owned firearm for self-defence is bound to result in controversy and lengthy litigation. My view is that self-defence is the first – and foundational – human right; all the other rights don’t amount to much in its absence. Here, it is important to point out that while the term ‘self-defence’ normally evokes a visage in our minds of some violent confrontation, it can be at play in less dramatic situations as well. Given the overall social attitude in Canada on this matter of self-defence, it is not surprising that the right of the individual to defend their person and their interests is often overridden by considerations of the ‘greater good’. In the context of Covid, this takes the form of the mocking phrase ‘muh rights’. A real or perceived risk to the collective must be warded off, regardless of the cost to individuals.
- Sum of parts: It is common in societies for there to be a tug-of-war between individual and collective priorities. In some cases, de-prioritizing individual objectives may be justified. The question is, as often, a case of arriving at a threshold. When the sum of all the individual losses crosses this threshold, collective priorities should take a back-seat. The determination of this threshold depends on many factors that may themselves change over time. Alas, such an exercise is well-nigh impossible in Canada; as I observed in an earlier article ‘Structural Dysfunction’, “We are no longer a nation of people sharing a sense of destiny, but rather different groups that seek to subjugate each other”. Therefore, once a ‘zero-target’ has been proposed and accepted by a large enough number of people, any talk of the aforesaid threshold might as well belong in another universe. The desire to eliminate risk becomes the be-all and end-all of policy. Nothing else is perceived.
- Risk perception and reaction: It is fascinating to see the difference in the Canadian society from the time of the battle at Vimy Ridge to today’s extreme risk-aversion. For the current discussion, it will suffice to say that while the 10,600 casualties suffered by Canada within three days of that battle in 1917 were due to Canadians throwing themselves willingly in the path of danger, the harms caused by policies of ‘zero targets’ result from a large number of people embracing the idea of having zero casualties. This change points to a 180 degree turn in our character as a society. We have gone from displaying rugged courage to outsourcing risk in just over 100 years. Exactly when and how this metamorphosis of Canadian society – from one wedded to individualism to a trenchantly collectivist one – occurred is a subject for scholars to explore. What we can say with confidence in the interim is that it is but a short step from collectivism to totalitarianism. I think we may have taken this step already in Canada.
It is possible that there are other factors contributing to the wide acceptance of ‘zero-targets’ in Canada. It is also possible that the ideas that I have narrated above are faulty – perhaps even significantly so. What cannot be denied, however, is that the obsession with ‘zero-targets’ has the potential to cause much harm to individuals, and thus to the collective society. Therefore, it needs to be tempered with sober reflection of the balance of benefits versus costs in each case.