UnHerd‘s Freddie Sayers reports on the worrying growth in popularity and organisation of the Zero Covid cause.
As I discovered last week, the first rule of ZeroCovid Club is: do not talk about ZeroCovid Club. “ZeroCovid” is, after all, a term that elicits confusion and, sometimes, outright hostility. Perhaps that’s why, when leading members of the global ZeroCovid movement met for a three-day international conference last Wednesday, it had a far more innocuous title: the “Covid Community Action Summit”.
But even though this increasingly popular school of thought – which holds that we must not return to normal until the virus is completely eliminated within a country – wasn’t explicitly on the billing, its presence was made clear from the outset. In her introductory remarks, the moderator confirmed to the more than 600 registrants and speakers from across the world that “we are here to end Covid through ZeroCovid and CovidZero policies”. More often at the event, held over Zoom and organised by American scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam, speakers preferred to refer to ZeroCovid as an “elimination strategy”.
Yet the purpose of the event was clear: to share evidence and political advice to help campaigners lobby Western governments to abandon any notion of living alongside the virus, and instead to follow the lead of Asia-Pacific nations in aiming to eliminate the disease entirely within their borders. This group is crucially distinct from people who support ongoing lockdown measures to suppress the virus to a level where it is safe to reopen – for ZeroCovid believers, we cannot rest until that level is zero.
Extreme it may be, but it is no fringe movement.
Their advocates are among the most regular faces in broadcast media; Professor Devi Sridhar, one of its most outspoken advocates, has appeared on Channel 4 News 21 times during the pandemic – more than any other expert.
There’s a UK ZeroCovid chapter, which last month hosted its own well-attended online conference; the Scottish Government is committed to their campaign, alongside Independent SAGE, British trade unions and Labour MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. Meanwhile, influential Tory MPs like Jeremy Hunt advocate a strategy of “zero infections and elimination of the disease” and routinely refer to the Asian model. Google search results in the UK and US for “ZeroCovid” are at an all-time high. The campaign has momentum.
Sayers spies the fatal flaw for any country that values its freedom.
ZeroCovid is a totalitarian aim, best delivered by a totalitarian state. Even in Australia, last weekend there was panic buying in Perth as the city re-entered lockdown in response to a single positive test result. So far at least, British voters have not chosen to reject liberal democracy, no matter what the epidemiological allure of a ZeroCovid regime.
For now, the British Government has resisted the campaign’s logic, and the Prime Minister continues to make encouraging signals about easing restrictions and even summer holidays. But as the impact of the vaccine is felt and the number of cases continues to fall, the politically difficult question of what constitutes an acceptable level of infection will have to be addressed.
Whatever that level is, expect well-spoken ZeroCovid campaigners to say it is too high. At each hesitant step towards opening up society, expect it to be called irresponsible and short-termist. No doubt ZeroCoviders sincerely believe their campaign for a Covid-free world is a noble one. But how successful they are at influencing policy will affect the shape of our society for years to come.
Worth reading in full.