COVID-19, Hygiene Theatre, Masks, and Lockdowns: “Solid Science” or Science Veneer?

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COVID-19, Hygiene Theatre, Masks, and Lockdowns: “Solid Science” or Science Veneer?

Nearly two and a half years since COVID-19 overturned much of the world, vigorous debate still exists over whether or not governments “got COVID-19 right.” That is, despite more than two years for analysis and retrospective studies, it is unclear if governments—any governments—implemented the best policies (or even 2nd best policies) as the COVID pandemic exploded in 2020, and as it unfolded through 2021 and 2022.

This situation is troubling, as the world will undoubtedly face similar, and perhaps more severe pandemic challenges again in the future. Society needs to know what worked and what did not work, not only with regard to vaccines, but with regard to the many other interventions government deployed to fight the COVID epidemic.

One key dispute regarding what went right or what went wrong with regard to COVID policies revolves around whether or not the public policies promulgated by governments and public health authorities were science- or evidence-based. Governments, regulatory bodies, and public health institutions around the world were not only unified, but strident in their proclamations that policies were “following the science.” Skeptics of such pronouncements were given little attention at the time, and were more often than not simply attacked as being peddlers of misinformation, or dis-information, and were squelched in public discourse. This did not, however, settle the dispute.

In fact, the battle lines over this question—whether governments were actually following the science or evidence available at the time, or were merely asserting that they were doing so—have only hardened since the pandemic struck in 2020. Even as this essay is being written, for example, a war is raging across Twitter between a prominent COVID vaccine researcher (Peter Hotez), and people who question whether his representation of his work is honest. The questioners seek a public debate, but the scientist involved (backed by many other prominent colleagues) have declared the very idea of societal debate to be anathema to the idea of science itself. The “Twitter war” over this dispute has drawn in one of the world’s richest men (Elon Musk), one of the world’s loudest populist broadcasters (Joe Rogan), and a host of high-level scientists and heads of scientific agencies (Mikhail, 2023).

This dynamic, of public accusations of obstruction, and demonizing of those making the accusations, bodes poorly for the prospects of improving future policy by learning from experience. It also bodes poorly for future confidence in governmental policy responses to threatening situations. It seems self-evident that the public will be less likely to follow governmental recommendations or guidances in future if the consensus develops that they cannot be trusted when they claim to be telling the truth, or following the evidence, or, as such truth-telling was cast in this case, “following the science.”

So what is the answer? Were governments following the science or the evidence extant at the time of COVID’s emergence and progression through the population, or were they following the science selectively, creating more of a veneer of science than a solid policy foundation of science?

Let’s examine this question by examining the two highly controversial, major non-pharmaceutical interventions, or NPIs, imposed during the COVID pandemic. NPIs implemented throughout the COVID-19 outbreak were policies intended to slow or limit the spread of the virus, and to reduce risk of infection via measures of physical separation including: enhanced hygiene, social distancing (keeping separate from others at a distance of 2 metres), erecting physical air/particle barricades, wearing gloves, donning masks, accepting voluntary and involuntary solation, and a variety of restrictions on assemblage, including closures of parks, businesses, schools, and houses of worship, etc.

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