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Evidence on the origin of Covid leads to lab in Wuhan – Former NY Times Science Editor

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In the millions of articles, opinion pieces, and news stories written about Covid there is one topic that is more important than all the others.  It’s more important than masks, vaccines, or lockdown measures.  The origin of the virus is critical because no matter how many people die from covid, or how many businesses are wiped out, it’s critical that IF the next virus can be stopped, it mu st be.  

A science writer named Nicholas Wade has written the most thorough study on the origins of Covid to be released to the public.  Wade has worked with Nature, Science, and the New York Times, but this article was released on the public platform Medium.   In this article Wade goes through three possible scenarios and then draws the most likely conclusion.  This is a long read, but it might be the most important article yet written during this pandemic.

Here is the beginning of this extensive article from Medium. Click  here to read the full article on Medium.

Origin of Covid — Following the Clues

Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives the world over for more than a year. Its death toll will soon reach three million people. Yet the origin of pandemic remains uncertain: the political agendas of governments and scientists have generated thick clouds of obfuscation, which the mainstream press seems helpless to dispel.

In what follows I will sort through the available scientific facts, which hold many clues as to what happened, and provide readers with the evidence to make their own judgments. I will then try to assess the complex issue of blame, which starts with, but extends far beyond, the government of China.

By the end of this article, you may have learned a lot about the molecular biology of viruses. I will try to keep this process as painless as possible. But the science cannot be avoided because for now, and probably for a long time hence, it offers the only sure thread through the maze.

The virus that caused the pandemic is known officially as SARS-CoV-2, but can be called SARS2 for short. As many people know, there are two main theories about its origin. One is that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people. The other is that the virus was under study in a lab, from which it escaped. It matters a great deal which is the case if we hope to prevent a second such occurrence.

I’ll describe the two theories, explain why each is plausible, and then ask which provides the better explanation of the available facts. It’s important to note that so far there is no direct evidence for either theory. Each depends on a set of reasonable conjectures but so far lacks proof. So I have only clues, not conclusions, to offer. But those clues point in a specific direction. And having inferred that direction, I’m going to delineate some of the strands in this tangled skein of disaster.

A Tale of Two Theories

After the pandemic first broke out in December 2019, Chinese authorities reported that many cases had occurred in the wet market — a place selling wild animals for meat — in Wuhan. This reminded experts of the SARS1 epidemic of 2002 in which a bat virus had spread first to civets, an animal sold in wet markets, and from civets to people. A similar bat virus caused a second epidemic, known as MERS, in 2012. This time the intermediary host animal was camels.

The decoding of the virus’s genome showed it belonged to a viral family known as beta-coronaviruses, to which the SARS1 and MERS viruses also belong. The relationship supported the idea that, like them, it was a natural virus that had managed to jump from bats, via another animal host, to people. The wet market connection, the only other point of similarity with the SARS1 and MERS epidemics, was soon broken: Chinese researchers found earlier cases in Wuhan with no link to the wet market. But that seemed not to matter when so much further evidence in support of natural emergence was expected shortly.

Wuhan, however, is home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a leading world center for research on coronaviruses. So the possibility that the SARS2 virus had escaped from the lab could not be ruled out. Two reasonable scenarios of origin were on the table.

From early on, public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence scenario by strong statements from two scientific groups. These statements were not at first examined as critically as they should have been.

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists and others wrote in the Lancet on February 19, 2020, when it was really far too soon for anyone to be sure what had happened. Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they said, with a stirring rallying call for readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the frontline of fighting the disease.

Contrary to the letter writers’ assertion, the idea that the virus might have escaped from a lab invoked accident, not conspiracy. It surely needed to be explored, not rejected out of hand. A defining mark of good scientists is that they go to great pains to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know. By this criterion, the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: they were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.

It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Dr. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Dr. Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”

Virologists like Dr. Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China. “It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” an MIT Technology Review editor, Antonio Regalado, said in March 2020.

A second statement which had enormous influence in shaping public attitudes was a letter (in other words an opinion piece, not a scientific article) published on 17 March 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine. Its authors were a group of virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute. “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the five virologists declared in the second paragraph of their letter.

Unfortunately this was another case of poor science, in the sense defined above. True, some older methods of cutting and pasting viral genomes retain tell-tale signs of manipulation. But newer methods, called “no-see-um” or “seamless” approaches, leave no defining marks. Nor do other methods for manipulating viruses such as serial passage, the repeated transfer of viruses from one culture of cells to another. If a virus has been manipulated, whether with a seamless method or by serial passage, there is no way of knowing that this is the case. Dr. Andersen and his colleagues were assuring their readers of something they could not know.

The discussion part their letter begins, “It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus”. But wait, didn’t the lead say the virus had clearly not been manipulated? The authors’ degree of certainty seemed to slip several notches when it came to laying out their reasoning.

The reason for the slippage is clear once the technical language has been penetrated. The two reasons the authors give for supposing manipulation to be improbable are decidedly inconclusive.

First, they say that the spike protein of SARS2 binds very well to its target, the human ACE2 receptor, but does so in a different way from that which physical calculations suggest would be the best fit. Therefore the virus must have arisen by natural selection, not manipulation.

If this argument seems hard to grasp, it’s because it’s so strained. The authors’ basic assumption, not spelt out, is that anyone trying to make a bat virus bind to human cells could do so in only one way. First they would calculate the strongest possible fit between the human ACE2 receptor and the spike protein with which the virus latches onto it. They would then design the spike protein accordingly (by selecting the right string of amino acid units that compose it). But since the SARS2 spike protein is not of this calculated best design, the Andersen paper says, therefore it can’t have been manipulated.

But this ignores the way that virologists do in fact get spike proteins to bind to chosen targets, which is not by calculation but by splicing in spike protein genes from other viruses or by serial passage. With serial passage, each time the virus’s progeny are transferred to new cell cultures or animals, the more successful are selected until one emerges that makes a really tight bind to human cells. Natural selection has done all the heavy lifting. The Andersen paper’s speculation about designing a viral spike protein through calculation has no bearing on whether or not the virus was manipulated by one of the other two methods.

The authors’ second argument against manipulation is even more contrived. Although most living things use DNA as their hereditary material, a number of viruses use RNA, DNA’s close chemical cousin. But RNA is difficult to manipulate, so researchers working on coronaviruses, which are RNA-based, will first convert the RNA genome to DNA. They manipulate the DNA version, whether by adding or altering genes, and then arrange for the manipulated DNA genome to be converted back into infectious RNA.

Only a certain number of these DNA backbones have been described in the scientific literature. Anyone manipulating the SARS2 virus “would probably” have used one of these known backbones, the Andersen group writes, and since SARS2 is not derived from any of them, therefore it was not manipulated. But the argument is conspicuously inconclusive. DNA backbones are quite easy to make, so it’s obviously possible that SARS2 was manipulated using an unpublished DNA backbone.

And that’s it. These are the two arguments made by the Andersen group in support of their declaration that the SARS2 virus was clearly not manipulated. And this conclusion, grounded in nothing but two inconclusive speculations, convinced the world’s press that SARS2 could not have escaped from a lab. A technical critique of the Andersen letter takes it down in harsher words.

Science is supposedly a self-correcting community of experts who constantly check each other’s work. So why didn’t other virologists point out that the Andersen group’s argument was full of absurdly large holes? Perhaps because in today’s universities speech can be very costly. Careers can be destroyed for stepping out of line. Any virologist who challenges the community’s declared view risks having his next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency.

The Daszak and Andersen letters were really political, not scientific statements, yet were amazingly effective. Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely. Their authors relied for the most part on the Daszak and Andersen letters, failing to understand the yawning gaps in their arguments. Mainstream newspapers all have science journalists on their staff, as do the major networks, and these specialist reporters are supposed to be able to question scientists and check their assertions. But the Daszak and Andersen assertions went largely unchallenged.

Doubts about natural emergence

Natural emergence was the media’s preferred theory until around February 2021 and the visit by a World Health Organization commission to China. The commission’s composition and access were heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities. Its members, who included the ubiquitous Dr. Daszak, kept asserting before, during and after their visit that lab escape was extremely unlikely. But this was not quite the propaganda victory the Chinese authorities may have been hoping for. What became clear was that the Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.

This was surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment. The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019. Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year.

And as long as that remains the case, it’s logical to pay serious attention to the alternative conjecture, that SARS2 escaped from a lab.

Why would anyone want to create a novel virus capable of causing a pandemic?

To read the rest of this article on Medium click here

Nicholas Wade

I’m a science writer and have worked on the staff of Nature, Science and, for many years, on the New York Times. [email protected]

 

By the way.. Medium is a fascinating place.  If you haven’t checked it out yet here’s a link to medium.com.

From About Medium:

We’re an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Our purpose is to spread these ideas and deepen understanding of the world.

After 15 years as a TV reporter with Global and CBC and as news director of RDTV in Red Deer, Duane set out on his own 2008 as a visual storyteller. During this period, he became fascinated with a burgeoning online world and how it could better serve local communities. This fascination led to Todayville, launched in 2016.

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Military was told to prepare to intervene in ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests: official

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OTTAWA — The Defence Department’s top official says he directed the military to prepare to intervene in the “Freedom Convoy” protests earlier this year, but the resulting plans were never seriously considered — in part due to concerns about another Oka Crisis.

Deputy minister Bill Matthews and another top defence official also said the Canadian Armed Forces was prepared to fly police officers to demonstration sites across the country, but that its tow trucks were too big ⁠— and too old ⁠— to help with the protests.

Matthews and Defence Department associate deputy minister Stefanie Beck made the comments in an August interview with lawyers for the public inquiry looking into the Liberal government’s decision to use the Emergencies Act to end the protests.

A summary of that interview is among thousands of documents released by the Public Order Emergency Commission, which will ultimately determine whether the government was justified in invoking the act in February.

Neither was called to publicly testify before the commission.

The Liberals faced public calls in January and February to deploy the military as thousands of protesters opposed to vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions gridlocked Ottawa and border crossings with the United States for three weeks.

The inquiry was also shown text messages in recent weeks in which federal Justice Minister David Lametti and then-Alberta premier Jason Kenney raised the prospect of using the military alongside police to clear protesters.

In one text exchange, Lametti and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino raised the idea of using a tank to end the protests. Lametti told the commission last week that the exchange was a joke.

Lametti and Defence Minister Anita Anand instead told the commission that the military was always considered a last resort — a position that Matthews and Beck echoed in their interview with commission lawyers.

Both defence officials “strongly emphasized that CAF members are not police officers,” the summary reads.

“They are trained to use lethal force, not do crowd control. Indeed, the domestic use of military force is, and in their view should always be, seen as a last resort.”

Matthews did say he asked defence officials to prepare “for the possibility that the CAF might be called out to intervene in the protests,” with a number of scenarios and internal plans subsequently drawn up.

“These plans considered the use of military equipment, infrastructure and deployment of CAF members.”

Yet Matthews and Beck said it was clear throughout the planning process that the government and the minister did not want to use the military due to fears “deploying the military in any way would inflame tensions with the protesters.”

The two officials “noted that the shadow of the Oka Crisis still looms large,” reads the summary.

On July 11, 1990, Quebec provincial police moved in on a barricade near the small town, which is about 50 kilometres northwest of Montreal. The barricade was erected by Indigenous activists to protest the planned expansion of a golf course and development on ancestral land.

After a police officer was killed, the situation escalated into a tense, 78-day standoff between Mohawk and thousands of Canadian soldiers that captured the country’s attention and raised enduring concerns about using the military in protests.

Matthews and Beck told the commission lawyers that they shared their concerns about a possible repeat of the crisis with senior officials in other departments, but that the military’s actual plans were not shared with them or with Anand.

“It was a necessary planning exercise, but the option of deploying the CAF was never seriously considered.”

The military did end up providing limited support to law enforcement efforts, with Ottawa police using the Cartier Drill Hall in downtown Ottawa as a staging area. It also provided 1,200 ration packs to the Parliamentary Protective Service.

The Defence Department and Armed Forces expected and considered requests for military planes to fly police to various parts of the country, but Matthews and Beck said domestic flights ended up being adequate.

Officials also considered whether the military could be used to clear protesters’ trucks from downtown Ottawa, the border crossing in Coutts, Alta., and other places where local officials were having trouble getting local tow companies to help.

However, Matthews and Beck said that ultimately wasn’t an option as the military’s own tow trucks weren’t designed for the types of vehicles involved in the protests, and using them would damage not only those vehicles but also any roads driven upon.

There were also concerns that moving the military’s tow trucks would represent a “significant logistical effort” and could have “drawn significant attention to themselves and the CAF members operating them.”

“Third, the trucks are quite old and require frequent maintenance,” the interview summary adds. “DND has plans to replace these trucks.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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Brownstone Institute

If We Only Knew

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From the Brownstone Institute

BY Julie PonesseJULIE PONESSE

Last September, I released a video in which I explained my moral objection to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate being implemented by my employer, Western University. That video went viral.

Since its release, I have watched the video only a handful of times, and not once at my direction. I find it hard to watch, it being an acute reminder of the unfathomable world in which we now live.

But I have wondered, why did it resonate so much with people? Was it because I had the science right about the mRNA vaccines? Maybe.

Was it because I gave a good ethical argument against the mandates? I think so, but that surely isn’t the whole story.

Or was it something else?

I’ll let you think about that and offer my answer in a little bit.

One thing that video did is it instantly and irrevocably gave me outlier status. It put me on the outside of a system that has no tolerance for questioning or independent thought of any kind.

How many of you, at some point over the last two years, felt like an outlier, a misfit? How many of you felt like a foreigner within a new operating system in which conformity is the social currency, its reward the ability to keep your job, preserve your reputation, and avoid the censure of rebellious thought?

For its devoted followers, the stigma and bother of questioning that system is too costly, too inconvenient. But for you, it’s the price of conformity that is too high, and the need to question and, possibly resist, too hard to ignore.

It’s this social operating system that singled me out, expressed its intolerance for my nonconformist ways and, ultimately, did its best to string me up in the proverbial public square.

Until last September, I lived the quiet life of an academic, removed from the world of politics, podcasts and protests. I published in journals only a few colleagues ever read. I taught ethics, but it was always theoretical and, often, relied on the entertainment value of fantastical thought experiments like:

“What would you do if a trolley was barreling down a track toward five people inexplicably tied to it?”

Teaching ethics, I always felt, honestly, like a bit of a hypocrite, trying to envision what one would do if a crisis arose, or criticizing history’s moral villains. My work mattered, or so I told myself, but only in a big-picture way. There were no acute moral crises, no bioethics emergencies, as a good friend used to tease.

Not until last September, anyway, when all the theory culminated in what felt like the supreme ethical test. Faced with the decision to comply with my university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate or refuse and lose my job, I chose the latter, for better or worse, and was efficiently terminated “with cause.”

I failed the test spectacularly according to my colleagues, our public health officials, Justin Trudeau, the Toronto Star, the National Post, the CBC, and even the NYU ethics professor who said “I wouldn’t pass her in my class.”

When I spoke at events at the height of the crisis, when almost unfathomably, we couldn’t even legally gather to do what we are doing today, I talked a lot about science and evidence, and why the mandates are unjustified and harmful. But I couldn’t imagine doing that now. And I don’t think that’s why you are here today.

We have all drawn our battle lines on that front and we aren’t seeing much movement across those lines. The pro-narrative position is alive and well. Conversions are uncommon and mass revelations unlikely.

Events are starting to impose vaccine passports once again and masking is returning. A Moderna plant is being built in Quebec…with production to beginin 2024.

And, honestly, I don’t think the situation in which we find ourselves was generated by a miscalculation of the data in the first place but by a crisis of the values and ideas that led to it.

So when I was invited to speak today, I started thinking about where you are these days, I wondered about your stories. What are your experiences of alienation and cancellation? What would you have done differently over the last two years if you could go back? What keeps you on the road less traveled? Are you ready to forgive?

So what I offer today are some thoughts on the themes of regret and endurance, thoughts on how we created the deep culture of silence that now stifles us, and what we can do now to move through it.

First, regret. Regret is, simply, the thought that it would have been better to do otherwise. If you give your friend expired milk that makes her sick, you might think “It would have been better first to check its expiry date.”

If you comply with COVID public health measures that end up causing harm, you might think “I should have questioned the lockdowns before McMaster Children’s Hospital reported a 300% increase in suicide attempts last fall, the vaccine rollout before the mandates came along.”

But the vast majority of us who should have known better, done better, didn’t. Why not?

There is no doubt that the government response to COVID is the largest public health disaster in modern history.

But what is interesting is not that the authorities demanded our compliance, that our sycophantic media was too lazy to demand the right evidence but that wesubmitted so freely, that we were so ready to trade freedom for the assurance of safety that we inverted the demands of civility to the point where we applaud sarcasm and cruelty.

And so the question that keeps me up at night is, how did we get to this place? Why couldn’t we see it coming?

I think part of the answer, the part that is hard to hear, hard to process, is that we did know. Or at least the information that would have allowed us to know, was available, hiding (we might say) in plain sight.

In 2009, Pfizer (the company that claims to “profoundly impact the health of Canadians” — no doubt) received a record-setting $2.3 billion fine for illegally marketing its painkiller Bextra and for paying kickbacks to compliant doctors.

At the time, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli said the case was a victory for the public over “those who seek to earn a profit through fraud.” Well, yesterday’s victory is today’s conspiracy theory. And, unfortunately, Pfizer’s misstep is not a moral anomaly in the pharmaceutical industry.

You might be familiar with some of the notable moments of the industry’s history of collusion and regulatory capture: the thalidomide disaster of the 50s and 60s, Anthony Fauci’s mismanagement of the AIDS epidemic, the Opioid epidemic and the SSRI crisis of the 90s, and that just scratches the surface.

The fact that drug companies are not moral saints should never have surprised us.

So we really can’t say “If we only knew” because the evidence was there; the collective ‘we’ did know.

So why didn’t that knowledge get the traction it deserved? Why did our blind adherence to “follow the science” lead us to be more unscientific than at, arguably, any other time in history?

Do you know the parable of the camel?

One cold night in the desert, a man is sleeping in his tent, having tied his camel outside. But as the night grows colder, the camel asks his master if he can put his head in the tent for warmth.

“By all means,” says the man; and the camel stretches his head into the tent.

A little while later, the camel asks if he may also bring his neck and front legs inside. Again, the master agrees.

Finally, the camel, who is half in, half out, says “I’m letting cold air in. May I not come inside?” With pity, the master welcomes him into the warm tent.

But once the camel comes inside, he says: “I think that there is not room for both of us here. It will be best for you to stand outside, as you are the smaller; there will then be room enough for me.

And with that, the man is forced outside of his tent.

How could this happen?

Well, it seems you can get people to do just about anything if you break the unreasonable down into a series of smaller, seemingly reasonable ‘asks.’

It is the humble petition of the camel — just to first put his head inside the tent — that is so modest, so pitiful, that it seems unreasonable, even inhumane, to refuse.

Isn’t this what we’ve seen over the last 2 years? It’s been a master class in how to influence a person’s behaviour one step at a time by encroaching a tiny bit, pausing, then starting from this new place and encroaching again all the while making us feel somehow beholden to those who are coercing us.

We got here because we consented to tiny encroachments that we never should have consented to, not because of the size but the nature of the ask. We got here not because we fail to see the harms we do or because we consider them to be a reasonable sacrifice for the sake of public good (though some surely do).

We got here because of our moral blindness, because we are temporarily unable to see the harms we do. How can little things like collateral damage and “autonomy” and “consent” possibly stack up against the deep, blinding devotion to the idea that we are “doing our part,” saving the human race?

Let’s go back to the camel for a moment.

One way to describe what the camel is doing is to say he is ‘nudging’ his master’s behaviour for his own purposes, in much the same way we have been nudged over the last two years.

I mean that literally. The COVID response of most major world governments was framed by the nudge paradigm, a form of behavioural psychology that uses the active engineering of choice to influence our behaviour in barely discernible ways. Based on the 2008 book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the paradigm operates on 2 very simple ideas:

  1. Someone else, a supposed expert, will make better choices for you than you could make for yourself
  1. It is right for that person to make those choices for you

The real-world actualization of this model in the UK is MINDSPACE, a behavioural insights team (or “nudge unit”) composed largely of academics from the London School of Economics.

Some of the unsurprising insights of MINDSPACE include the fact that we are deeply influenced by the behaviours of those around us and by appeals to ego (i.e. we typically act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves proven, I think, by the virtue-signaling practices of masking and social media vaccine stickers.)

Our equivalent of MINDSPACE is Impact Canada, housed within the Privy Council Office, which not only tracks public behaviour and sentiment but plans ways to shape it in accordance with public health policies. This isn’t a secret. Theresa Tam bragged about it in an article in the Toronto Star last year.

These “nudge units” are composed of neuroscientists, behavioural scientists, geneticists, economists, policy analysts, marketers and graphic designers.

Members of Impact Canada include Dr. Lauryn Conway, whose work focuses on “the application of behavioural science and experimentation to domestic and international policy,” Jessica Leifer, a specialist in self-control and willpower, and Chris Soueidan, a graphic designer responsible for developing Impact Canada’s digital brand.

Slogans and hashtags (like “Do your part,” #COVIDvaccine and #postcovidcondition), images (of nurses donning masks that look like something from the movie Outbreak), and even the soothing Jade green colour on the “Get the facts about COVID-19 vaccines” fact-sheets are all products of Impact Canada’s research and marketing gurus.

Even the steady flow of more subtle images — on billboards and electronic traffic signs — normalizes the relevant behaviour through the subtle suggestion and justification of fear.

With greater than 90% vaccination rates, our nudge unit’s efforts are wildly successful.

But why were we so susceptible to being nudged in the first place? Aren’t we supposed to be the rational, critical thinking descendants of the Enlightenment? Aren’t we supposed to be scientific?

One of the great lessons of the last two years is just how much we are all affected by fear. The world’s nudge units masterfully manipulate our fears according to a precisely calculated cadence. But this is a dicey business.

If we feel helpless, fear appeals will make us defensive but, if we can be made to feel empowered, like there is something we can do to minimize the threat, our behaviours are highly moldable. We need to believe, for example, that the little mask we theatrically don at the entrance to the grocery store will fight a deadly virus, that the injection we take will save the human race (or at least give us the reputation for doing so).

But where did the idea that we should be manipulated in these ways come from?

None of it happened quickly and it didn’t start in 2020. Our moral blindness, our moral panic, is the culmination of a long-term cultural revolution and a devolution of our core institutions. As Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist party, proclaimed, to achieve socialism’s triumph in the West, we must “Capture the culture.” And what he envisioned to do so was what Rudi Dutschke described in 1967 as a “long march through the institutions.”

Gramsci’s followers created, as Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, the powerful cultural left. With the universities as their laboratories, the West’s radical leftists for decades taught students the virtues of relativism and groupthink.

These students graduated, worked their way up their respective professional ladders, molding each of the institutions we have been trained to trust: academia, medicine, media, government, even the judiciary. Molding them with the guiding ideology of the “politics of intent” which assumes that, if your intentions are noble and your compassion boundless, then you are virtuous, even if your actions ultimately lead to disaster on a colossal scale.

There is no accountability in the politics of intent. No apology. No autonomy. No individuality.

This is what’s behind social activism, progressivism, wokeism, neoliberalism, purity politics and the cancel culture that seems to run roughshod over reason in the frenzied rush to protect “acceptable” ideas.

And this is why language came to be the ammunition of the COVID war: because it is the most expedient and effective capture-the-culture tool. Think of everything from “Self-isolate” to “covidiot” to, of course, “Anti-vaxxer,” the linguistic scalpel that carved society up at its joints. Even the fact that “COVID” came to be capitalized (in the US, Canada and Australia, in particular) has an effect on the weight we give it.

These insidious shifts in our language help to entrench a social operating system that has proven its ability to reshape society without limitation, that led to my termination, that upheld the suspension of Dr. Crystal Luchkiw for giving a COVID vaccine exemption to a high-risk patient, that made Tamara Lich and Artur Pawlowski political prisoners, that saw narrative spin at its finest as our Prime Minister testified (under oath) at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa yesterday, that demands amnesty for the (apparently) innocently ignorant, and that brought us all together today.

If this is the cause of our moral blindness, how do we cure it? How do we ‘wake people’ up to the harms of what we are doing?

As the Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet says, jarring awake an acolyte of this system is like trying to wake someone up from a hypnotic state. If you try to do so by giving arguments about the effects of pandemic measures on children starving in India, for example, it will be futile because you are relying on ideas to which they give no psychological weight. Like the hypnotized person who feels nothing when a surgeon makes a cut, evidence that runs counter to the narrative is outside their focus of attention.

I have, personally, yet to hear of a case of someone being convinced of the absurdity of the COVID narrative on the basis of reason or evidence alone. I worked for months with the Canadian Covid Care Alliance to provide evidence-based information about COVID but I didn’t see any real traction until I made a video in which I cried.

Why did you cry when you watched that video? Why do tears well up when we meet at the gas station or while walking the dogs?

The answer, I think, is that none of this is about evidence and reason. “Effective versus ineffective” was never the point. It’s about feelings, on both sides. Feelings that justify our purity obsession, feelings (for many of you here today, I suspect) that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” as Hamlet’s Marcellus quipped, and that we don’t matter.

Do facts matter? Of course they do. But facts, alone, will never answer the questions we really care about. Let me say that again. FACTS, ALONE, WILL NEVER ANSWER THE QUESTIONS WE REALLY CARE ABOUT.

The real COVID war is not a battle over what is true, what counts as information, what it means to #followthescience; it’s a battle over what our lives mean and, ultimately, whether we matter. It’s a battle over the stories we tell.

Do we keep telling the seductive story of statism (which is what happens when we ask the state to assume authority over all spheres of our lives)? Do we outsource our thinking and our decision-making to the state that says:

  • Don’t worry about providing for your family, we offer welfare;
  • Don’t worry about taking care of each other when sick, we’ll give you free health care;
  • Don’t worry about caring for your aging parents, there’s long-term care for that;
  • And now insurance and overdraft and lines of credit, and even perfect student loan forgiveness?

Do we tell the story that our individual lives don’t matter, that we are expendable for the sake of the greater good, that technology will purify us, that if only we elect the right leaders, all our problems will be solved?

Or do we tell a better story? A story according to which our leaders are just a reflection of ourselves, that making ourselves wiser and stronger and more virtuous will always be better than relying on the state to make us healthy, safe and good, a story according to which we keep reaching for what we all deeply crave: meaning, mattering, and connecting with the humanity in others. This, I think, is a much more compelling story and the one we need to tell as we continue to fight.

So, where do we go from here?

Much has been written about the moral qualities of today’s outliers. In an eloquent letter to the unvaccinated narrated by Del Bigtree: “If Covid were a battlefield, it would still be warm with the bodies of the unvaccinated.”

Very true, but lying there alongside them would be anyone who refuses to outsource their thinking, who refuses to wallow in the comfort of willful ignorance, and who keeps trudging along through the darkness without a lantern to light the way.

Moral endurance is a problem these days. Empathy is low, and not just on the pro-narrative side. I don’t know about you but the feeling I can’t quite ignore or reconcile these days, something I am not proud of as an ethicist or a human being, is a palpable feeling of being numb. Numb to the repetition of history’s atrocities, numb to the laziness of the compliant who helped to create the world in which we now live, numb to inauthentic pleas for amnesty.

Those who have been speaking out are growing tired and we don’t even know what round of the fight we are in. With the injury of time, even the most devout can fall away, and what once seemed a noble, unrelinquishable goal can start to lose its force in the haze of shifting crises. And it will be a long time before the choir of humanity sings our praises, if it ever does.

But those who can persist are the ones, I believe, who will one day lead us out of this moral catastrophe, those who can remind us that more rules, restrictions, and signals of our apparent virtue are just a veil over our moral emptiness.

You might wonder, what if I’m ignored? What if I’m not brave? What if I fail?

The truth is, we all fail… every day. It’s unavoidable. But I think the greatest human failure is to pretend that we are gods, saints, or perfect heroes, that we can be made pure and invincible.

We all want to be the hero in our own story, of course — to slay the villains around us. But it’s turning out that the real villains are living inside us and growing stronger every day.

The true COVID war won’t be fought across the aisles of our parliaments, in our newspapers or even in the boardrooms of Big Pharma.

It will be fought between estranged sisters, between friends uninvited from Christmas dinner, between distanced spouses trying to see something vaguely familiar in the person sitting across from them. It will be fought as we struggle to protect our children and give our parents dignity in their last days. It will be fought in our souls.

Is COVID amnesty possible? Of course it is… if we hold onto our willful blindness, if we whitewash our mistakes. It is possible if I forget that within the last year, my prime minister called me a racist, that police came to my door, that I stayed home while friends sanctimoniously went to restaurants without me, that I lost rights that only the truly unreflective enjoyed, and that I am trying to teach my 2 year-old how to play and imagine and hope while the world crumbles around her.

But to “forgive and forget” will only solidify our brokenness. We need to look our mistakes in the face. We need to say our sorries. And we need to mean it.

We are going to be in this war a while longer and there will likely be more casualties than we can fathom in this moment. As Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Strand wrote, “…. if only we knew how long the ruins would last we would never complain.”

In the meantime, we tell our stories. We tell our stories because this is what we’ve done for thousands of years to make sense of our fears, to communicate with people from other tribes, to give our ancestors some degree of immortality and to teach our children. We tell our stories because we believe a cry in the dark will eventually be heard. These stories are what set a crisis in context. And sometimes a crisis can be productive.

In 1944, Jean Paul Sartre wrote an article for the Atlantic about those who fought against the occupation of France. Sartre begins the article with an apparent contraction:

“Never were we freer,” he wrote, “than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces….The deported us en masse…. And because of all this we were free.”

Free? Really?!

For Sartre, it isn’t our circumstances that control us; it is how we interpret them. Sartre said they were unified because they all experienced the same fears, the same loneliness, the same uncertainty about the future.

And it was the courage of those who resisted suffering amidst all of this that led them out of it.

Leading us out of this will be up to those who, for some reason, choose resilience over helplessness, whose need to question is as natural as breathing, whose voice rings out in the silence, and who can see the humanity in others through the thick fog of shame and hatred.

It will be these outliers — people like you who were brave enough to be here today — that will make us look back on this moment in history and say, “Never were we freer.”

Author

  • Julie Ponesse

    Dr. Julie Ponesse, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is a professor of ethics who has taught at Ontario’s Huron University College for 20 years. She was placed on leave and banned from accessing her campus due to the vaccine mandate. She presented at the The Faith and Democracy Series on 22, 2021. Dr. Ponesse has now taken on a new role with The Democracy Fund, a registered Canadian charity aimed at advancing civil liberties, where she serves as the pandemic ethics scholar.

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