The Illusion of Safety

One of the consequences of having suffered an exceedingly rare attack of a disease – poliomyelitis – which almost everyone believes to have been eradicated, has been that I have not succumbed to the creeping trend of safetyism which has overtaken the developed world.

By safetyism, I mean the increasingly prevalent mindset which is simultaneously both acutely risk-averse and inclined to believe that science has overcome all the major sources of risk.

Like all the most pernicious creeds, safetyism comprises a set of tenets which are held subconsciously, and which those who hold them would reject as absurd, were they to actually examine them. Safetyism can reasonably be said to have its origins at the conclusion of WW2. That war demonstrated the power of planning to wreak miracles of productivity. It also coincided with, and accelerated, the development of a series of vaccines and with the perfection of penicillin, innovations which dramatically reduced the real risks encountered in the course of an ordinary,peaceful life.

Welcome though these innovations have been, they have brought with them an unspoken assumption, shared by most in the developed world, that nothing bad should ever happen to people; that if it does, the ‘government’, informed by ‘the science’, must be able to fix it; and that it has a duty to do so. This belief that the world has become an essentially risk-free place has allowed the people of the developed world to become alienated from risk, and to lose the sense of proportion to which, for almost all of its existence, our species owed its survival and increasing prosperity. It now imagines threats where none exist, wildly exaggerates those that do exist, and supports unhinged policy responses which have unintended consequences which would be entirely foreseeable by minds in which a proper sense of proportion had been retained.

The Covid episode has challenged the tenets of safetyism, but since they are unavowed, the challenge has gone largely unanswered. Rather than accept that the world has turned out not to be as hazard-free as it had appeared, but rather to be intractably, if sporadically hazardous, the appearance of a moderately serious virus threw the developed world into a state of scientistic hysteria. The virus was immediately compared with the 1919 influenza, and endowed with miraculous powers of communicability. Humans, by contrast, were endowed with no endemic immunity, and assumed to be incapable of judging for themselves the risks they faced, and taking appropriate steps to mitigate them. These preconceptions were fed into computer models, which duly produced harrowing predictions of plague.

Evidence that large numbers of asymptomatic people were testing positive was treated by a scientifically illiterate ABC as further evidence of the terrible virulence of ‘this virus’, rather than evidence that it was one from which comparatively few people suffered any ill effects.

Gladys having finally succumbed, we now have lock-down in NSW. Numbers of infections in the low hundreds, and a couple of handfuls of hospitalised cases, are treated as ‘worryingly large’, even as Britain, with daily positive tests of the order of 50,000, begins to lift its lockdown, having finally woken up to the futility of chasing ‘zero Covid’, and the need for people to be allowed to make their own choices about the extent to which they expose themselves. The gauleiters of the health bureaucracies simultaneously profess bafflement at the whack-a-mole progress of the disease, while professing complete certainty that the answer lies in ever more repressive locking down of the population.

This is not the Australia I migrated to in 1976 – free and free-thinking, sceptical of authority and endowed with a rich vein of common sense. Instead we have become a fearful, gullible society, rendered infantile by intrusive government edicts; hyper-receptive to narratives of catastrophe, and institutionally hypochondriac.

Tom Forrester-Paton

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