Opinion

Richard Cooke
The media’s Covid-19 contrarians

I bought John Kehoe a coffee in 2016, when we were both in Washington, DC. Too late now for a refund, and there was, as far as I can remember, no hint of any latent Oedipal drive behind his small talk, nothing to indicate that on April 9 of this year, I would open The Australian Financial Review and find him making the case for his father as a human sacrifice. “My father is 68 and insists he’s had a good run,” Kehoe wrote, assuring readers that Kehoe senior was ready to become a front-line fighter in a germ warfare suicide squad. Fellow kamikaze “seniors like him” were keen, if able, to sacrifice their lives for the livelihoods of their children and grandchildren.

What then seemed like outlier madness has become common, almost routine. In retrospect, the AFR staffer’s column was an early case in a kind of tandem pandemic, one that runs in parallel to Covid-19. Already sickly looking, our local media has become infested with bad takes. Wildfire “what if” hypotheticals breached the quarantine of the opinion pages and are infecting hard news. No cure is in sight, and no event or intervention seems to avert this disease course. Even for an industry that specialises in exploring some moral subterranea, this episode is breathtaking (although not as breathtaking as some would wish). The contrarianism around Covid-19 may be with us for years, and is already changing the way we live.

Reasonable people can differ on the complex balances between freedom, prosperity and health. A scenario with no good options will inevitably lead to speculation, and speculation to wishful thinking. There are thoughtful critics of lockdown, and knowledge about a novel infectious disease and its treatments can change a lot in six months. But there is also a small, noisy group who struck their ideological poses at the beginning of the pandemic and have dug in ever since. Their position is explicit: more people – many more people – should die to save the economy. They are offering up not only their own fathers, but thousands of other people’s as well.

Is this new? It’s newish. When the “Granny Killer”, John Wayne Glover, committed his Sydney serial murders in the late ’80s and early ’90s, no one wrote a piquant little piece pointing out the pensions savings to Treasury, and perhaps these Covid-19 contrarians indicate that Western society’s cantering disrespect for the elderly has hit full gallop. It’s noticeable how few of the wafty “what the pandemic reveals about us” sentiments touch on what it really “reveals” – that we keep our old and infirm in isolated, degrading conditions, which leave them with pervasive vulnerabilities.

It unveils as well, I think, the reduced condition of our media. It was never good with complex scientific topics, and there are few topics more complex and scientific than epidemiology. Consider, by contrast, the refreshing level of humility with which epidemiologists approach their own field. In a paper titled “Is uncertainty in complex disease epidemiology resolvable?” the eminent professor Wasim Maziak, of the Florida International University, decided the answer was “no”. “Our limitation in studying complex diseases,” he wrote, “is insurmountable.” For doctors, this inevitable uncertainty is a warning to make only the most painstaking and contingent progress. For some hacks, it is a standing invitation to have a crack.

I would say these journalists “wade in”, but wading implies more than puddle-depth. Instead, theirs is a surface-skimming superficiality, almost impressive in how cavalier it is. You might think understanding that infectious diseases are infectious would be the entry-level requirement for having your commentary published in a serious newspaper. Not so. In a piece that managed five mixed metaphors in the title alone – “The Great Lockdown is a sledgehammer busting dreams that won’t bounce back” – The Sydney Morning Herald’s Elizabeth Farrelly likened lockdown to chemotherapy, suggesting the cure was worse than the cancer itself. “The parallel was obvious,” she wrote. It wasn’t, and clarity came no closer.

“At what point in the world’s self-treatment for Covid-19 do we decide that the treatment is more terrible than the disease?” the piece continued. During the first three months of the pandemic, Farrelly noted, “more than 17 million people have died in the world. Why are we so fearful of this particular disease?” Some people die from heart disease but “we don’t ban animal fats”. “Any decision to save a life rests upon the tacit question, at what cost? … So we must ask: how much of the global Covid-19 panic is a creature not of reason but of social media? … Are we just a species of chimp-like creatures, blinded by self-importance, determined to prove our own immortality?” If you pull enough rhetorical questions together, can you get to the required word count?

Perhaps some less chimp-like reflection would recognise that heart attacks are not contagious, that animal fats do not cause heart disease, that trans fats – which do – are banned by many countries, that trillions of dollars have been expended trying to stop people dying from heart attacks, and that “certainly, there are upsides to mass poverty” should be a disqualifying moral sentiment to express when your putative interest is the common good.

You might think these gossamer threads of bullshit would be swept away by subsequent events, that the bong-rip reasoning of “everyone dies, man” would look embarrassing after almost a million pandemic deaths. Wrong. Only an amateur columnist trips over trivialities such as real-world invalidation. Here, the lightweight divisional champion is The Australian’s Adam Creighton. Resoundingly wrong and out of his depth, it’s redundant to say Creighton has no experience in these complex areas, akin to saying a crayon has no experience driving a formula one car.

But rarely is such inexpertise combined with such conceit. On social media, as well as in his columns, Creighton has produced an unbroken skein of not only misinformation, but also misunderstanding about Covid-19, some sourced from crackpot international blogs. “Under 60, in good health? Crossing the road is more risky,” he inveighed in April, underestimating the virus’s risk by a factor of 35, according to economist John Quiggin’s calculations. Creighton later repeated the lie that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributed only 6 per cent of Covid-19 deaths to the virus itself – a false factoid originating with the QAnon conspiracy (which, characteristically, he claimed not to have heard of).

Creighton has been frequently schooled by economists and public health specialists but has learnt nothing. Replying to the columnist on Twitter, one of these economists, Chris Edmond, a professor of economics at the University of Melbourne, pointed out that “it takes … some awesome degree of self belief to think you know better than experts in not one but two disciplines”. In a sense, it is the belief itself that is the real service being provided. This style of commentary can’t be called “writing” or “thinking” in the traditional senses – it’s an industrial item, in the same category as seafood extender or filler foam, something to be extruded at volume. Research and consideration would only gum up the production line.

Instead, the key component is a collection of attitudes, which for some reason the commentariat treats as synonymous with seriousness. Together, these attitudes combine to paint any humanitarian concern as somehow inconsequential or weak. The Old Testament gods of the economy will be angered if they forgo their offerings. Public discourse is a high-school debating contest in which every question can be decided by putting a “pro” side against an “anti” side. A pandemic challenges these conditions because some humanitarianism and economic harm are both unavoidable, and arguing the “pro” side here means advocating not only for the Devil, but Pestilence and Death as well. Yet this is not, it seems, an impediment.

When these people do occasionally endorse forms of fiscal harm, it’s under the most telling circumstances. In 2017, during France’s most recent presidential election, Creighton’s tune was very different. Mentioning en passant that the outside prospect of a Muslim winning one day was “not especially gratifying”, the columnist endorsed Marine Le Pen. His choice, he admitted, would plunge Europe into chaos – “a financial crisis that would make 2008 seem mild” – but it would be necessary to uncouple la République from international finance: “It would be the price to pay for longer-term prosperity.” That choice of dynamic tradeoff is indicative: lockdowns to save lives are fascism and destroying the economy; but actual fascism is great, and worth destroying the economy for.

It is, we can agree, a question of priority. Through its unique atmosphere of society-wide mortality, a pandemic does create an unpleasant hierarchy of needs. In that merciless pyramid, how vital is opinion journalism looking right now? When it is of this calibre, why would anyone pay for it? Why would anyone be paid for it? Who, designing a society at blueprint stage, would take individuals with no idea what they’re talking about, compel them to work at haste, guaranteeing mistakes, and then distribute the result as widely as possible? No wonder so many high-minded, empty things must be said to shore up this activity’s “importance”. No wonder no error is ever conceded – the concessions would never end.

These Covid-19 contrarians seem more concerned for the feelings of their peers than the lives of their readers. Some believe they, the media, are more “vital for democracy” than the citizenry itself. “A non-trivial percentage of British journalists with Twitter accounts seem to think their main job is to hold the public to account,” Jacobin columnist Abi Wilkinson said, and this is true across different platforms and different continents. Perhaps it is time for this inessential class to die off. Unlike them, I don’t mean that literally.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2020 as "Contrarian motions".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.