The lessons of Iraq atrocities now apply to lockdowns, restrictions and mandates

Professor Jayanta (Jay) Bhattacharya is a medical doctor (MD, Stanford), economist (PhD, Stanford) and epidemiologist (Stanford Medical School) all rolled into one, giving him a rare set of credentials to assess the multiple dimensions of Covid disease and policies. An academic with virtually no public profile before 2020, he emerged as an articulate and compelling voice against the errors and excesses of Covid policies from early 2020 culminating in co-drafting the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) in October. He and co-authors Martin Kulldorff (Harvard) and Sunetra Gupta (Oxford) were subjected by Anthony Fauci and friends to a campaign to smear, discredit and ‘savagely take down’ these ‘fringe epidemiologists’ (Jay now proudly displays a business card describing himself as a fringe epidemiologist) that backfired spectacularly. The GBD is creeping up to a million signatures, including 63,000 public health scientists and medical practitioners. Jay’s Twitter followers have ballooned to 226,000: not bad for a fringe medico. He was in Australia for a week recently with a punishing schedule of meetings and talks in Melbourne (Lockdown Ground Zero) and Sydney. I had the honour and pleasure of spending three days with him and taking part, along with fellow-Speccie writer James Allan, in a memorable evening panel on the 22nd in front of a sold-out audience of 500 enthusiastic good folks who rose in united adulation when informed he had charged no lecture fee beyond travel costs for his talks in Australia.

Jay was often asked, ‘Tell us about your critical take, as an epidemiologist, on lockdown’. The implied question to me is, ‘You’re no epidemiologist. Why should we listen to you’. As a consequence of the experience of playing tag team with him, I concluded that my contributions to Covid policy debates since early 2020 have come not despite a lack of medical credentials but because of my particular background in conflict analysis and experience in the world of UN diplomacy. Let me explain using three examples.

I was probably the only senior UN official speaking and writing against the Iraq war before, on the eve of and after the event, until Kofi Annan finally, in September 2004, said it was illegal under the UN Charter. On 23 April 2003 I wrote in the International Herald Tribune, the most influential global daily newspaper while it lasted, that while ‘No tears will be shed at [Saddam Hussein’s] fall’, it’s ‘difficult to be joyous at the descent from the ideal of a world based on the rule of law to the law of the jungle – though the lion will welcome the change’. I decided then that, faced with excitable exclamation marks, it’s helpful to take them out and instead insert sceptical question marks. When told, ‘Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction that can hit us in 45 minutes,’ ask, ‘Where’s your evidence’? Applying the lessons of Iraq to Covid, as early as June 2020, I noted seven disturbing echoes: threat inflation; thin evidence, with facts fixed around predetermined policy; smearing of critics; dismissal of collateral long-term harm that exceeded short-term benefits; no clear exit strategy; mission creep; and media turning from watchdogs to cheerleaders. Sound familiar?

Earlier, in 2001, following heated controversy among UN member states over Nato’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Kosovo in 1999, an international commission formulated a new principle called the ‘responsibility to protect’. Former foreign minister Gareth Evans and I were the two principal writers and promoters of this concept which was unanimously adopted as the organising principle for the UN to respond to mass atrocities to help victims trapped inside sovereign state borders, with a careful balance between the permissive ‘licence’ and the restrictive ‘leash’ function of all laws and norms. The accompanying requirements for preventing mass atrocities and rebuilding afterwards highlighted the need for respecting universal human rights, embedding them in structures and institutions of national governance, recognising the importance of not demonising and ‘othering’ different groups, and refraining from using controlled media to propagate enmity between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ groups. I have argued previously about the abundance of early warnings on the range of grave harms that were likely to result from population-wide severe lockdown measures, from disruptions to crop production and food distribution leading to widespread hunger and mass starvation, to reversals of two decades of progress in poverty eradication, children’s education, critical life-saving immunisation programs, rising unemployment and health, mental health and other wellbeing damage. These warnings came from established, credible and reputable bodies in the UN system (Unicef, World Food Programme), civil society (Oxfam), and intergovernmental organisations like the IMF and World Bank. India alone is feared to have created a 375 million-strong ‘pandemic generation’ of children up to age 14 who are likely to suffer long-lasting impacts like increased child mortality, being underweight and stunted, and educational and work-productivity reversals. It’s hard to see how these predicted harms do not constitute mass atrocity crimes.

If so, a third set of considerations arise. The responsibility to protect addresses the need to protect victims of atrocities. The twin principle of international criminal justice speaks to the need to punish the perpetrators: identify them, prosecute them and, if convicted, jail them. Hence Bishop Desmond Tutu’s comment that, as a principal architect of the Iraq War, Tony Blair should be in the dock at The Hague, not on a podium in Africa. The authors and enforcers of pandemic management policies and interventions, that have inflicted enduring health, mental health, civil liberties, social and economic damage, must be held to account. This is the one issue where Jay and I parted company in our discussions. He doesn’t think vengeance serves any constructive purpose. I believe accountability is important firstly to punish, as distinct from seeking revenge, acts of harmful malfeasance when existing accumulated knowledge, science and pandemic preparedness plans were dumped in favour of authoritarian models imported from China. Second, and listening to the reactions from the 500 people in Melbourne that unforgettable evening, it’s going to be impossible to attain emotional closure, that alone can enable us as a community to move on, without an open and credible accounting. Perhaps most importantly, the best and most effective guarantee of ‘never again’, a goal that Jay spoke passionately about, is to hold the authors of lockdown – a euphemism for the wholesale locking up of entire populations under house arrest even if healthy and not accused, let alone convicted, of any crime – and vaccine apartheid to account. Absent accountability, we could experience cycles of rinse and repeat.

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