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Friday, April 28, 2023

The Human Side of Covid: A Conversation with Gabrielle Bauer on Her New Book ‘Blindsight Is 2020’

“A pandemic is not just a scientific puzzle to solve. It is a human problem with multiple dimensions.”

Image Credit: Shlomaster - Pixabay

The world changed almost overnight in March 2020. A wave of fear swept across the globe, and with it a wave of unprecedented lockdowns and mandates. Three years later, many are still trying to figure out what happened, and why.

One of the people determined to learn from this pivotal moment in history is Toronto-based author Gabrielle Bauer. Bauer has spent the past three years collecting stories from people around the world, stories that tell the larger story of the pandemic. Rather than focusing on the science or politics, Bauer has chosen to focus on the human side of Covid, in particular the immense harms that were caused by the lockdowns.

In her new book, Blindsight is 2020, Bauer shares some of the stories and perspectives she has encountered in her journey. She highlights scientists, philosophers, artists, and novelists who questioned the mainstream narrative about Covid, sometimes at great cost to their careers and reputations.

I recently sat down with Bauer to talk about the book, which she introduced to FEE readers in a recent article. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Patrick: Your new book Blindsight is 2020 was recently published by the Brownstone Institute. What do you hope readers will take away from it?

Gabrielle: The book is really about, not so much the science or the politics, but the sociology, the ethics of the pandemic response. Why people behaved the way they did in the pandemic, why there was this surge of public fear, and the sociological and ethical/philosophical forces underlying the response. I wanted to do something a little bit different. A lot of pandemic books focus on the science, or they get into the political machinations that happened behind the scenes. Mine has a somewhat different focus.

What inspired you to write this book?

It was kind of an organic process. There wasn’t one point where I decided to do it. My reaction against the pandemic policies was so intense and so visceral—it happened right away—and that led me to need to find my own tribe so to speak, because all the people around me were behaving in a way that made me feel like an alien. And I thought, “Am I taking crazy pills or what? The whole world has gone crazy with this.” So little by little I found my tribe. I found this wonderful group on Reddit called Lockdown Skepticism that has now grown to over 55,000 people. I then became a moderator in that group—I sometimes joke that I’m the oldest moderator on Reddit.

And then I found people in Toronto from that group as well and started a Toronto group of lockdown skeptics. We called ourselves QLIT, Questioning Lockdowns in Toronto. That grew to over 100 people and we attended protests together, we had a WhatsApp chat that never slept, and all this led to connections with dissident thought leaders all over the world, some of them scientists, some of them novelists or from other disciplines, and at some point it just occurred to me that it would be really nice to gather their perspectives in one book. Then the opportunity came along to write the book for the Brownstone institute. I had contributed some articles to them by then, and so that’s how it all came together.

You feature a lot of thinkers in the book as you mentioned, from scientists to philosophers to business executives. Are there any particular stories they told or points they made that stand out to you?

So many, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s one chapter that’s devoted to children that I call Children First. It features Jennifer Sey and Lucy McBride and a few other people as well, and just the stories they tell about how the children were really abused. Some were forced to kneel outside in cold weather. There was one young man who ended up dying of meningitis because the hospital didn’t want to take him because he had been exposed to Covid. Really horrible stuff. There was such a focus on this one threat. People had their blinkers on and didn’t see the big picture.

You talk about Jennifer Sey in your article for FEE. You say, “her principles cost her a CEO position and $1 million.” Can you go into more depth on that story?

She was just about to be promoted to CEO of Levi Strauss, or part of it, one division, but she was active in the movement to get children back to school, and to give them back some sense of normalcy in their lives. I guess the public and her employer didn’t like that, and they basically told her if you want to have this position you have to stop doing that. They offered to buy her out for $1 million if she stopped being active in this way and she refused. And so she lost $1 million but she kept her integrity. I joke in the book that I don’t know if I’d have the integrity to give up $1 million.

Good for her for standing on principle there. Also in that article, you wrote that “attempting to eliminate all risk from Covid is a fool’s errand and carries too high a cost.” What are some of the costs of the heavy-handed approach, and why aren’t people taking them more seriously?

There’s so many costs. We’ve talked about the costs to children. Obviously there are the economic costs, what we’re seeing now in terms of inflation and people not being able to make ends meet is arguably very easy to tie to all the money that was just poured into Covid. But the costs that concern me most are perhaps more intangible. Just the costs in terms of what kind of a society we’re living in. This idea that the world needs to turn into an infection control zone, and that the government just has to be bearing down on us in this way forever. That’s not the kind of society I want to live in. A society that only pays attention to physical health, bodily health, what I call metabolic health and metabolic survival, and discards all the other dimensions of life: culture, spiritual communion for those who are so inclined, human connection.

The way that was summarily discarded, I think that’s what really troubled a lot of us. Suddenly it was “all these things don’t matter. It’s just metabolic life that matters.” And it’s also metabolic life here in the affluent west. There were a lot of people in developing countries who suffered greatly from these policies and were driven to starvation and couldn’t feed their families and so forth. So it was a very western-centric or privileged approach. “Let’s make things safer for us over here.”

Right. FEE has covered a lot of those really tragic stories.

What do you think it was that led people to ignore those costs? Was it fear? Was it just that the costs were invisible to a lot of people?

I think fear was a big one. I devote Chapter 2 in my book to the fear factor, and how the government, instead of trying to calm the people—you know that’s generally the role of governments in pandemics is to keep the populace calm—they just stirred up the fear, kept it going. And I think that led to what I explore in Chapter 3, which is what Belgian psychologist and professor Mattias Desmet calls mass formation, which is a fancy term for mob psychology. And I think at the height of the Covid craziness there was just mob psychology that took hold that I think was activated by the fear. And once activated it develops a life of its own.

I don’t know if you saw, at the height of the vaccine craziness, the Toronto Star had the whole front page devoted to these slurs that people wrote about others who chose not to get vaccinated. “I hope they die,” “I hope they have a slow death and their children come to harm,” really horrible stuff.

I remember when that came out. And of course in Ontario there were provincial regulations specifically restricting unvaccinated people, and in many other provinces as well.

You talk about how freedom has been disparaged a lot over the course of the pandemic. I was interested in a particular part of that. Do you think public sentiment about freedom has changed in recent decades, or has public sentiment stayed constant and the pandemic just brought out people’s true colors? If this happened 30 years ago would people have defended freedom any more vigorously?

That’s a very good question and a difficult one to answer. My sense—I’m not an expert on all the politics—my sense is that freedom has gradually become less valued in our society. There’s always a balance between freedom and safety. They’re always in some kind of an equipoise. You can’t really maximize both at the same time. And I do believe that the balance was already shifting. We all hear about the helicopter parents and so forth, and those of us who are older talk about how when we were young we were left to roam in the streets until dark and the parents told us “don’t come home until dinner time,” and now the parents hover over the children.

In general I think also with the advances in healthcare technology people expect a much greater level of safety. I know this because I work as a medical writer, that’s my bread and butter, and I see patient advocacy groups are really clamoring for “we have a right to this treatment and that treatment and the best treatment.” So I do think there has been a shift. The Overton window of morality in that way has really shifted more toward safety and less toward freedom, and I think the pandemic accelerated that. But I think it was already happening.

I can see that. There’s a section in your FEE article that I really liked that this just reminded me of. You write,

“From the day the lockdowns were announced, I wondered: Why are only scientists being consulted? Where are the mental health experts to tell us how social isolation will affect our most vulnerable, both young and old? Where are the economists to insist on a cost-benefit analysis? Where are the ethicists to weigh in on the appropriate balance between risk avoidance and personal autonomy?”

I guess I would ask that question to you, where were those people in the discussion?

This is one of the things that really amazed me, and it was literally from Day 1. Not Day 2 or Day 3, it was literally from Day 1, I remember when the lockdowns were announced. I remember thinking, “Ok but, why only the scientists? Why only the epidemiologists and the public health people?” It doesn’t make sense, because a pandemic is not just a scientific puzzle to solve. It is a human problem with multiple dimensions. As we all know mental health, economy, education, well being. And we were just not allowed to talk about these things. I don’t know why it was that way. Pre-pandemic guidance—I looked through the WHO’s guidance, NHS, CDC—they were more holistic. They stressed the importance of maintaining a degree of normalcy. But all that was somehow jettisoned, cast aside with Covid.

I know that one of the people I feature in the book, Mark Woolhouse, a Scottish epidemiologist—he wrote a book called The Year the World Went Mad—he actually says, which I think is great for an epidemiologist to say, “the public health response to Covid was driven too much by epidemiologists.” So he got it. He said that whenever he and his colleagues asked “what about these other dimensions, mental health and so forth, aren’t we supposed to look at that?” He said they were told by the government, “oh that’s somebody else’s job.” But whose? It was never made clear. And those people were really never at the discussion table. All the advisory tables really just consisted of scientists and public health people. So it was a very lopsided approach.

I can attest, and I’m sure many can attest to how mental health took a toll, and so many of those stories were just disregarded as “it’s worth the cost if it saves one life.” But is it really?

That phrase became a meme, “if it saves one life.” And I discuss that in the book too. That’s not how you run public health—and I didn’t just make up that idea, I also quote other people saying that. When Andrew Cuomo in New York said “If it saves one life it’s all worth it,” well no it’s not. If it wreaks havoc on all society, no it’s absolutely not worth it. It’s one of these sayings that tugs at people’s emotional heartstrings, but it’s a very poor way to run public health. You have to look at a society level.

It reminds me, I’ve just been reading Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind and he talks about the different moral foundations. It strikes me that that whole concept is very much on the Care/harm foundation. “Let’s protect people.” And protecting people is absolutely valuable. But there are other values we need to consider as well alongside that.

Absolutely. I’m such a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work. In fact, in one of the chapters in my book I explore those foundations, including the freedom foundation and the loyalty foundation and all the six axes. His work really resonates with me and strikes me as true, that we have these different moral levers—there’s one doctor who calls them moral taste buds—that we respond to in different ways. And the Care/harm foundation is just one of the six.

If you take an extreme example, which I sometimes use to illustrate the limitations of “save as many lives as you can,” what if we learned that the way to save as many lives as we possibly can is to lock down for the next 50 years. Would that be acceptable? I think very few people would find that acceptable, because obviously life is about more than staying alive. And we weren’t allowed to have these discussions at first. When I tried online I got called all kinds of epithets: sociopath, all that stuff that we all experienced online, which was just absurd because I’d never been called those things before, and suddenly I was hellspawn and wanted to kill grandmas.

That actually leads to my next question. Lockdown skeptics have received a lot of shame and insults over the pandemic for even mentioning trade-offs and uncertainty. Why do you think that is? Are there things we can all do going forward to move cultural conversations away from dogmatism and toward more open inquiry?

That’s the million dollar question isn’t it? Why it is I think harks back to what we were talking about earlier, the fear and the groupthink that sort of catalyzed each other. People said they were afraid for some grandma who lives 17 states away, but they were really afraid for themselves. They were afraid. And I think fear makes you lose your capacity to think rationally.

For some reason, I can’t really explain why, I think I was rational. I was never scared of Covid. And I’m older. I’m 66 now, I was 63 when it all started. And I think I saw the threat proportionally. I remember entering my health data in a Covid risk calculator developed by Oxford University in the UK. Fortunately I don’t have any other health issues, but my risk of death from Covid if I got it came back at 1 in 6,500. I thought, you know, I can live with that. I mean I’m not going to worry about it. Now obviously it’s not just about me, because there’s risk to others and my loved ones too, but it seemed to me that it was not worth that degree of panic.

And we saw in surveys people vastly overestimated the risk. They just vastly overestimated the risk. So somehow the risks were not communicated properly. And I think to some extent it was disingenuous of the media. There were so many articles at first that, say, featured a young person who tragically died of Covid. And their takeaway was “see it can also affect young people,” instead of emphasizing “well, this person had very severe risk factors and it’s very rare.” There were so many of those types of articles at the beginning. That didn’t help at all to put things in perspective.

Yeah, so much framing.

Yeah. And we can be mindful of trying to protect people while also maintaining perspective, it’s not one or the other.

What would you say to someone who supported the lockdowns and mandates and even today thinks they were a good idea?

I would say that it’s a dangerous precedent to set. Because once it becomes a tool in our toolbox we can use it for anything. Some people have noted that there is an increasing tendency in the world to declare states of emergency, because of whatever. And certain issues that are not necessarily public health issues can be appropriated by public health and labeled public health issues. Black Lives Matter was arguably one of those situations. Yes, there are issues to discuss about it, but suddenly it was deemed a public health emergency, and therefore it justified everyone going out in large groups.

So there is a slippery slope here. And once we have this tool in our toolbox and once the public has accepted it, then it becomes something governments can just grab the next time. It’s always easier to do something the second and third time. That’s why some of us feel, “never again” or certainly very close to that.

That reminds me, Robert Higges has this book called Crisis and Leviathan where he talks about the ratchet effect and how every time the government expands then it contracts but it never quite goes back, and then it sets precedent to expand more and contract, but never quite back to the limits it had in the first place.

Exactly. That’s how the Overton window shifts. And some shifts are good, but others are very troublesome. And this whole idea of essential and non-essential, who gets to decide that? Who gets to decide what’s essential and non-essential? Why is walking around the aisles at Walmart essential and yet attending church—and I say that as a non-religious person—why is that not essential? Who gets to make those decisions?

Right. There’s a lot of language that was introduced that was really Orwellian in some ways. You can tell that it was designed to label certain groups or just serve a political agenda in some way, and that was scary to see.

Are there any other points from the book you’d like to highlight?

I feature people who are really far away from what you’d normally consider an expert. I have a comedian in there, I have a priest, I have lots of novelists, because I read a lot of their articles and I found that often people outside science had the deepest insights—philosophers too—had the deepest insights about the pandemic. And of course these people can’t really be advising on how to manage a virus. But they absolutely can and should be advising on the human dimension of the pandemic. Their voices are every bit as important. That was one of the things I wanted to accomplish with the book, to gather these people together in one place.

Well I hope the book gets a good reception, because it has stories people definitely need to hear. Last question, where can people follow you and get the book?

The book is available on Amazon, and for Amazon haters on Lulu. You can also go to my publisher the Brownstone Institute to find out more about me. I also have a website, www.gabriellebauer.com. There’s also a Spanish edition for people who speak Spanish or want to practice. And people can always reach me personally as well. If you go to my website, I have my phone number and email, and I always respond personally to people who reach out.

Gabrielle Bauer is a Toronto health and medical writer who has won six national awards for her magazine journalism. Along with Blindsight Is 2020, her books include Tokyo, My Everest, co-winner of the Canada Japan Book Prize, and Waltzing The Tango, short-listed for the Edna Staebler Creative Nonfiction Award.


  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.