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We Will Suffer for Failing to Weigh Risks

Facing the long-term ramifications of lockdown conformity has only just begun.

Which shot did you get?” has become a recurring question in Europe, where many vaccines are now available on the market. After Pfizer/BioNTech became the first to be approved by the European Medicines Agency, European countries are also using the AstraZeneca jab. The Moderna as well as the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccines are lining up to be integrated into vaccine distribution following their approval. Some European countries have also started using the Chinese Sinovac and the Russian Sputnik V.

The AstraZeneca has yet to be approved by the FDA. Still, President Joe Biden has already used it for vaccine diplomacy by sending four million doses to Mexico and Canada first. In Europe, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company’s jab has caused temporary delays in the vaccine program after a number of E.U. member states suspended it. A handful of patients had gotten a rare type of blood clots, which might have been associated with the vaccine. As a response to these illnesses, the European “precautionary principle” was activated and in full swing. This vaccine’s potential hazard was considered to be more severe than the genuine possibility of these unvaccinated patients getting COVID-19.

In a sense, European governments have been consistent in their approach to the concept of a cost-benefit analysis: Don’t do one. Most European countries have consistently locked down their economies and most potential for any social interaction. France currently has a curfew between 7:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.; leaving your home is only allowed with a certificate that proves you need to get to work, court, or the doctor. In Germany, the rules are similar to that of France. Those wanting to escape stringent rules by going abroad will often be hit by mandatory tests, quarantine, or by not being allowed to leave the country, as Belgium has decided. Whether or not infections increased or decreased had little effect on the overall lockdown measures, to the extent that many Europeans haven’t seen open bars, an event that’s not on Zoom, or sometimes their own family members in a year.

The anti-lockdowners have lost the argument. For months in early spring 2020, a raging debate on TV and print media allowed columnists such as Peter Hitchens (in the U.K.) to ask whether the medicine was not in fact worse than the disease. The mere implication that lockdown measures should be approached from a cost-benefit analysis was seen as outrageous, implying an equation of human lives and “the economy.” There is no need to condense the chronology of how this argument went because we all know how it ended. With much of Europe being in lockdown—shocked at how suicides, bankruptcies, or domestic violence could be on the rise—it’s become tiring to argue against the lockdown, the cost of engaging in the argument outweighing the benefit of trying your best to flout the rules.

Lockdowners got what they wanted. We still spend most of our time in front of endless Zoom calls, and even a handshake is an odd moment of real-life defiance. That said, the arguments the authorities used to implement all of these rules have come to haunt them. Now that Europeans have concluded that every death is a tragedy and that we must not consider who we harm—the vaccination debate will be an uphill battle in the attempt to save everyone. Why get vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine for the common good if there is a chance that you could get a rare form of blood clots from it? Yes, you could run the numbers and compare the potential harm done by the vaccine with the likelihood of damage caused by a COVID-19 infection, but we’ve all been told that cost-benefit analysis is evil, so why bother?

Vaccinations rates are low because bureaucratic institutions are trying to establish who is most essential (a contradiction in terms) in society, just as they decide which shops are essential enough to remain open. In Germany, a local paper reported on a crying nurse, as she had to throw 41 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine away, after the government had suspended its use. Since then, the European Medicines Agency has declared the vaccine safe for use, but the uncertainty caused by European governments is likely to increase the distrust against the vaccine. A new YouGov poll shows that 55 percent of German respondents now regard the jab as unsafe, which is a 15-point increase in a month. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed in France also regard the AstraZeneca vaccine as unsafe.

Meanwhile, the old continent is trying to save its failed vaccination program by implementing export bans. In ports and airports, customs officers halt the exports of vaccines produced in Europe, calling on pharmaceutical companies to put Europe first. An odd choice for the E.U., which less than a year ago was calling for international cooperation to solve this crisis, opposing vaccine nationalism. Now that the World Health Organization is going after Europe for this exact nationalism, the hypocrisy has come full circle. On top of its policies, it seems that the European Union also sees its moral high ground going nowhere.

The bureaucracy of “every life saved,” which does not allow for weighing risks, has failed. Sweden, a country that has refused to implement many of the most stringent lockdown restrictions, has not performed any better or worse than its European counterparts. In the same way, Florida and California have had similar results with their different policies. Slow vaccination won’t be the only downside of the precautionary principle and the rejection of cost-benefit analysis. In the long run, we will all suffer the consequences if the slightest suggestion of the emergence of a new disease triggers the same reaction we had last year. 

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAMLe MondeLe Figaro, and Die Welt.