COVID-19: West’s zero-risk society is the biggest risk of all

COVID-19: West’s zero-risk society is the biggest risk of all

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The normally bustling Rue de Rivoli in central Paris is deserted on March 17, 2020, after a lockdown came into effect across France. (AFP)

As a classicist, ancient Greece has for me always held all the answers, explaining humanity’s inherent strengths and weaknesses as no other civilization ever could. So I instinctively return to the realm of Greek myths, in this case “The Odyssey,” to explain what has gone so very wrong with the West’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the political risk event of our generation.
According to the myth, during their long sojourn home, Odysseus and his men were forced to traverse the treacherous Strait of Messina (thrillingly, I have visited the exact spot) separating the island of Sicily from the Italian mainland. Here, the Ithacans encountered two sea monsters: The six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. To sail away from one did no good, as the other was bound to devour them.
This horrifying story is the genesis for the English idiom, “between Scylla and Charybdis,” meaning that avoiding one calamity can well lead to the coming of another. The ancient Greeks would entirely understand that this, better than anything, explains the West’s disastrous response to the coronavirus crisis. In an understandable effort to avoid the pandemic getting entirely out of control, the West has steered directly into another calamity — something deeply injurious to its long-term economic and social health.
As a historian, I guarantee you our grandchildren will be set an exam question that goes something like this: “In 2020, following the first peak of COVID-19, why did the Western world turn its back on statistics, instead continuing to cower in their homes, even after the huge economic and social dangers to such a course of action became clear?”
Instead, a zero-risk hysteria has taken hold of the West. Though, crucially, the number of deaths and those in intensive care have blessedly plummeted from the highs of the spring, politicians are so terrified of the publicizing of even minimal deaths that, by keeping much of society locked down or partially locked down, they are exposing us all to a series of very real threats. These include severe recession, structurally low growth and high unemployment; school closures that fatefully and fundamentally stifle the education of a generation of children; the neglect of other diseases (cancer, heart disease, etc.) that kill far more people; and major restrictions on personal freedom. Bluntly, this is an exceptionally high price to pay, given that the coronavirus is no longer threatening to destroy any of the West’s health care systems.
This coronavirus hysteria is peculiar to our time and place. In the US, the Asian flu of 1957 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 were roughly equal to the coronavirus in terms of their lethality; in both cases, well over 100,000 Americans died. However, it is highly unlikely you know much about either incident, as in neither did the US close itself off economically. In both cases, the all-too-real economic risk was factored in. America’s leaders responsibly thought, while knowing that tragic deaths could not be abolished, that risk was an indispensable part of life.
Instead, our present Western governments have exaggerated the long-term health risks of coronavirus, while entirely underestimating the fearful economic price paid for a lockdown without end.
Obsessing about one major problem, policymakers have criminally failed to foresee the predictable coming of another, as much of the West has not been working full-time for the past six months.
Here are the hard numbers. The odds of someone my age surviving the coronavirus, assuming I contract it, are 997 out of 1,000. That is not nothing but, as with the real risks of dying from a car crash or slipping in the shower, I’ll take my chances and keep traveling and continuing to clean myself.
In aggregate, and this is how societies must work, the risk is manageable, statistics must be understood and the mad notion that all risk can somehow be abolished in life must be shouted down as the lunacy it is.

To blithely think we can all keep sitting on our couches while the economic apocalypse approaches is the greatest danger of all.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

UK gross domestic product (GDP) sunk a subterranean 20.4 percent in the second quarter — meaning this year’s British GDP has erased 17 years of growth in just two quarters. During the same quarter, according to The Economist, Spain’s GDP fell 18.5 percent, France’s 13.8 percent, Italy’s 12.4 percent, Canada’s 12 percent, Germany’s 10.1 percent, the US’s 9.5 percent, and Japan’s 7.8 percent. To blithely think we can all keep sitting on our couches while the economic apocalypse approaches is the greatest danger of all.
So let us not believe the zero-risk advocates. For example, they ignore the mathematical reality that the number of patients on ventilators in the UK has declined from more than 3,000 at the height of the pandemic to fewer than 100 at the beginning of the week, even as the case numbers of infections have again risen. Facts, as they say, are the facts.
The bottom line about the virus is as stark as it is vital. In Vietnam terms, we must not destroy the village in order to save it. We must not let the zero-risk brigade continue to call the shots as, in avoiding Scylla, they have disastrously led us into the jaws of Charybdis.

  • Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via
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