COVID-19 – Of course there’s no government “conspiracy”

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In his column today, Richard Martineau asks conspiracy theorists to explain why our politicians would purposefully exaggerate how dangerous COVID-19 is, and what they would have to gain from confining everyone and shutting stores and businesses. Not being a conspiracy theorist by nature, I nonetheless tried to answer these important questions.

Obviously, there is no “conspiracy” on the part of the Legault and Trudeau governments. They are too incompetent to be able to pull one off anyway, even if they wanted to, which they don’t. One of them was unable to adequately manage the situation in long-term care homes, and the other doesn’t even know how to implement a new pay system for its employees. Forget about trying to coordinate a vast and complex conspiracy, not to mention that there is no valid reason that would justify such a conspiracy, as Martineau rightly points out.

However, tearing down the straw man of conspiracy theories does not mean that we are not living through a public health overreaction. Indeed, it remains rigorously true that:

  • the great majority of COVID-19 cases require no hospitalization (much less hospitalization in intensive care);
  • the average age of deaths linked to COVID-19 ranges somewhere between 80 and 89 years, depending on the jurisdiction and the specific period;
  • the truly relevant number for evaluating the level of danger is the number of active cases, not the number of total infections since the start of the pandemic;
  • the thresholds for activating the different colour codes are extremely low (when compared to the total population).

But I am straying from the main topic of this piece, which is why on earth our governments are acting the way they are. The short answer: Because of a mistaken application of the famous “precautionary principle,” as well as the underestimation of the adverse effects of certain measures and the dynamic that stems naturally from the incentives in place.

Let’s look at a non-COVID-19 example to illustrate what I mean. Several years ago, a pharmaceutical company developed a new drug, Vioxx, that significantly reduced pain and symptoms for people suffering from severe arthritis. It must be noted that the class of similar drugs that preceded Vioxx caused serious stomach pains and sometimes even potentially fatal internal bleeding. Anyone suffering from severe arthritis will tell you: The arrival of Vioxx was a real blessing that improved the quality of life of many.

But at a certain point, it was found that Vioxx itself had potentially serious undesirable side effects, and in rare cases had even led to heart attacks. Health officials who had authorized the drug were blamed, numerous lawsuits were launched, and so on. The result: If the authorities approve a drug “too quickly,” everyone will emphasize the negative consequences, but if they are ultra careful and take years longer than they should to approve it (or even if they never approve it), practically no one will point out the negative consequences of the absence of this approval.

Similarly, if the Legault government overreacts, practically no one will raise the issue. But if, say, a woman pregnant with triplets were to die from the virus, and the government is perceived as not having been careful enough, it’s easy to imagine the flak it would receive and the political disaster that this single case would constitute. So when in doubt, politicians will almost always overreact, and in doing so, will not take into account the unintended consequences of this overreaction. No “conspiracy” is necessary for this to happen. The natural dynamic of the incentives in place and the application of Frédéric Bastiat’s good old principle of “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen” is more than enough to explain why things are the way they are.

As Jean Cocteau put it so well: “We must not confuse the truth with the opinion of the majority.”

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the MEI. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.

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