John Tierney writes at City Journal The Panic Pandemic.
The first part of the article is a refresher on how it happened that all those who talked reasonably in the face of the panic narrative, were silenced and banished from public discourse. Included are many recognizable names: John Ioannidis, Jay Bhattacharya, Thomas Benfield, Stefan Baral, Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta, and the most reviled heretic, Scott Atlas. The excerpts below in italics (with my bolds and images) express Tierney’s conclusions to take away from this sorry mess.
Fearmongering from journalists, scientists, and politicians did more harm than the virus.
The United States suffered through two lethal waves of contagion in the past year and a half. The first was a viral pandemic that killed about one in 500 Americans—typically, a person over 75 suffering from other serious conditions. The second, and far more catastrophic, was a moral panic that swept the nation’s guiding institutions.
Instead of keeping calm and carrying on, the American elite flouted the norms of governance, journalism, academic freedom—and, worst of all, science. They misled the public about the origins of the virus and the true risk that it posed. Ignoring their own carefully prepared plans for a pandemic, they claimed unprecedented powers to impose untested strategies, with terrible collateral damage. As evidence of their mistakes mounted, they stifled debate by vilifying dissenters, censoring criticism, and suppressing scientific research.
One in three people worldwide lost a job or a business during the lockdowns, and half saw their earnings drop, according to a Gallup poll. Children, never at risk from the virus, in many places essentially lost a year of school. The economic and health consequences were felt most acutely among the less affluent in America and in the rest of the world, where the World Bank estimates that more than 100 million have been pushed into extreme poverty.
The leaders responsible for these disasters continue to pretend that their policies worked and assume that they can keep fooling the public. They’ve promised to deploy these strategies again in the future, and they might even succeed in doing so—unless we begin to understand what went wrong.
But neither the plague nor Trump explains the panic. Yes, the virus was deadly, and Trump’s erratic pronouncements contributed to the confusion and partisanship, but the panic was due to two preexisting pathologies that afflicted other countries, too.
The first pathology is what I have called the Crisis Crisis, the incessant state of alarm fomented by journalists and politicians.
It’s a longstanding problem—humanity was supposedly doomed in the last century by the “population crisis” and the “energy crisis”—that has dramatically worsened with the cable and digital competition for ratings, clicks, and retweets. To keep audiences frightened around the clock, journalists seek out Cassandras with their own incentives for fearmongering: politicians, bureaucrats, activists, academics, and assorted experts who gain publicity, prestige, funding, and power during a crisis.
Unlike many proclaimed crises, an epidemic is a genuine threat, but the crisis industry can’t resist exaggerating the danger, and doomsaying is rarely penalized. Early in the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the New York Times reported the terrifying possibility that the virus could spread to children through “routine close contact”—quoting from a study by Anthony Fauci. Life magazine wildly exaggerated the number of infections in a cover story, headlined “Now No One Is Safe from AIDS.” It cited a study by Robert Redfield, the future leader of the CDC during the Covid pandemic, predicting that AIDS would soon spread as rapidly among heterosexuals as among homosexuals. Both scientists were absolutely wrong, of course, but the false alarms didn’t harm their careers or their credibility.
Journalists and politicians extend professional courtesy to fellow crisis-mongers by ignoring their mistakes, such as the previous predictions by Neil Ferguson. His team at Imperial College projected up to 65,000 deaths in the United Kingdom from swine flu and 200 million deaths worldwide from bird flu. The death toll each time was in the hundreds, but never mind: when Ferguson’s team projected millions of American deaths from Covid, that was considered reason enough to follow its recommendation for extended lockdowns. And when the modelers’ assumption about the fatality rate proved too high, that mistake was ignored, too.
Journalists kept highlighting the most alarming warnings, presented without context. They needed to keep their audience scared, and they succeeded. For Americans under 70, the probability of surviving a Covid infection was about 99.9 percent, but fear of the virus was higher among the young than among the elderly, and polls showed that people of all ages vastly overestimated the risk of being hospitalized or dying.
The second pathology underlying the elite’s Covid panic is the politicization of research—what I have termed the Left’s war on science, another long-standing problem that has gotten much worse.
Just as the progressives a century ago yearned for a nation directed by “expert social engineers”—scientific high priests unconstrained by voters and public opinion—today’s progressives want sweeping new powers for politicians and bureaucrats who “believe in science,” meaning that they use the Left’s version of science to justify their edicts. Now that so many elite institutions are political monocultures, progressives have more power than ever to enforce groupthink and suppress debate. Well before the pandemic, they had mastered the tactics for demonizing and silencing scientists whose findings challenged progressive orthodoxy on issues such as IQ, sex differences, race, family structure, transgenderism, and climate change.
And then along came Covid—“God’s gift to the Left,” in Jane Fonda’s words. Exaggerating the danger and deflecting blame from China to Trump offered not only short-term political benefits, damaging his reelection prospects, but also an extraordinary opportunity to empower social engineers in Washington and state capitals. Early in the pandemic, Fauci expressed doubt that it was politically possible to lock down American cities, but he underestimated the effectiveness of the crisis industry’s scaremongering. Americans were so frightened that they surrendered their freedoms to work, study, worship, dine, play, socialize, or even leave their homes. Progressives celebrated this “paradigm shift,” calling it a “blueprint” for dealing with climate change.
This experience should be a lesson in what not to do, and whom not to trust.
Do not assume that the media’s version of a crisis resembles reality. Do not count on mainstream journalists and their favorite doomsayers to put risks in perspective. Do not expect those who follow “the science” to know what they’re talking about. Science is a process of discovery and debate, not a faith to profess or a dogma to live by. It provides a description of the world, not a prescription for public policy, and specialists in one discipline do not have the knowledge or perspective to guide society. They’re biased by their own narrow focus and self-interest. Fauci and Deborah Birx, the physician who allied with him against Atlas on the White House task force, had to answer for the daily Covid death toll—that ever-present chyron at the bottom of the television screen—so they focused on one disease instead of the collateral damage of their panic-driven policies.
“The Fauci-Birx lockdowns were a sinful, unconscionable, heinous mistake, and they will never admit they were wrong,” Atlas says. Neither will the journalists and politicians who panicked along with them. They’re still portraying lockdowns as not just a success but also a precedent—proof that Americans can sacrifice for the common good when directed by wise scientists and benevolent autocrats. But the sacrifice did far more harm than good, and the burden was not shared equally. The brunt was borne by the most vulnerable in America and the poorest countries of the world. Students from disadvantaged families suffered the most from school closures, and children everywhere spent a year wearing masks solely to assuage the neurotic fears of adults. The less educated lost jobs so that professionals at minimal risk could feel safer as they kept working at home on their laptops. Silicon Valley (and its censors) prospered from lockdowns that bankrupted local businesses.
Luminaries united on Zoom and YouTube to assure the public that “we’re all in this together.” But we weren’t. When the panic infected the nation’s elite—the modern gentry who profess such concern for the downtrodden—it turned out that they weren’t so different from aristocrats of the past. They were in it for themselves.