How Panic Spread in the Early Days of COVID-19

Scott W. Atlas writes at Newsweek on the panic response instilled in the US from the beginning in his article with the same title.  Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

It was February 2020, and news accounts had been describing increasingly alarming information about a deadly new virus emanating from Wuhan, China. Apart from my general concern about the spread of the infection, I was confused about some of the basic numbers being aired. The overall message coming from the World Health Organization (WHO) seemed to have obvious flaws. The extremely high risk estimates seemed very misleading. Even worst—the reported fatality rates were based only on patients who were sick enough to seek medical care rather than on the undoubtedly much larger population of infected individuals. I was stunned that this basic methodological flaw was being overlooked by almost everyone, while the resulting fatality rate of 3.4 percent was highlighted throughout the media. Every legitimate medical scientist should have called that out. Their silence was puzzling.

In the United States and throughout the world, a naive discussion about statistical models ensued. To an extraordinary and unprecedented extent, these epidemiological models were featured front and center in news coverage, with no perspective on the models’ usefulness. Reminiscent of other legendary frenzies in history, like the tulip bulb mania or the tech stock bubble, hypothetical extreme-risk scenarios went seemingly unchallenged and were given absolute credence.

At the same time, common sense and well-established principles of medicine were being ignored. Every second-year medical student knew that the elderly were almost certainly the most vulnerable group of people, since they were virtually always at highest risk of death and serious consequences from respiratory infections. Yet this was not stressed. To the contrary, the implication of reports and the public faces of official expertise implied that everyone was equally in danger. Even the initial evidence showed that elderly, frail people with preexisting comorbidities—conditions that weakened their natural immunological defenses—were the ones at highest risk of death. This was a feature shared by other respiratory viruses, including seasonal influenza. The one unusual feature of this virus was the fact that children had an extraordinarily low risk. Yet this positive and reassuring news was never emphasized. Instead, with total disregard of the evidence of selective risk consistent with other respiratory viruses, public health officials recommended draconian isolation of everyone.

The architects of the American lockdown strategy were Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. With Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, they were the most influential medical members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Dr. Birx, Dr. Redfield and Dr. Fauci—often called “the nation’s top expert in infectious disease”—dominated all discussions about the health and medical aspects of the emerging pandemic. One thing was very clear: all three were cut from the same cloth. First, they were all bureaucrats, with a background in various government agencies. Second, they shared a long history in HIV/AIDS as a public health crisis. That was problematic, because HIV couldn’t be more different from SARS2 in its biology, its amenability to testing and contact tracing, its spread and the implications of those facts for its control.

Indeed, the three of them spent many years focusing on the development of a vaccine, rather than treatment, for HIV/AIDS—a vaccine that still does not exist.

Most others on the task force were juggling several concerns or had no medical background. This was one more responsibility added to their portfolios, so they deferred to those deemed medical experts. Drs. Birx and Fauci commandeered federal policy under President Trump and publicly advocated for a total societal shutdown. Instead of focusing on protecting the most vulnerable, their illogical and extraordinarily blunt response—despite its predictable, wide-ranging harms—was instituted as though it were simple common sense.

Over those first several weeks, fear had taken hold of the public. Media commentators and even policy experts, many of whom had no expertise on health care, were filling the airwaves and opinion pages with naive and incorrect predictions. This misinformation was going unchecked, and was indeed repeatedly endorsed and sensationalized. Some whom I had previously considered among my smartest colleagues and friends expressed great confusion and a striking absence of logic in analyzing what was happening.

I asked myself time and again, “Where are the critical thinkers?”

After more than 15 years a health policy researcher and decades in medical science and data analysis, I had never seen such flawed thinking. I was bewildered at the lack of logic, the absence of common sense and the reliance on fundamentally flawed science. Suddenly, computer modelers and people without any perspective about clinical illnesses were dominating the airwaves. Along with millions of other Americans, I began witnessing unprecedented responses from those in power and nonscientific recommendations by public health spokespeople: societal lockdowns including business and school closures, stay-at-home restrictions on individual movements, and arbitrary decrees by local, state, and federal governments.

These recommendations were not just based on panic; they were responsible for generating even more panic. COVID rapidly became the most important health policy crisis in a century.

Scott W. Atlas, M.D. is the Robert Wesson Senior Fellow in health care policy at the Hoover Institution.



  1. Pingback: How Panic Spread in the Early Days of COVID-19 – Climate-
  2. mickmar21 · November 20, 2021

    It does seem that scientific facts are very malleable these days with the desired facts being rabidly promoted and protected until the next round of “science” rolls around.


    • Ron Clutz · November 20, 2021

      mick, Conner Harris made a good point on this issue:

      Liberals have no monopoly on gullibility or lazy journalism, but the biased coverage of ivermectin springs from one of the worst pathologies of liberal discourse in particular: conflation of respect for science with fealty to established scientific institutions. A “pro-science” disposition has long been integral to American liberals’ self-conception (a ubiquitous yard sign reads, in part, “In this house, we believe science is real”); it grew especially strong during the George W. Bush years as a reaction to the administration’s stance on global warming and alliance with the religious Right.

      But most Americans are scientists neither by training nor by temperament, and “pro-science” politics usually calcifies into blind trust in a few politically congenial authorities—such as universities and government health agencies, which have enjoyed high levels of liberal confidence throughout the pandemic despite such actions as reversing longstanding advice on face masks based on a dubious judgment call.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Terri C · November 20, 2021

    Hi Ron,

    I’m a new subscriber and wanted to thank you for the valuable content I have been receiving. I am especially grateful for the posts on climate which demonstrate there is sufficient ice forming. Looking forward to future posts.

    Sincerely Terri Cameron,


  4. Pingback: Reasons to be Skeptical about Covid Vaccines | Science Matters
  5. Pingback: Reasons to be Skeptical about Covid Vaccines – Climate-
  6. Virtual Reality · November 22, 2021

    Hi Ron
    Irrational behavior is and will always be a problem. If you’re rational you’re labeled cold and heartless. If you ask for evidence or you propose evidence that goes against the narrative you’re automatically a denialist. Thinking rationally is becoming a crime that needs to be stamped out by a manipulated mob. It seems that in the past two years this mass hysteria has crossed over into so many activities movements to the point that it’s blatantly obvious something is very wrong.
    There are so many movements claiming some form of injustice and the end of the world it’s becoming so obvious that something is very wrong with our psyche. Prosperity seems to breed anti prosperity movements bent on destroying all the progress we’ve made. History has many examples of this and yet we never learn from the past. History is and has nothing to do with the present unless it fits the narrative being propagated at the moment.


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