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A Must-Read Piece by John Tierney on the “Panic Pandemic”

Summary:
The great science writer John Tierney’s latest essay in City Journal, titled “The Panic Pandemic,” is one of the best pieces ever written on Covid-19 and the calamitous, dark-ages-like reaction it. If I were to excerpt every part of this essay that deserves highlighting, I’d simply post below the essay in its entirety. But Tierney’s essay isn’t gated, so you can read it, in full, for yourself. Please do so. And share it. Widely. Here, though, are a few especially choice slices: 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

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The great science writer John Tierney’s latest essay in City Journal, titled “The Panic Pandemic,” is one of the best pieces ever written on Covid-19 and the calamitous, dark-ages-like reaction it. If I were to excerpt every part of this essay that deserves highlighting, I’d simply post below the essay in its entirety. But Tierney’s essay isn’t gated, so you can read it, in full, for yourself. Please do so. And share it. Widely.

Here, though, are a few especially choice slices:

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.

…..

The panic was started, as usual, by journalists. As the virus spread early last year, they highlighted the most alarming statistics and the scariest images: the estimates of a fatality rate ten to 50 times higher than the flu, the chaotic scenes at hospitals in Italy and New York City, the predictions that national health-care systems were about to collapse. The full-scale panic was set off by the release in March 2020 of a computer model at the Imperial College in London, which projected that—unless drastic measures were taken—intensive-care units would have 30 Covid patients for every available bed and that America would see 2.2 million deaths by the end of the summer. The British researchers announced that the “only viable strategy” was to impose draconian restrictions on businesses, schools, and social gatherings until a vaccine arrived.

This extraordinary project was swiftly declared the “consensus” among public-health officials, politicians, journalists, and academics. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, endorsed it and became the unassailable authority for those purporting to “follow the science.” What had originally been a limited lockdown—“15 days to slow the spread”—became long-term policy across much of the United States and the world. A few scientists and public-health experts objected, noting that an extended lockdown was a novel strategy of unknown effectiveness that had been rejected in previous plans for a pandemic. It was a dangerous experiment being conducted without knowing the answer to the most basic question: Just how lethal is this virus?

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In a brief interlude of journalistic competence, two veteran science writers, Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee, published an article in Scientific American decrying the politicization of Covid research. They defended the integrity and methodology of the Stanford researchers, noting that some subsequent studies had found similar rates of fatality among the infected. (In his latest review of the literature, Ioannidis now estimates that the average fatality rate in Europe and the Americas is 0.3 to 0.4 percent and about 0.2 percent among people not living in institutions.) Lenzer and Brownlee lamented that the unjust criticism and ad hominem vitriol had suppressed a legitimate debate by intimidating the scientific community. Their editors then proceeded to prove their point. Responding to more online fury, Scientific Americanrepented by publishing an editor’s note that essentially repudiated its own article. The editors printed BuzzFeed’s accusations as the final word on the matter, refusing to publish a rebuttal from the article’s authors or a supporting letter from Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School. Scientific American, long the most venerable publication in its field, now bowed to the scientific authority of BuzzFeed.

Editors of research journals fell into line, too. When Thomas Benfield, one of the researchers in Denmark conducting the first large randomized controlled trial of mask efficacy against Covid, was asked why they were taking so long to publish the much-anticipated findings, he promised them as “as soon as a journal is brave enough to accept the paper.” After being rejected by The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and JAMA, the study finally appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and the reason for the editors’ reluctance became clear: the study showed that a mask did not protect the wearer, which contradicted claims by the Centers for Disease Control and other health authorities.

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But if it was unethical to recommend “interventions that are not scientifically well grounded,” how could anyone condone the lockdowns? “It was utterly immoral to conduct this society-wide intervention without the evidence to justify it,” Bhattacharya says. “The immediate results have been disastrous, especially for the poor, and the long-term effect will be to fundamentally undermine trust in public health and science.” The traditional strategy for dealing with pandemics was to isolate the infected and protect the most vulnerable, just as Atlas and the Great Barrington scientists recommended. The CDC’s pre-pandemic planning scenarios didn’t recommend extended school closures or any shutdown of businesses even during a plague as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu. Yet Fauci dismissed the focused-protection strategy as “total nonsense” to “anybody who has any experience in epidemiology and infectious diseases,” and his verdict became “the science” to leaders in America and elsewhere.

Fortunately, a few leaders followed the science in a different way. Instead of blindly trusting Fauci, they listened to his critics and adopted the focused-protection strategy—most notably, in Florida. Its governor, Ron DeSantis, began to doubt the public-health establishment early in the pandemic, when computer models projected that Covid patients would greatly outnumber hospital beds in many states. Governors in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan were so alarmed and so determined to free up hospital beds that they directed nursing homes and other facilities to admit or readmit Covid patients—with deadly results.

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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.

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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.

Don Boudreaux
He is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Previously, he was president of the Foundation for Economic Education.

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