Podcast podcast
Jul 28 2021

John Tierney joins Brian Anderson to discuss “The Panic Pandemic,” his feature in the Summer 2021 issue of City Journal on the costs of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is John Tierney. He's a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of the "Panic Pandemic", the lead story in this summer's print edition of our quarterly magazine. John, thanks as always for joining us.

John Tierney: Thanks for inviting me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: This is a terrific story, and I'd like to dive into it right away. You assert at the beginning of the essay that the American response to COVID-19, which you acknowledge has killed a lot of Americans—about one in 500, has in fact been more harmful than the virus itself. That's a striking claim. It's generated a lot of attention online, this piece. But let's look at the evidence for your argument. What was the nature, in your view of the pandemic response in the US and what costs more specifically, in your view, has it imposed on the country?

John Tierney: Well, I think there's a good chance that in the long run it is going to prove deadlier than the coronavirus. I did an earlier piece for City Journal, "Death and Lockdowns," where I looked into the excess deaths last year. And a good percentage of them, in fact, by some more recent estimates, 40 percent of the excess deaths among people under 65, of the deaths more than normal, were not due to COVID but rather the effects of the lockdown. The missed cancer screenings, the heart attacks that weren't treated, the fatal drug overdoses, there were more fatal car accidents. So there were lots of immediately deadly effects of the lockdowns and those effects are going to continue for years and years.

I've written about this, Scott Atlas has published some work, and some other economists have, too, that when you cause such an enormous economic loss to people, that manifests itself later, in lower life expectancy. When students lose that much education, their life expectancy goes down. So there have been calculations that in the long run, the lockdowns will cause more years of life to be lost than the virus did.

But beyond that is just the incredible social harm that was done. Children losing a year of school, a year of childhood, in a way; they didn't get to play with other children. The people who didn't see their grandparents, there was worsening of cases of Alzheimer's and dementia because isolation really contributes to that, it makes people more prone to die from that. And there was just the whole social disruption of so many people being put out of work. One in three people worldwide lost a job or a business during the lockdowns and half saw their earnings drop. And the World Bank estimates that more than a hundred million people have been pushed into extreme poverty. And we saw in the United States very bad effects of the lockdowns, the businesses that went under, the lives that were disrupted, the surging levels of anxiety and depression among people.

But the worst consequences in many ways were felt in poor countries overseas because those people are more vulnerable, they're more susceptible to economic downturns and the lockdowns that the industrialized world did. And in many ways, the United States was the leader in creating and pushing these lockdowns on the rest of the world that just wreaked enormous havoc with people's lives and I think did far more damaged than the coronavirus did. And what makes it even more tragic is that we still don't have any evidence that the lockdowns actually saved any lives.

Brian Anderson: Right. It's interesting to think back to where the world was back in March 2020, when the lockdowns were first imposed. China shut an entire city down and indeed after that much of the country when the outbreak was underway in Wuhan. Italy's healthcare system was overwhelmed, the exact properties of COVID-19 including its level of lethality were then unknown. Suddenly case counts were rising here at home, though we had neither the tests to know by how much, nor any kind of real plan or coherent plan to avoid mass casualties. So there was much we didn't know back then, when the lockdowns were first put in place. But the information we've learned since has in some ways cut in both directions. On the one hand, the disease caused by the virus really can kill people, especially those with immunocompromised systems or for the very elderly. But on the other hand, there's not much evidence, as you just suggested, that the lockdowns have had any positive effect whatsoever.

So if you could go back in time to March 2020, knowing what you know now, what would be your message for the leaders of the world and citizens in various countries? What information would you tell them in an effort to minimize pandemic deaths and preserve basic freedoms?

John Tierney: The first message would be that classic principle 'first do no harm.' Before you engage in this really risky and unprecedented experiment of shutting down society, you should really think about it, ask what evidence there is for it, and very carefully monitor the effects to see what it's doing. I can understand why, when we saw those images from Italy, when no one really knew much about the virus, it did make a certain amount of sense to say 15 days to slow the spread because there was this fear that hospitals were just about to be overwhelmed. We saw those images in Italy and in New York City. But in March and April of last year, and I wrote about this in City Journal, it was clear that infections in New York City, which is of course one of the hardest hit spots in the world and was mishandled in so many ways, but infections here peaked before Governor Cuomo announced a lockdown, and people could see that in April.

I mean, it was a deadly virus, but pandemics do run in these cycles. And that had already started before the lockdown and yet it was just continued for the rest of the year. We kept locking things down. So I think the leaders also have to recognize one of the biggest mistakes that they made, like Cuomo said, 'I'm doing whatever the scientists tell me.' And that became the mantra, follow the science. But specialists in one scientific discipline, someone who knows a lot about infectious diseases, does not have the expertise to determine the best social policy. There are so many other considerations beyond simply stopping the spread of a virus. They have a very narrow focus. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx in the White House, their job was to stop the spread of the disease. They were being judged at the daily press conferences by what's the latest death toll, what's the latest case count. And they had a very limited perspective on the overall public health problem.

And public health officials are supposed to not obsess about one disease, they're supposed to look at the larger consequences. And yet, that really was never done. There was no cost-benefit analysis. There were a few people like Scott Atlas and the Great Barrington scientists from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford who were pointing these things out and just doing estimates, showing look, you're going to end up killing a lot of people with these lockdowns. But it became taboo to question them, and this narrative set in that lockdowns where the consensus, this untested strategy that was not recommended before COVID. In the CDC's planning scenarios, they envisioned certain steps for certain kinds of epidemics, and for the most extreme pandemic in their planning scenario, one as bad as the Spanish Flu of 1918, which was killing young people and children, they did not envision extended school closures, they did not call for shutting down businesses. This was a totally novel strategy that was just adopted and suddenly, once it happened, it just became this policy that couldn't be changed.

I mean, I guess one thing we really did learn was that once you lockdown, it's very hard to open up. Because once you start making this idea that we're going to beat this virus, we're going to get to zero COVID, we're going to stop it, then you can never open up again because a new virus causes a lot of devastation, then it becomes endemic, it doesn't go away. The flu doesn't go away, we learned to live with it, and there are years where we have more than 100,000 people die from the flu, but we don't shut down society for that. And we really did learn that once you shut down and once you instill so much fear in people, so much irrational fear and you exaggerate the danger of it, it's very hard to open back up again.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. Walking this back becomes extremely difficult. You mention in your essay, Florida as a state that generally resisted mass lockdowns and yet did pretty well when compared with other American states, when you're looking at COVID deaths, cases, and keeping the health care system functioning. What about some of the countries that have offered similar examples? Sweden, for example.

John Tierney: Right. Sweden was criticized early on because it was doing worse than its neighbors Finland and Norway. Although it wasn't doing worse than the UK and other countries. There were some reasons why Sweden did worse than its neighbors Finland and Norway. But what people have missed in that argument is that, over the long haul, Sweden has done a little better than the European average on COVID mortality. And Finland and Norway have done better than Sweden, but they have followed policies like Sweden's for most of the pandemic, they locked down more last spring and they closed their borders earlier, which might've been a good move. But aside from that, those three countries have not had mass mandates, they're among the only countries in Europe that don't mandate masks. They kept their schools open without masks, without social distancing. And they have done significantly better, each of them, than the rest of Europe when it comes to preventing excess deaths. In other words their levels of mortality compared to a normal year are significantly better than most countries in Europe.

So, my argument is that lockdowns are a medical treatment, and no medical treatment or drug would be approved if it's not proven to do better than the control group. And effectively Florida was the control group in this experiment in the United States. They locked down briefly early, but then opened up while most of the rest of the country was locking down, and they did better. Their age-adjusted rate for COVID mortality was better than all but 10 other states. And if the control group is doing better, if the treatment group is dying off faster than the control group you should stop the experiment. I mean, you would do that in a clinical trial. And we had the same thing in Europe where Finland, Norway, and Sweden were just about the least restrictive countries in Europe, and they did significantly better than the rest of Europe. So I mean, that to me is the strongest evidence.

There have been a lot of studies of trying to gauge the effects of lockdown. And early on, there were some studies where they did these mathematical models projecting if we hadn't locked down, this would have happened. And these studies purported to find that lockdown save lives. But these were very hypothetical situations and a lot of the assumptions were quite dubious, in fact, they were severely criticized. Meanwhile, there've been lots of other studies comparing one comparable country with another, one county with another that didn't lockdown, one state with another. And you generally see that the places that locked down did no better and often they did much worse than places that did not lockdown. So, given all that evidence, I mean, no drug with this sort of track record, no medical treatment would ever be approved if there was no evidence that it worked. This is really the most dangerous experiment ever conducted and there are still people that want to continue doing it, despite the lack of evidence that the lockdowns did any good.

Brian Anderson: Well that really leads to the next question I had, which is, we're 16 months on in the pandemic, we've now got multiple vaccines that work, that seem to minimize the chances of severe illness and death from COVID, and in many cases even infection. They've been widely available for months, yet many public health authorities, especially in cities are still clamoring for restrictions. LA just reimposed an indoor mask mandate, for example. So what explains the shift from lockdowns as a kind of short-term prudential measure to lockdowns as basically a new form of life, a permanent form of life?

John Tierney: Well, I think that there are two causes for the panic that has happened. One is simply that there is this, I mean, I call it the crisis crisis, this perpetual state of alarm that is fomented by journalists and by their favorite doomsayers and other assorted experts. Journalists always exaggerate crises, many of the crises are really non-existent. And I think that's something else that I would have told politicians back in March of 2020, do not make policy based on worst-case scenarios. Over and over again, as I pointed out in the piece, experts have exaggerated the dangers of epidemics. They have their own narrow focus and they do not want to risk under predicting, both because it looks bad if something does happen that they didn't warn about, they basically covered themselves by giving some huge number and then they can claim well, we managed to avert that. They have a built-in incentive for what I call the crisis industry.

Journalists have a built-in incentive to scare people. They find the most pessimistic doomsayers to quote because it makes for better copy, it attracts more attention. And these doomsayers have their own motives for wanting to exaggerate a crisis. If you're a specialist in epidemiology, exaggerating the danger of this crisis you suddenly get publicity, you get prestige, more funding is going to flow to you. The bigger the problem seems, the more money and more power you get for that. And I think to some extent, public health officials, they're human and it's become this kind of new obsession to focus on this one disease. And as people have said, they've kept moving the goalpost. At first, it was we just wanted to slow the spread; now it's zero COVID. And I mean, it makes no sense to me that, with so much of the population vaccinated, with everybody who's at risk having had an opportunity to get a vaccine, why we should be locking down, why children should be wearing masks—the children never needed to wear a mask—and why we should be doing this.

It's kind of the crisis industry trying to keep this thing going, because it's gotten them audiences, it's gotten them a lot of attention and I think they hate to see the crisis ending.

Brian Anderson: Well, you mentioned two reasons for this panic. The other in your essay is a very important theme of your work, which is the politicization of scientific research. And that has manifested itself during the pandemic in outright censorship of scientific debate. I wonder if you could say a little bit about that and what we can conceivably do about it.

John Tierney: I've called it the Left's war on science, and it's not new to COVID. Back in the 1920s, Progressives dreamed of a world with experts, social engineers, directing society and using their great scientific knowledge and expertise, giving them great powers to do this, and to do so without being accountable to voters or public opinion. And that has long been a dream of the Left, that we need to follow the science, which really means giving powers to the public officials and leaders to impose policies on people, using science as a justification. And, as the Left has come to dominate more and more institutions—universities, scientific journals, scientific associations—they've become political monocultures. In any kind of monoculture, people become susceptible to group think and they also start silencing heretics instead of encouraging the kind of debate that science has. They start thinking that their opinions are not only the norm, but also truth.

We've seen this before COVID, we've seen that people who did research, whose findings challenged Progressive orthodoxy on things like IQ, on race, on family structure, on environmental issues like climate change, that the scientists who've done that, many of them very good scientists, have been demonized, their work has been censored. There've been efforts to cut off any funding to them, even if it comes from private sources. So this has been going on for decades. Some of the early IQ researchers had to have armed guards when they went to give speeches, because there was so much hostility. And we've seen this growing intolerance, this growing desire to shut down debate on a challenge to Leftist orthodoxy on the scientific issues.

But then COVID came along and it was really a perfect storm. Jane Fonda called it God's gift to the Left because, by exaggerating the danger of the virus, there were short-term political benefits because it hurt Donald Trump's election chances and tanking the economy also hurt him too, his chances. So you had that immediate political payoff from playing up the pandemic and shutting down the economy, but you also had this just amazing opportunity to suddenly give scientists, these high priests, these expert social engineers, these vast new powers to shape society.

And at the start of the pandemic when China did it, I mean, one could imagine how an authoritarian society like China can do this. It is centrally managed. And Dr. Fauci said he couldn't imagine locking down American cities, Americans won't stand for that. But he was wrong. The crisis industry was so effective in scaring people that people willingly surrendered. There were majorities of people in the opinion polls who were in favor of this, and they gave up their right to work, to study, to go out to eat, to even leave their homes, to go to church. It was shocking to me to see how readily people gave up these liberties, and I think for the left there were progressive celebrating this and saying, boy, this is a great paradigm shift. We're away from this obsession with individual liberties, we now have to all make sacrifices for the common good when led by the science, the Left's version of the science. And they started calling this a blueprint for how to deal with climate change and other environmental issues.

I do fear that the lockdowns are a dress rehearsal for policies that will greatly curtail people's liberties in the name of climate change.

Brian Anderson: It's very troubling. You had a little bit of this, City Journal had a little bit of this experience with the piece you did on the pandemic a while back with some Facebook intervention. Perhaps you want to describe that a little bit to inform readers about it.

John Tierney: Yes. I wrote about this in some earlier articles, this whole issue of shutting down scientific debate. It's been going on for a while, but I'm shocked by how much it has escalated in the last few years, and particularly during this pandemic. Early on, nobody knew how lethal the virus was, and some researchers at Stanford did one of the first good studies trying to gauge how many people were infected and how many of them were dying. And they just faced this enormous outcry. And what they found was that the fatality rate was considerably lower than what the computer models were using, what the media was screaming about. And they were denounced for endangering lives, for being unethical. Stanford University, subjected them to this fact-finding inquiry. There were calls that they should be even drummed out of professional societies. And to see this sort of suppression—these were prominent, very well-respected scientists who this happened to. And that really set the tone, where people became so afraid to question this lockdown narrative.

Martin Kulldorff from Harvard, one of the world's leading experts on infectious diseases says that there's always a certain amount of herd thinking in science, but he's never seen it reached this level. He said that most of the experts he talked to, the other scientists, were against lockdowns, but they were afraid to speak up. In the article I write about how Scientific American published a welcome article trying to introduce some sanity to this by defending the Stanford researchers and saying we shouldn't politicize this research, we should try to really find out how dangerous this virus is before we take steps. And then Scientific American, there was all this online fury, and they basically just repudiated their own article.

So the level of fear of deviating from this consensus was shocking. And it's antithetical, science is a process of discovery and debate; you have to have these debates. And yet it became taboo to question the narrative. It's a frightening precedent that was set.

Brian Anderson: And I guess the social media censorship is basically an outgrowth of this attitude. Right?

John Tierney: Right. And I mean, they censored the article that I wrote, which quoted a German study that reported harms to children from wearing masks. They were taking reports from I think 20,000 parents who reported lots of harms to their children from wearing masks. And this was not at all surprising. There are dozens of studies that have shown that wearing masks causes a lot of problems. You get less oxygen, it's harder to concentrate, harder to learn. It interferes with socialization. There are lots of documented harms from it, but Facebook uses this fact-checking groups called Health Feedback and Science Feedback, and they labeled the study as being not supported. And my article was labeled on Facebook, partly false, simply because it accurately reported what this study found. And this was a study that was published in a peer-reviewed journal. There was nothing wrong with the study, but that was censored.

And I was just one of many. These scientists who called for an alternative to lockdowns, this focus protection strategy in what was known as the Great Barrington Declaration, Google shadow banned their declaration so that you couldn't find it, all you'd find was criticism of it. Facebook shut down their page. Ron DeSantis, who, fortunately for the people of Florida, actually listened to these scientists, consulted with them. And they were amazed that whenever they mentioned a scientific study to them, he'd already read it and sort of knew the methodology of it. It was astonishing to hear that about a politician. But he sat down for a panel discussion with them and YouTube removed it because the scientists were saying they don't think children should be wearing masks. So basically Facebook was enforcing this narrative, and so was Google and YouTube. I think it's one of the reasons that these bans continue, of course, and kids are still wearing masks, because people have not heard about the harms of wearing masks and they haven't seen a balanced discussion of how little good they do.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, John, it's a very important essay. It's called the "Panic Pandemic". It's in our brand new summer issue, it's available online right now, that story. Don't forget to check out that article and John Tierney's work generally on the City Journal website, that's www.city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. And as always, if you liked what you've heard on the podcast, give us a ratings on iTunes and thanks again, John Tierney.

John Tierney: Thank you, Brian.

Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

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