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.
If, as seems increasingly plausible, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 leaked out of a laboratory in Wuhan, it is the costliest blunder ever committed by scientists. Whatever the pandemic’s origin, the response to it is the worst mistake in the history of the public-health profession. We still have no convincing evidence that the lockdowns saved lives, but lots of evidence that they have already cost lives and will prove deadlier in the long run than the virus itself.
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.
The panic was started, as usual, by journalists.
In times of public-health emergency, the federal government takes on the role of a provider of information. Unfortunately, as “The CDC’s Delta Variant Panic” (Review & Outlook, July 31) illustrates, our government has fallen into a pattern of not only vacillating between contradictory positions, but also fanning the flames of Covid-19 misinformation.
This pattern extends to the earliest days of the pandemic. Far from providing leadership, agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and figures such as Anthony Fauci have a record of projecting their own unfounded speculation as authoritative scientific judgments on matters in which they lack clear evidence. Recall how the CDC spent spring 2020 attempting to dissuade the public from buying masks, how Dr. Fauci described the risk of Covid to the U.S. as “minuscule” in late February 2020, and how “two weeks to flatten the curve” morphed into two months, then a year.
More recent vacillation includes ever-changing advice on masks, a re-evaluation of the lab-leak theory, the confidence-undermining pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and now encouraging alarmism with misleading claims about the number of Delta variant breakthrough cases. Despite this stream of inconsistent messages, these public-health authorities are routinely invoked by journalists and social-media fact checkers as the standard against which “Covid misinformation” is to be judged.
A year and a half of placing political expediency over scientific accuracy has taken its toll on the public. By failing to acknowledge the limitations of their own knowledge and repeated errors of judgment, Dr. Fauci and the CDC have undermined the very trust they seek to command. If public trust in science declines as a result, these officials have only themselves to blame.