It’s a shift worth marking. New York Magazine is featuring an article called ‘Covid Lockdowns Were a Giant Experiment. It Was a Failure‘. The authors are two excellent journalists, Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean, who have also written a new book called The Big Fail, which I have not read but intend to. The ascent of the book and thesis is hugely important, if only to further blunt the impact of Michael Lewis’s The Premonition, which came out in 2021 with the purpose of valorising the absolute worst of the lockdowners.
The worry at the time was that Lewis’s book, like The Big Short, would become a major movie that would codify lockdowns as the right way to deal with infectious disease. That does not seem to be happening, and the cleverly titled book by Nocera and McLean seems to assure that this will never happen. Thank goodness. This is progress. Be grateful when we see it. It is also a tremendous credit to all those who have been pushing the Nocera-McLean thesis since the spring of 2020.
Lockdowns were always an impossible means of pandemic management. We knew that from a century ago. It was not even controversial. The orthodoxy in public health survived even up to a few weeks before the lockdowns began.
Out of nowhere, settled wisdom was completely upended. Suddenly, as if straight from Orwell, lockdowns became “common sense mitigation measures”. Meanwhile this country and most other countries around the world were being utterly tortured by a crazed bureaucracy determined to master the microbial kingdom by bullying people and wrecking their businesses, schools, churches and lives.
If nothing else, this era proves for this generation the astonishing capacity of the human mind to undertake utterly insane policy experiments on a grand scale without the slightest evidence that they could ever succeed, even while they trample on all established norms of rights and liberties.
This is a revelation, at least to me. We’ve never seen anything like it in our lives. Speaking personally, this reality utterly shattered a worldview that I didn’t know I held: namely, I genuinely believed humanity was on a path, even an inevitable one, toward greater knowledge, learning and the embrace of freedom. After March 2020, I and everyone discovered otherwise. That was both intellectually and psychologically traumatic for me and for millions of others.
We are still figuring out how and why all this happened. In order to do that, we at least need a consensus that this was a terrible mistake. Even three and a half years later, we haven’t even had that. To be sure, it is very difficult to find defenders of lockdowns [in the U.S.] They have mostly evaporated into the hedges. Even those who pulled the trigger and defended them at the time are all denying that they had anything to do with them. My favourite: we never had a real lockdown.
Regardless, the mere appearance of the Nocera-McLean article takes us quite a distance to where we need to be at least for now. Yes, it is 42 months late, but we take progress wherever we can find it.
Just some quotes from the article:
One of the great mysteries of the pandemic is why so many countries followed China’s example. In the U.S. and the U.K. especially, lockdowns went from being regarded as something that only an authoritarian government would attempt to an example of ‘following the science’. But there was never any science behind lockdowns — not a single study had ever been undertaken to measure their efficacy in stopping a pandemic. When you got right down to it, lockdowns were little more than a giant experiment.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of policy failures of which to take stock. We do an accounting of many of them in our new book, The Big Fail. But one that looms as large as any, and remains in need of a full reckoning in the public conversation, is the decision to embrace lockdowns. While it is reasonable to think of that policy (in all its many forms, across different sectors of society and the 50 states) as an on-the-fly experiment, doing so demands that we come to a conclusion about the results. For all kinds of reasons, including the country’s deep political divisions, the complexity of the problem, and Covid’s dire human toll, that has been slow to happen. But it’s time to be clear about the fact that lockdowns for any purpose other than keeping hospitals from being overrun in the short term were a mistake that should not be repeated. While this is not a definitive accounting of how the damage from lockdowns outweighed the benefits, it is at least an attempt to nudge that conversation forward as the U.S. hopefully begins to recentre public-health best practices on something closer to the vision put forward by [Donald] Henderson.
You will notice the hedge here: “for any purpose other than keeping hospitals from being overrun.” Another way to put it: lockdowns are fine for rationing healthcare. There is reason to emphatically disagree. Hospitals wildly exaggerated how overrun they were. There were two hospitals in New York boroughs that had high traffic, but this was due to exigencies of ambulance contracts. The rest were largely empty as they were around the country. This was due to lockdowns that restricted medical services to Covid only even in places where there was no community spread, plus public fear of leaving the home.
(I had a conversation last week with the head of a company that sells ventilators and diagnostic equipment to hospitals in New York. He said that in the early months of lockdown, he had never seen hospitals so empty. This was confirmation to me of what we already knew.)
This whole subject needs some serious unpacking. To my knowledge, we still don’t know where the edicts came from to lock down hospitals all over the country. That is a research project all its own. In other words, carving out an exception for “overrun” hospitals is deeply dangerous: it only incentivises the lockdowners next time to game the reporting in a way that is favourable to more lockdowns. This is precisely what happened in the U.K., where the main and even only justification for lockdowns was the rationing of healthcare services.