Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives
t the beginning, the very beginning, the hide-in-the-basement, stock-up-on-bottled-water, shut-down-the-world-the-plague-is-here panic made sense.
But within a few weeks, even as the United States and Europe had just begun lockdowns, anyone paying attention could see the cure was worse than the disease. In our desperation to control Covid-19, we had done more damage to ourselves and the world than the virus ever could.
By then, though, it was already too late.
This is the true story of how media hysteria, political partisanship, overreliance on unproven technology, and scientific illiteracy brought the United States and the world to the brink of breakdown.
The true story of how we trashed civil liberties we had treasured for generations. How we denied school to our children and destroyed small businesses.
The true story of how we locked down and hid our faces from one another on the thinnest possible evidence. Of how a public health emergency
became big business overnight, as governments spent trillions of dollars to fight the coronavirus—and unnecessary lockdowns destroyed small businesses, hugely enriched giant corporations, and forced people off paid employment onto government checks. How we spent a year hiding the risks and overestimating the benefits of vaccines based on a radical new biotechnology. And how we then tried to force the shots on tens of millions of unwilling Americans—while censoring those who raised questions about them.
All in response to a virus much less dangerous than the Spanish flu, much less Ebola. A virus that is less dangerous to healthy children and young adults than influenza. A virus that does most of its damage to people at or very near the end of their lives. A virus that killed slightly more people worldwide than diarrhea or Alzheimer’s disease in 2020.
This is the true story many of you have never heard.
Not because I have a magic source at the Centers for Disease Control passing me thumb drives with hidden information. The facts that I and a handful of other journalists and “skeptics” have reported since March 2020 are readily available in government documents and hospital records and scientific papers.
No, the facts you’re about to read aren’t secrets.
The secret is in the perspective.
For the last two years, I have tried to approach Covid-19 and the vaccines for it as I do every story I write as a reporter—looking at evidence with an open mind and evaluating risks realistically. I have tried to compare lockdowns and other Covid policies to previous consensus views on the right way to manage epidemics. Unfortunately, the media, especially the American media, committed early on to portraying the coronavirus as far riskier than it was and the vaccines as safer. Elite outlets like the New York Times went out of their way to foment panic and ignore positive news. Throughout 2020, many scientific studies offered reassuring data, especially the low risks Sars-Cov-2 posed to kids and young adults and their safety in schools. Practically everything pointed the same way. Meanwhile, the models that had predicted apocalyptic outcomes proved wrong. Aside from a few bad days in New York City in March and April 2020, American hospitals were never close to being overrun. In fact, they were so empty in the spring of 2020 that many laid off workers. Even in New York, the field hospitals and medical ships went largely unused.
But no one seemed to notice, much less care.
Instead the Times, CNN, and the rest fixated on a single number, the count of Americans who had (reportedly) died from the coronavirus. Cable networks offered real-time tallies. The Times ran a special edition when the figure reached one hundred thousand.
They never put the figure in context. They never explained that our methods for recording Covid-linked deaths were likely producing overcounts. Or that even with our aggressive counting, the Covid death figure represented just over 10 percent of all American deaths in 2020.
Most important, they never explained honestly that Covid almost exclusively targeted the very old and sick.
Instead they went the other way, searching desperately for outlier cases—the handful of coronavirus deaths of people under fifty without preexisting conditions. Inevitably, they made mistakes, as when the Times called the murder of a twenty-seven-year-old Iowa man a Covid death.
Reporters are crucial watchdogs against government mistakes and overreach. All of government. But the media’s hatred for Donald Trump blinded journalists to the power that state governors and unelected scientific and medical advisors wielded as the epidemic unfolded.
As Covid hit, governors in many states seized unprecedented control of their citizens. They refused to reopen schools. They imposed draconian rules on businesses. They forced people to wear masks, even outside.
Journalists didn’t question these monumental intrusions. They cheered them, while ignoring scientists who challenged the conventional narrative.
Hugely powerful social media companies such as Facebook and tech giants such as Google and Amazon went even further. Those corporations blocked videos and books and groups that questioned the value of the lockdowns—from which these same corporations have profited enormously. The social media companies worked with organizations such as the World Health Organization to become quasi-governmental censors. In suppressing honest debate and dissent, they set a dangerous precedent—and fed the rise of wilder conspiracy theories.
Yet they couldn’t silence everyone.
This is the true story of how—to my surprise—I became a leading voice calling for an end to lockdowns and a return to normality. How the strange intimacy of celebrity in the age of social media enveloped me. My Twitter follower count grew from 7,000 to 200,000 in months, and then to over 300,000 in 2021. Some people told me I had kept them sane. Others said I was a psychopath who didn’t care how many people Covid killed.
People followed my feed to get information they couldn’t find anywhere else. I tried to source my tweets, offering links to the material I quoted. I wanted my readers to judge for themselves whether I had fairly represented it. I knew I had.
I will do the same in this book. I want to be as transparent as possible.
But it wasn’t the information I offered that made people love or hate my feed—and me. It was my tone: enraged at the lockdowns, prodding, often sarcastic. I didn’t treat the epidemic with fear. Instead I insisted that “virus gonna virus.” I wrote about “Team Reality” and “Team Apocalypse.” I called masks “face diapers” and complained of “Neils and Karens” who wouldn’t leave their houses. I created an Orwellian “Department of Pandemia” to announce rules about “the thing.”
Even readers who supported me occasionally told me I was going too far, that I needed to remember that the coronavirus really did kill people.
But I believed I needed to speak out in a way that couldn’t be ignored. I believed mainstream reporters were offering worst-case scenarios for reasons both economic and political. Panic was good for page views and terrible for Donald Trump. And most reporters at places like the New York Times hate Trump with a passion that can’t be overstated. (As for me, I’m a registered independent whose politics are that it is impossible to be too cynical.)
On April 16, 2020, I tweeted:
Against hysteria, satire. Against storytelling, data. Against groupthink, reporting. Against authoritarianism, bravery. Most of all: Against millennialism, realism. And hope.1
Against hysteria, satire. And if that satire sometimes cut too deep or went too far, I had to accept the consequences.
“I can’t tell if you are super angry or if you are enjoying yourself,” a journalist said to me in June 2020. My answer: “Why not both?” Day by day and hour by hour, the cause of fighting for the truth—and against our overreaction to Sars-Cov-2—took over my life.
Vanity Fair published two hit pieces on me. I went to war with the Times, a newspaper where I had worked for a decade. Old friends stopped speaking to me. Sometimes they publicly attacked me. My marriage staggered under the weight of my Twitter obsession. Most painful of all, my father, who was dying of cancer, grew angry with me for pressing against lockdowns. He accused me of not caring about him. My stance became a subject we couldn’t discuss. Until, in May 2020, he died. (Not of Covid. Of leukemia.)
I didn’t mourn him properly.
My wife was right, my friends were right. I was obsessed. I couldn’t stop fighting. Couldn’t and wouldn’t. Can’t and won’t. Because our response to the coronavirus is the worst public policy mistake worldwide in at least a century, since World War I, when Europe’s leaders sent millions of young men to their graves for reasons they couldn’t even explain. A generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have run the other way, tearing up human liberty around the world.
The people who have caused the panic show no sign of letting up, no sign they plan to let us get back to normal anytime soon. If ever. Yes, lockdowns in the United States have ended—but countries such as Australia and New Zealand show just how fragile our freedoms have become.
Meanwhile, we are still suffering from intrusive rules that vary state to state and country to country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have included “social distancing,” mask requirements, school closings, bans on indoor dining, endless testing of college students, aggressive contact tracing, travel restrictions, quarantines for people without symptoms, and now vaccine mandates.
Yet despite the enormous cost of these measures, despite their intrusion on our civil liberties, none of them been shown to slow the spread of Covid. We engaged in a game of viral theater at incalculable cost, both real and psychic—particularly to children and teenagers, who were denied normal schooling and social interaction.
In August 2020, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 25 percent of adults ages eighteen to twenty-four said they had seriously considered suicide during the month of June. That figure was more than double the percentage who had reported doing so in a similar survey in 2018. These young adults are at essentially no risk from the coronavirus. But we made them terrified for their futures and locked them up to grapple adolescent angst, drug problems, or depression alone.
This is the true story of the pandemia: one part pandemic, five parts hysteria. Neither shaken nor stirred, but heated in a thermal cycler—also known as a PCR machine (another obscure and complex technology that played a crucial role in bringing us this crisis).
The coronavirus epidemic could not have happened a generation ago. Or a decade ago. But not because of the virus.
At the beginning, the very beginning, when the panic made sense, the novel coronavirus seemed special. Exceptional. It could lurk for weeks before suddenly cutting down its victims, we were told. It spread like the common cold but killed far more aggressively than influenza, we were told. It colonized the nose and mouth for maximum infectivity before suddenly moving into the lungs for maximum lethality, we were told.
But a lot of what we were told wasn’t true. We’ve learned now that Sars-Cov-2 isn’t particularly lethal and that its contagiousness varies widely in different settings. Most people without symptoms don’t spread it much. Really, the novel coronavirus is just …a virus. It has one truly unusual symptom—many infected people temporarily lose their senses of smell and taste.
Not exactly Ebola, which has a 50 percent fatality rate.
So why was our response to this rather ordinary virus so different from our reaction to any other disease in human history? Because it could be. Because in our foolish brilliance we have created information technology indistinguishable from magic.
We closed offices and schools because we could. We now have the internet bandwidth for white collar workers to stay home—and for students to “learn” remotely, on their computers.
We counted and publicized deaths obsessively—and still do—because we can. We have database software that enables hospitals and health departments to aggregate information in real time.
We distribute that information to everyone instantaneously, through social and conventional media, because we can. We are not just choking on data, we are stuffing it down our throats. Yet we are desperate for more each moment. Many of us seem almost addicted to tracking the toll of the coronavirus. We know we should stop, but we can’t.
We test endlessly for the virus because we can. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines make the virus’s RNA into DNA and that DNA into more DNA. They let us find a single fragment of the virus and multiply it a trillion times. A trillion is a million million, a thousand thousand thousand thousand. It is a number no one can really grasp. And the mRNA Covid vaccines—created, developed, and put into use worldwide in under a year, faster than almost any other drug or vaccine in history—are only the latest example of our scientific brilliance.
But we are playing magic tricks on ourselves. We have forgotten a crucial fact: These medical wonders come at the highest possible price. When we multiply a viral fragment a trillion times, we get a positive test result in many people who never will be sick.
Then we tell those healthy people that they’re ill, and we make them—and the people around them—stay home.
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|January 29, 2022|
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