This has been a year of astonishing policy failure. We are surrounded by devastation conceived and cheered by intellectuals and their political handmaidens. The errors number in the thousands, so please consider the following little more than a first draft, a mere guide to what will surely be unearthed in the coming months and years. We trusted these people with our lives and liberties and here is what they did with that trust.
1. Anthony Fauci says lockdowns are not possible in the United States (January 24):
When asked about the mass quarantine containment efforts underway in Wuhan, China back in January, Fauci dismissed the prospect of lockdowns ever coming to the United States:
“That’s something that I don’t think we could possibly do in the United States, I can’t imagine shutting down New York or Los Angeles, but the judgement on the part of the Chinese health authorities is that given the fact that it’s spreading throughout the provinces… it’s their judgement that this is something that in fact is going to help in containing it. Whether or not it does or does not is really open to question because historically when you shut things down it doesn’t have a major effect.”
Less than two months later, 43 of 50 US states were under lockdown – a policy advocated by Fauci himself.
2. US government and WHO officials advise against mask use (February and March)
When mask sales spiked due to widespread individual adoption in the early weeks of the pandemic, numerous US government and WHO officials took to the airwaves to describe masks as ineffective and discourage their use.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted against masks on February 29. Anthony Fauci publicly discouraged mask use in a nationally broadcast 60 Minutes interview on March 7. At a March 30 World Health Organization briefing its Director-General supported mask use in medical settings but dissuaded the same in the general public.
By mid-summer, all had reversed course and encouraged mask-wearing in the general public as an essential tool for halting the pandemic. Fauci essentially conceded that he lied to the public in order to prevent a shortage on masks, whereas other health officials did an about-face on the scientific claims around masking.
While mainstream epidemiology literature stressed the ambiguous nature of evidence surrounding masks as recently as 2019, these scientists were suddenly certain that masks were something of a magic bullet for Covid. It turns out that both positions are likely wrong. Masks appear to have marginal effects at diminishing spread, especially in highly infectious settings and around the vulnerable. But their effectiveness at combating Covid has also been grossly exaggerated, as illustrated by the fact that mask adoption reached near-universal levels in the US by the summer with little discernible effect on the course of the pandemic.
3. Anthony Fauci’s decimal error in estimating Covid’s fatality rates (March 11)
Fauci testified before Congress in early March where he was asked to estimate the severity of the disease in comparison to influenza. His testimony that Covid was “10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu” stoked widespread alarm and provided a major impetus for the decision to go into lockdown.
The problem, as Ronald Brown documented in an epidemiology journal article, is that Fauci based his estimates on a conflation of the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) and Case Fatality Rate (CFR) for influenza, leading him to exaggerate the comparative danger of Covid by an order of magnitude. Fauci’s error – which he further compounded in a late February article for the New England Journal of Medicine – helped to convince Congress of the need for drastic lockdown measures, while also spreading panic in the media and general public. As of this writing Fauci has not acknowledged the magnitude of his error, nor has the journal corrected his article.
4. “Two weeks to flatten the curve” (March 16)
The lockdowners settled on a catchy slogan in mid-March to justify their unprecedented shuttering of economic and social life around the globe: two weeks to flatten the curve. The White House Covid task force aggressively promoted this line, as did the news media and much of the epidemiology profession. The logic behind the slogan came from the ubiquitous graph showing (1) a steep caseload that would overwhelm our hospital system, or (2) a mitigated alternative that would spread the caseload out over several weeks, making it manageable.
To get to graph #2, society would need to buckle up for two weeks of shelter-in-place orders until the capacity issue could be managed. Indeed, we were told that if we did not accept this solution the hospital system would enter into catastrophic failure in only 10 days, as former DHS pandemic adviser Tom Bossert claimed in a widely-circulated interview and Washington Post column on March 11.
Two weeks came and went, then the rationale on which they were sold to the public shifted. Hospitals were no longer on the verge of being overwhelmed – indeed most hospitals nationwide remained well under capacity, with only a tiny number of exceptions in the worst-hit neighborhoods of New York City.
A US Navy hospital ship sent to relieve New York departed a month later after serving only 182 patients, and a pop-up hospital in the city’s Javits Convention Center sat mostly empty. But the lockdowns remained in place, as did the emergency orders justifying them. Two weeks became a month, which became two months, which became almost a year. We were no longer “flattening the curve” – a strategy premised on saving the hospital system from a threat than never manifested – but instead refocused on using lockdowns as a general suppression strategy against the disease itself. In short, the epidemiology profession sold us a bill of goods.
5. Neil Ferguson predicts a “best case” US scenario of 1.1 million deaths (March 20)
The name Neil Ferguson, the lead modeler and chief spokesman for Imperial College London’s pandemic response team, has become synonymous with lockdown alarmism for good reason. Ferguson has a long track record of making grossly exaggerated predictions of catastrophic death tolls for almost every single disease that comes along, and urging aggressive policy responses to the same including lockdowns.
Covid was no different, and Ferguson assumed center stage when he released a highly influential model of the virus’s death forecasts for the US and UK. Ferguson appeared with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 16 to announce the shift toward lockdowns (with no small irony, he was coming down with Covid himself at the time and may have been the patient zero of a super-spreader event that ran through Downing Street and infected Johnson himself).
Across the Atlantic, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx cited Ferguson’s model as a direct justification for locking down the US. There was a problem though: Ferguson had a bad habit of dramatically hyping his own predictions to political leaders and the press. The Imperial College paper modeled a broad range of scenarios including death tolls that ranged from tens of thousands to over 2 million, but Ferguson’s public statements only stressed the latter – even though the paper itself conceded that such an extreme “worst case” scenario was highly unrealistic. A telling example came on March 20th when the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof contacted the Imperial College modeler to ask about the most likely scenario for the United States. As Kristof related to his readers, “I asked Ferguson for his best case. “About 1.1 million deaths,” he said.”
6. Researchers in Sweden use the Imperial College model to predict 95,000 deaths (April 10)
After Neil Ferguson’s shocking death toll predictions for the US and UK captivated policymaker attention and drove both governments into lockdown, researchers in other countries began adapting the Imperial College model to their own circumstances. Usually, these models sought to reaffirm the decisions of each country to lock down. The government of Sweden, however, had decided to buck the trend, setting the stage for a natural experiment to test the Imperial model’s performance.
In early April a team of researchers at Uppsala University adapted the Imperial model to Sweden’s population and demographics and ran its projections. Their result? If Sweden stayed the course and did not lock down, it could expect a catastrophic 96,000 deaths by early summer. The authors of the study recommended going into immediate lockdown, but since Sweden lagged behind Europe in adopting such measures they also predicted that this “best case” option would reduce deaths to “only” 30,000.
By early June when the 96,000 prediction was supposed to come true, Sweden had recorded 4,600 deaths. Six months later, Sweden has about 8,000 deaths – a severe pandemic to be sure, but an order of magnitude smaller than what the modelers predicted. Facing embarrassment from these results, Ferguson and Imperial College attempted to distance themselves from the Swedish adaptation of their model in early May. Yet the Uppsala team’s projections closely matched Imperial’s own UK and US predictions when scaled to reflect their population sizes. In short, the Imperial model catastrophically failed one of the few clear natural experiment tests of its predictive ability.
7. Scientists suggest that ocean spray spreads Covid (April 2)
In the second week of the lockdowns several newspapers in California promoted a bizarre theory: Covid could spread by ocean spray (although the paper later walked back the headline-grabbing claim, it is outlined here in the Los Angeles Times). According to this theory – initially promoted by a group of biologists who study bacterial infection connected to storm runoff – the Covid virus washed down storm gutters and into the ocean, where the ocean breeze would kick it up into the air and infect people on the nearby beaches. As silly as this theory now sounds, it helped to inform California’s initially draconian enforcement of lockdowns on its public beaches.
The same week that this modern-day miasmic drift theory appeared, police in Malibu even arrested a lone paddleboarder for going into the ocean during the lockdown – all while citing the possibility that the ocean breeze carried Covid with it.
8. Neil Ferguson predicts catastrophic death tolls in US states that reopen (May 24)
Fresh off of their exaggerated predictions from March, the Imperial College team led by Neil Ferguson doubled down on alarmist modeling. As several US states started to reopen in late April and May, Ferguson and his colleagues published a new model predicting another catastrophic wave of deaths by the mid-summer. Their model focused on 5 states with both moderate and severe outbreaks during the first wave. If they reopened, according to the Imperial team’s model, New York could face up to 3,000 deaths per day by July.
Florida could hit as high as 4,000, and California could hit 5,000 daily deaths. Keeping in mind that these projections were for each state alone, they exceed the daily death toll peaks for the entire country in both the fall and spring. Showing just how bad the Imperial model was, the actual death toll by mid-July in several of the examined states even fell below the lower confidence boundary of its projected count. While Covid remains a threat in all 5 states, the post-reopening explosion of deaths predicted by Imperial College and used to argue for keeping the lockdowns in place never happened.
9. Anthony Fauci credits lockdowns for beating the virus in Europe (July 31)
In late July Anthony Fauci offered additional testimony to Congress. His message credited Europe’s heavy lockdowns with defeating the virus, whereas he blamed the United States for reopening too early and for insufficient aggressiveness in the initial lockdowns. As Fauci stated at the time, “If you look at what happened in Europe, when they shut down or locked down or went to shelter in place — however you want to describe it — they really did it to the tune of about 95% plus of the country did that.”
The message was clear: the United States should have followed Europe, but failed to do so and got a summer wave of Covid instead. Fauci’s entire argument however was based on a string of falsehoods and errors.
Mobility data from the US clearly showed that most Americans were staying home during the spring outbreak, with a recorded decline that matched Germany, the Netherlands, and several other European countries. Contrary to Fauci’s claim, the US was actually slower than most of Europe to reopen. Furthermore, his praise of Europe collapsed in the early fall when almost all of the lockdown countries in Europe experienced severe second waves – just like the locked down regions of the United States.
10. New Zealand and Australia declare themselves Covid-free (August-present)
New Zealand and Australia have thus far weathered the pandemic with extremely low case counts, leading many epidemiologists and journalists to conflate these results with evidence of their successful and replicable mitigation policies. In reality, New Zealand and Australia opted for the medieval ‘Prince Prospero’ strategy of attempting to wall themselves from the world until the pandemic passes – an approach that is highly dependent on their unique geographies.
As island nations with comparatively lower international travel than North America and Europe, both countries shut down their borders before the as-of-yet undetected virus became widespread and have remained closed ever since. It’s a costly strategy in terms of its economic impact and personal displacement, but it kept the virus out – mostly.
The problem with New Zealand and Australia’s Prince Prospero strategy is that it’s inherently fragile. All it takes to throw it into chaos is for the virus to slip past the border – including by accident or human error. Then heavy-handed lockdowns ensue, imposed with maximum disruption at the spur of the moment in a frantic attempt to contain the breach.
The most famous example happened on August 9 when New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that New Zealand had reached 100 days of being Covid-free. Then just two days later a breach happened, sending Auckland into heavy lockdown. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself every few weeks in both countries.
In early December, we saw a similar flurry of stories from Australia announcing that the country had beaten Covid. Two weeks later, another breach occurred in the suburbs around Sydney, prompting a regional lockdown. There have been embarrassing missteps as well. In November the entire state of South Australia went into heavy lockdown over a single misreported case of Covid that was mistakenly attributed to a pizza purchase that did not exist. While both countries continue to celebrate their low fatality rates, they’ve also incurred some of the harshest and most disruptive restrictions in the world – all the result of premature declarations of being “Covid-free” followed by an unexpected breach and another frantic lockdown.
11. “Renewed lockdowns are just a strawman” (October)
In early October a group of scientists met at AIER where they drafted and signed the Great Barrington Declaration, a statement calling attention to the severe social and economic harms of lockdowns and urging the world to adopt alternative strategies for ensuring the protection of the most vulnerable. Although the statement quickly gathered tens of thousands of co-signers from health science and medical professionals, it also left the lockdown supporters incensed. They responded not by scientific debate over the merits of their policies, but with a vilification campaign.
They answered by flooding the petition with hoax signatures and juvenile name-calling, and by peddling wildly false conspiracy theories about AIER’s funding (the primary instigator of both tactics, ironically, was a UK blogger known for promoting 9/11 Truther conspiracies). But the lockdowners also adopted another narrative: they began to deny that lockdowns were even on the table.
Nobody was considering bringing back the lockdowns from the spring, they insisted. Arguing against the politically unpopular shelter-in-place orders in the fall only served the purpose of undermining public support for narrower and more temperate restrictions. The Great Barrington authors, we were told, were arguing with a “strawman” from the past.
Over the next several weeks in October a dozen or more prominent epidemiologists, public health experts, and journalists peddled the “lockdowns are a strawman” line. The “strawman” claim saw promotion in top outlets including the New York Times, and in an op-ed by two principle co-signers of the John Snow Memorandum, a competing petition that lockdown supporters drafted as a response to the Great Barrington Declaration.
The message was clear: the GBD was sounding a false alarm against policies from the past that the lockdowners “reluctantly” supported in the spring as an emergency measure but had no intention of reviving. By early November, the “strawman” of renewed lockdowns became a reality in dozens of countries across the globe – often cheered on by the very same people who used the “strawman” canard in October.
Several US states followed suit including California, which imposed severe restrictions on private gatherings up to and including meeting your own family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And a few weeks after that, some of the very same epidemiologists who used the “strawman” line in October revised their own positions after the fact. They started claiming they had supported a second lockdown all along, and began blaming the GBD for impeding their efforts to impose them at an earlier date. In short, the entire “lockdowns are a strawman” narrative was false. And it now appears that more than a few of the scientists who used it were actively lying about their own intentions in October.
12. Anthony Fauci touts New York as a model for Covid containment (June-December)
By all indicators, New York state has suffered one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world. Its year-end mortality rate of almost 1,900 deaths per million residents exceeds every single country in the world. The state famously bungled its nursing home response when Governor Andrew Cuomo forced these facilities to readmit Covid-positive patients as a way to relieve strains on hospitals. The policy backfired as most hospitals never reached capacity, but the readmissions introduced the virus into vulnerable nursing home populations resulting in widespread fatalities (to this day New York intentionally undercounts nursing home fatalities by excluding residents who are moved to a hospital from its reported numbers, further obscuring the true toll of Cuomo’s order).
New York has also fared poorly during the fall “second wave” despite reimposing harsh restrictions and regional lockdown measures. By mid-December, its death rate shot far above the mostly-open state of Florida, which has the closest comparable population size to New York. All things considered, New York’s weathering of the pandemic is an exemplar of what not to do.
Cuomo’s policies not only failed to contain the virus – they likely made it far more deadly to vulnerable populations. Enter Anthony Fauci, who has been asked multiple times in the press what a model Covid response policy would look like. He gave his first answer on July 20th: “We know that, when you do it properly, you bring down those cases. We have done it. We have done it in New York.”
Fauci was operating under the assumption that New York, despite its bad run in the spring, had successfully brought the pandemic under control through its aggressive lockdowns and slow reopening. One might think that the fall rebound in New York, despite locking down again, would call this conclusion into question. Not so much for Dr. Fauci, who told the Wall Street Journal on December 8: “New York got hit really badly in the beginning” but they did “a really good job of keeping things down, and still, their level is low compared to the rest of the country.”
Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.