The Latest Lethal Lie
The effort to reopen the economy prematurely is coordinated, mendacious, and deadly
Not so long ago, images we saw from this plague year were of nurses, carrying camera phones down the aisle of a hospital, passing bed after bed of dying patients. Piercing through every frame, the shriek of alarms as people slipped closer to death. We saw neighbors standing in line at the grocery store, masked, with painted lines telling them how far apart they had to stand. We saw people on balconies, singing together in their isolation or banging on pots and pans to express their solidarity with front-line healthcare workers. Ordinary people making extraordinary sacrifices, by the millions, with good humor and a willingness to suffer a little for the good of everyone else. The disease is horrible, but the public response to it has been, in a word, beautiful.
Now, with almost lightning-strike suddenness, we see images of angry people clustered together. No masks, no social distancing. Often they are armed. They scream to reopen the economy, to preserve their unlimited right to assembly, to end the “tyranny” of local stay-at-home orders. They gather by the thousands on a southern California beach on the first warm weekend day. While the rest of us are still huddled in our homes, avoiding contact, we watch the vehement protestors at the Michigan statehouse and inevitably we wonder, who’s the fool? The people shouting about their freedoms, or me?
That thought is not accidental. It was planted in your head with great deliberation and care.
The Lie, Defined
Here’s what people are being told by writers in a variety of right-wing media. There are three principal claims:
(Claim 1) Hard data suggests the infection rate is larger than first projected, which in turn means the death rate is smaller than first projected. “Leaders must examine accumulated data to see what has actually happened,” wrote Stanford’s Dr. Scott Atlas in The Hill, “rather than keep emphasizing hypothetical projections; combine that empirical evidence with fundamental principles of biology established for decades; and then thoughtfully restore the country to function.”
(Claim 2) We should take precautions for vulnerable populations like the elderly, but for the rest of us there’s no reason to keep cooped up any more, and never was in the first place. Theologian R.R. Reno, at his site First Things, wrote that “COVID-19 poses a danger to the elderly and the medically compromised. Otherwise, for most who present symptoms, it can be nasty and persistent, but is not life-threatening.”
(Claim 3) This massive blow to the American engine, the economy, was a catastrophic mistake that never should have happened. We should all get back to normal right away. In the Washington Times, their opinion editor, Cheryl Chumley, declared that “COVID-19 will go down as one of the political world’s biggest, most shamefully overblown, overhyped, overly and irrationally inflated and outright deceptively flawed responses to a health matter in American history, one that was carried largely on the lips of medical professionals who have no business running a national economy or government.”
The Source of the Lie
On March 17th, Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis published an article in Stat, a healthcare website published by Boston Globe Media. Calling Covid-19 “a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco,” he took aim at the scientific projections upon which social distancing and stay-at-home orders have been predicated, claiming that those projections were grossly exaggerated. He wrote that “with lockdowns of months, if not years, life largely stops, short-term and long-term consequences are entirely unknown, and billions, not just millions, of lives may be eventually at stake.”
Dr. Ioannidis was promptly interviewed on Fox News, and has become the wellspring of all criticism against management of the pandemic. In the pieces cited above, R.R. Reno directly cites Ioannidis’s study; Ms. Chumley’s article links to another article published by the American Institute for Economic Research that directly cites Ioannidis’s study; and Dr. Atlas, who is himself a physician at Stanford, also cited his colleague Dr. Ioannidis’s study.
At one point in Dr. Ioannidis’s article, after laying out the reasons why he believed the death rate from the virus was grossly exaggerated, he wrote the following (remember, this was mid-March of this year): “If we assume that case fatality rate among individuals infected by SARS-CoV-2 is 0.3% in the general population — a mid-range guess from my Diamond Princess analysis — and that 1% of the U.S. population gets infected (about 3.3 million people), this would translate to about 10,000 deaths.”
It certainly sounds scientific, sober, rational. But 10,000 deaths? It’s the middle of May, only two months later . Total infections in the U.S. aren’t even half of the 3.3 million people Dr. Ioannidis mentioned above — yet there are already more than 85,000 deaths. Clearly, the death rate is much higher than he thought it would be. His projections do not hold up.
Why the Lie is a Lie
There have been numerous articles rebutting both Dr. Ioannidis’s study and a more recent serum antibody study, also from Stanford, that has made similar claims. These criticisms are breezily dismissed by Mr. Reno, who wrote, without offering any support at all, that “Scientists who should know better are either gullible or too cowardly to speak.”
Once Claim 1, about the death rate being lower than projected, has been invalidated, then Claims 2 and 3 fall apart. Pandemic management is all about rapid collection and management of data, and the only thing we know for sure is that we still don’t have enough data. Testing in the U.S. has improved but remains terrible. And the current administration, as Michael Lewis convincingly demonstrates in The Fifth Risk, has been relentlessly hostile to data.
The essential math being alleged by the Stanford teams is pretty simple: if there are more cases than we thought there were, but the number of deaths is the same, that means the death rate isn’t so bad after all, it’s more like the normal rate of flu deaths in any given year. And we don’t crash the economy every year when flu season begins.
Indeed, they’re right about one thing: there almost certainly are more cases of COVID-19 infections than we thought. In all likelihood, a lot more. The testing rate, after all, is still abysmally low in the U.S.
But what this equation never takes into account is that the death rate is almost certainly also being undercounted. In other words, it’s true that we don’t know one side of the equation, but we don’t know the other side either. We simply don’t have the data. And as we’ve already seen, Dr. Ioannidis’s projections from his reading of the data are significantly off the mark.
Magical thinking, as Elizabeth Warren has described it, will not save us. Are we really supposed to risk everyone’s life on the basis of what we sorta kinda hope might be true? Because in all the editorials in favor of the reopening of the country, “sorta kinda” is as scientific as they get.
There are other long-term worries, as well, all of them sobering: the disease may not just affect the lungs; there’s been a worrisome increase in strokes among COVID-19 patients; and although the right-wing media trumpets the necessity of getting out into the world so we can build up herd immunity, there are indications that people who have already had the disease may not be immune to it after all.
Who’s Telling the Lie
Turns out the protests aren’t the grassroots movement they’re made out to be. “Astroturfing,” in which political organizations and individuals design and fund events and advertising to appear as though they are spontaneous outbursts of public opinion, is plentiful.
Cybersecurity experts, researching domain registrations and SSL certificates of hundreds of freshly-minted “reopen America” websites, have found that one individual, and a small number of conservative organizations, are behind a large number of them. Gun-rights advocate Aaron Dorr, an Iowan, has started sites and Facebook pages in multiple states advocating against quarantine restrictions, often in swing states that will be crucial to Republicans in the next election. “Politicians are on a power trip, controlling our lives, destroying our businesses, passing laws behind the cover of darkness and forcing us to hand over our freedoms and our livelihood!” declares the Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine’s Facebook group, which was begun by Mr. Dorr.
FreedomWorks, an organization whose notoriety goes back to the also-astroturfed Tea Party movement, has been organizing as well. FreedomWorks recently published a “report card” on America’s governors, declaring that with near-unanimity Republican governors are doing a great job of reopening their states, while Democratic governors are doing terribly. California governor Gavin Newsom was given a D, despite the fact that the state’s infection and death rates are fifth in the nation, which seems high — but California has three times the population of Illinois, which is number four on the infections list, and more than five times the population of Massachusetts, which is third on the same list. The only Republican to get a poor grade was Larry Hogan of Maryland, who has set out a data-driven plan to gradually reopen businesses in state — but only when it’s safe to do so. This seems to offend the good people at FreedomWorks.
It’s perilous to attempt to ascribe motivation to these actions. It could be about getting people off state unemployment rolls. It could be good old-fashioned American racism. But certain themes do recur frequently: an interest in economic health over public health; demonization of Democratic governors in swing states (like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, whose name has also been bandied about as a potential choice for Joe Biden’s running mate); and above all, a demand that once quarantines and lockdowns end, everything should as quickly as possible go back to the old version of “normal” that has, for the past several decades, led to staggering economic inequality. Ms. Chumley in the Washington Times referred to the lockdown orders as “quick and pitiful and economically painful income redistribution schemes via stimulus funds’ legislation.”
The newly-created Save Our Country Coalition, led by a who’s who of conservative stars including Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese, and Jim DeMint, declares in one of its Five Principles that the nation should “Incentivize the rapid rebuilding of our economy through proven formulas: tax cuts, deregulation, and lawsuit reform.” This is the same prescription offered up by the right for decades as the solution to every problem, but which has never produced the promised results. (The Coalition’s website appears to have already been taken down, which is curious in itself; but FreedomWorks describes the coalition, and its principles, here.)
Finally, This Simple Truth
You do indeed have the right to endanger your life to preserve your freedom. That’s a fight worth fighting, without a doubt.
But you do not have the right to endanger someone else’s life.
Even if you buy into the argument that everyone else at a rally, or on a beach, has consciously made the same choice and taken the same risk, what about the people in that community who did not make that choice or take that risk? The incubation period for COVID-19 is roughly 3 to 14 days, during which the carrier is unaware they are a carrier. So someone who goes to a rally and catches the disease has approximately a week to go about their life, in full celebration of their freedom, blithely spreading a disease they claim is no big deal. Yet we have already seen spikes in disease rates at places where rallies were held.
Yes, the isolation has been hard. The jobless rate is the worst since the Depression. People’s livelihoods are cratering and that brings its own dangers. This lockdown has been hard, for everyone. But during World War II, there was rationing of sugar, butter, silk, firewood, etc. Cars ended up on blocks for the duration of the conflict because gasoline and tires were needed for the war effort. The people who sacrificed then, who enlisted and fought and suffered and died, and those on the homefront who did without for years, are now referred to as the Greatest Generation. We are just as capable of heroic sacrifice as our grandparents were.
In both world wars, infantry combat was largely a matter of brutal, endless sacrifice. The generals, usually ensconced in palaces they confiscated from a local, sat back and planned, while on the front line, an attack was being called for. The first wave of soldiers had one job: to die quickly, so that the second wave could advance slightly farther. The second line’s job was essentially the same, to die quickly so the third wave could advance slightly farther. And so on. “Cannon fodder,” those soldiers were called. As this president declares himself a “wartime president,” it’s hard not to think of the modern corporate generals in their palaces, sending us out to die for their advances.
Certainly this emergency, global though it is, is different from a world war. There is no enemy on a battlefield. This is a pandemic, caused by a crafty virus whose only purpose is spreading its DNA into as many warm bodies as it possibly can. But it appears that the people pushing the premature reopening of the nation don’t want us to consider such notions as self-sacrifice and the greater good. They want us thinking small. They want us tribal, considering only our own needs and our families’ needs. They want us to believe that sitting in a restaurant and eating a burger is a God-given right that must not be abridged for any reason. It’s a long road from Patrick Henry to “give me a burger or give me death,” but here we are.
Welcome to the United States of Cannon Fodder.