“Endemicity” is not a word that rolls off the vernacular tongue. Still, its new prominence in the halls of governments around the world is a huge ray of hope. It means that governments have at long last begun to regard the pathogen as potentially a manageable part of our world.
The word endemic is a contrast to pandemic. A new virus of the sort we’ve been through moves from the pandemic stage to a manageable stage – and so it has been for all of history. And by manageable, epidemiologists do not mean: does not exist. It means it is dealt with through therapeutics, natural immunity, and vaccine-related immunity.
A survey of scientists from February 2021 showed plainly that 90% agree that this is the fate of Covid-19. It takes a natural course and then becomes part of our world, in a well-documented pattern that has repeated countless times and will repeat again. In short, we will learn to live with the pathogen, and enjoy our usual expectations of freedoms and human rights just as we used to. And this coexistence will continue forever.
This is where so many governments are today, gradually opening up their societies and allowing citizens to regain rights and freedoms. The latest additions are Malaysia, Singapore, and India. Thanks to the appointment of Sajid Javid as health minister – his predecessor Matt Hancock having resigned in disgrace – the UK can now be added to the list.
This careful and wise position is gradually replacing the false binary that drove extreme and massively destructive lockdowns over the past 16 months. In that binary, we were either all going to die from the virus or the virus was a lie. In either case, the policy choice was to stamp it out, either to confirm that denial was correct or to intimidate the virus into going away. In either case, liberties are lost.
Which countries attempted the suppression strategy? Sadly, nearly all but a few. It was a miserable failure. Among those was the United States, beginning in the middle of March 2020 and continuing through the summer. People tend to forget this because the politics of the situation was so confusing, and the sides of the debate mutated like a virus in the early months. They eventually settled into two sides, with Trump forces favoring opening while the opposition favored more lockdowns and masking.
That, however, was not the case earlier in the year. Trump initially began his journey as a person who wanted to keep the virus out of the U.S., like a bad import. He was determined to use all the power of the presidency to achieve this, like a general fighting a war. His metric was cases. Ill-served by his medical advisory team, he looked at all cases in the U.S. borders as the enemy to be stamped out, a frame of mind that predisposed him to the most disastrous decisions of his presidency.
Pollsters are united that it was his handling of the pandemic that ultimately doomed him. The core problem was his initial refusal to understand the endemicity that is the new policy consensus.
Documenting this surprising reality is a new book on the crisis, Nightmare Scenario by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta of the Washington Post. To be sure, the book is hopelessly biased. Even from the first pages, the book sets up a simple struggle. It was the sainted Anthony Fauci vs. a “mercurial and tempestuous president who was waging a war against science.” It’s a helpful passage because it tells the reader what he or she is getting into. For that reason, many people will throw the book away. That’s unfortunate because it includes a revelatory documentary history of the year.
To be sure, the book leaves out anything that conflicts with the core thesis. Trump supporters are regarded as ignorant beasts. The lockdowns were the obvious choice and their efficacy in controlling the virus is never questioned in these pages. The costs of lockdowns are barely mentioned, and when they are, they are attributed mostly to the pandemic itself. The ending judgment of the book – that we could have avoided high deaths if only we had imposed universal lockdown sooner and harder – is both unproven (the authors don’t even attempt it) and completely wrong.
All that said, the book provides insight into a year of chaos born of tremendously bad presumptions about how viruses of this sort operate. It’s not part of the job description for presidents that they possess such knowledge, so Trump was necessarily dependent on an advisory team drawn from government itself. That put Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx in a position to influence his decision making.
Trump was extremely ill-served. If they knew the truth about the demographics of severe outcomes, the inevitability of endemicity, and ghastly costs of lockdowns, and the impossibility of suppression, they didn’t level with him. They only delivered bad news of rising cases day after day in a literary that drove him nearly mad. They had fertile soil in which to plant their ideas, simply because Trump had an obsession with case numbers. To declare victory, he wanted them at zero.
When the cruise ship Diamond Princess was revealed to be carrying infected passengers, he demanded that they not be allowed in until they were over the sickness. As the authors say, “Trump made it clear going forward that he didn’t want anyone suffering from COVID-19 to enter the United States.” He even suggested the possibility of sending Covid patients to Guantanamo.
Even as late as February 29, 2020, Trump was still convinced that he could beat the virus. “We will do everything in our power to keep the virus, and those carrying the infections, from entering our country,” he told a CPAC audience, seemingly unaware that this was an impossibility (we later learned that virus had been circulating since at least December 2019). His spokespeople kept assuring TV audiences that the virus was being contained, which of course it was not.
It was primarily Fauci and Birx who convinced Trump of his March 12, 2020, decision to block all travel from Europe in a hopeless effort to beat back the virus. In a terrifying TV address that evening, he announced the following: “These prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo.” According to these authors, the sentence came out garbled. He meant to say that it would not apply to trade and cargo!
The following day, the Department of Health and Human Services issued its nationwide lockdown advisory. It was not made public until much later. Over the weekend of March 14-15, Birx, Fauci, and others put together their plan to be announced on Monday:
“The guidelines were refined further before being presented to Trump in the Oval Office. They wanted to recommend shutting down in-person education at schools. Closing indoor dining at restaurants and bars. Canceling travel. Birx and Fauci saw the guidelines as a crucial pause that would buy them some time to better understand the pandemic. Shutting down flights was not enough, they said; more would have to be done.”
On Monday morning, they made a presentation to Trump. He took the bait. That afternoon he made an announcement. Technically it was a recommendation – the president didn’t have the power to enforce a nationwide lockdown – but given the political and popular panic alive in the country, it amounted to the same thing.
“My administration is recommending that all Americans, including the young and healthy, work to engage in schooling from home when possible,” Trump said. “Avoid gathering in groups of more than ten people. Avoid discretionary travel. And avoid eating and drinking at bars, restaurants, and public food courts.” He added his suppressionist spin: “If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus. And we’re going to have a big celebration all together.”
Here follows the most crucial passage in the book. The authors astutely observe the following: Trump “had spent the first three years of his presidency stripping back regulations and restrictions, complaining about the ‘deep state’ and government overreach. He was now putting into place the biggest restrictions on Americans’ behavior in the past hundred years.”
In summary: “Just a few weeks earlier, Trump and his top aides had barely known who Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci were. Now they were teamed up with Jared Kushner and had played a critical role in convincing Trump to shut much of society down.”
Wow. And exactly right. Why did he go along? Because of his core instincts against endemicity. He had said months earlier that the virus was not a threat to the U.S. He then promised to keep it out. He had to make good on that promise to defeat the virus, like an enemy in battle. Plus, he believed it was only for 15 days. Then the virus would be under control.
When the time came and went, Fauci and Birx went to work on Trump again, explaining that the pause would have been in vain if he opened immediately. Incredibly, Trump went along and the lockdowns were extended and conditions worsened. So on it went until Trump began to notice something: everything he had worked for his whole presidency was being destroyed. He swore he would open by Easter but again was persuaded not to. The longer the lockdowns went on, the more he felt that need for vindication of his initial instincts. There never was an end game.
I recall so well watching all this happening, day by day, knowing full well that Trump had found himself in an information bubble at the White House, surrounded by advocates of lockdowns who might in fact have become political enemies. Did Fauci and Birx have the intention to troll Trump into this to hurt him politically? Were they doing the bidding of his enemies? The book does not speculate regarding this, and surely there will be more books appearing in the future that can suss out this suspicion that is widely held within Republican ranks today.
Whether and to what extent that was true, every decision Trump made in those days resulted in consequences that unraveled what he believed to be his greatest achievement. If he had enemies who plotted a perfect plan to cause him to wreck his presidency at his own hands, it was working. For Birx’s part, however, the book does offer a passing hint: “She had been in government long enough to know how to read the tea leaves. Even though the Democratic primary season was still under way, she believed that Biden could come out on top because he was the safest choice. And if he did win the primary, he could beat Trump.”
Fascinating indeed. Nonetheless, she somehow got to Trump. That Trump’s brain had been fully consumed by the belief that his lockdowns could work were confirmed with two points. First, on the advice of someone, he became highly critical of Sweden, one of the few advanced economies in the Western world that remained open by defying the lockdown strategy. Second, when the state of Georgia announced a reopening, Trump actually tweeted against it, warning that it was too soon.
Trump took the bait because he believed it would be short-lived and it was his responsibility to drive cases down and ultimately out. This was the core of his intellectual error (uncorrected by Fauci and Birx), and what trapped him into so many months of chaos. It wasn’t until the summer when the information bubble at the White House was shattered by Hoover’s Scott Atlas, who this book accidentally but rightly makes a hero. I will discuss that in part two of this essay.
Let’s conclude with the big picture. The worst policy presumption to emerge in the early part of the last century went as follows. With enough power, resources, and intelligence, government can achieve anything. Maybe the results won’t be perfect but they will be better than they otherwise would be if government did not take full control. I had hoped that this assumption would have died by the turn of the twentieth century, so that we could go forth with a brilliant future, a century of liberty, and all that it implies: peace, prosperity, human flourishing. I was wrong. Or maybe the presumption needed one last test to show just how wrong it truly is.
In 2020, governments all over the world embarked on an experiment without precedent. They would take control of the whole of their societies and take on the virus via compulsion and coercion of people’s lives. Nothing on this scale had ever been attempted, not even in the Middle Ages. The attempt seems to have been born of a wild intellectual passion for modeling and pandemic suppression, a theory hatched only some 15 years ago that was just waiting for the right moment for a test. That test was the Coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.
In this test, government (of all parties and all nations) lost while the virus won. Over the course of the pandemic of 16 months, government tried every conceivable method for containment, suppression, mitigation, or just general control. Every country has its own story to tell of the grim toll, not only of the virus but the “public health measures” that imposed cascades of calamity around the world, which a familiar litany can only begin to describe.
Endemicity born of herd immunity was inevitable anyway. Public health should have been about telling the truth: the vulnerable needed protection while the rest of society needed to continue to function in order to minimize collateral damage. I’m ever more sure that this will be the emerging consensus in the future.
In the meantime, we need a new consensus. Lockdowns should not even be the “last resort.” They need to be off the table completely, ruled out, legally impossible. Freedom and public health will not be safe until that day.