What was the fundamental error of the Covid response?
We’ve yet to come to terms with it. It traces to a far-flung and completely impossible and deeply destructive ambition – with no defined limits to the measures constructed to achieve it. The goal made no sense at all given the nature of the virus itself. Even to this day, the core of it has not been deeply questioned or even closely investigated.
It comes down to a sentence in Donald Trump’s March 13, 2020, “Presidential Proclamation.” It read as follows: “Additional measures, however, are needed to successfully contain and combat the virus in the United States.”
There we have it: contain and combat.
To contain it was impossible, as anyone with a 9th-grade understanding of viruses would know. We long before understood that this was a highly transmissible strain. It was this precisely because it is not medically significant for most people, which is to say that they live to pass it on to others, like a flu or the cold. It has an animal reservoir too – which was also known – and therefore containment would be impossible.
Still, the goal of containment unleashed a nationwide regime of track, trace, and isolate, in addition to closures, travel restrictions between states, and, eventually, vaccine mandates and passports.
This vision of respiratory virus containment is as utopian and far-flung as the ideological inventions of Marx, Rousseau, Skinner, or de Maistre. It is a pure product of intellectuals with no connection to the realities of the microbial kingdom.
To be sure, there are viruses that one can attempt to contain: Ebola, Rabies, Smallpox (if it were not eradicated) and other deadly viruses. Viruses that are behaviorally transmitted like HIV/AIDS can also be contained…by changes in behavior. These viruses also happen to be relatively self-containing because they kill their host. SARS-CoV-2 was never among them.
Again, this was known at the outset.
But in the name of containment, vast destruction of the civilized world commenced over the following days.
The word “containment” itself has a deep history in US political lexicon. The doctrine of containment traces to the postwar era, when US elites turned on a dime in their attitude toward Russia. The postwar dealmaking rewarded Russia for its defeat of Nazism with control of many nations on its borders and also Eastern Europe and the eastern half of Germany.
Following this incredible decision, there was suddenly concern that Russia was becoming expansionist. The US military machine shifted from fighting Japan and Germany and the axis powers to now constraining its ally of only a few years earlier. The switch was so dramatic that whole dystopian novels were written about it: Orwell’s 1984 was very likely intended as a spin of the real events of 1948.
The doctrine of containment consumed US foreign policy for half a century, deployed to justify troops in most nations and hot wars in Central America and Afghanistan (including support of the very people who the US later attempted to overthrow in the name of spreading democracy). Containment, then, became a very effective slogan for US empire building abroad.
With Covid, the doctrine of containment came home except this time with an “invisible enemy.” It was a “new virus” but similar viruses have been with us from time immemorial. As many medical professionals were saying in February of 2020, there are established and workable therapies for dealing with such infections. Mitigating the effects on the population were as simple as following established protocols.
In other words, there was no reason for war. Which gets us to part two: combat. The virus would be combated with “additional measures.” Three days later we found out what those were: “indoor and outdoor venues where groups of people congregate should be closed.” Searching the entire history of US governance, we find no edict so extreme, so intrusive, so disruptive, so completely undermining of all rights and liberties for so many people.
This was the essence of what it meant for government to “combat” the virus in order to “contain” it.
Most governments in the world followed the example and fought the virus by attacking the peoples’ rights to travel, assemble, engage in normal enterprise, and speak, since, as we’ve learned, the censorship efforts began at the very same time.
This presidential proclamation was issued the same day as the classified document called “PanCAP Adapted U.S. Government COVID-19 Response Plan.” This document, revealed many months later, included a flow chart that put the National Security Council in the position of rule-making, while the public health agencies were relegated to operations.
Again, this was March 13, a day following the unprecedented travel restrictions from Europe and the UK, and three days before the universal lockdown orders were issued by the White House. Under the guise of virus containment and combat, and deploying agencies and tools built and hardened during the Cold War and the War on Terror, the government was taking on an impossible task. It attempted this for the better part of two years and then some. Indeed, in many respects, it is still taking place.
In the civic mythology, the second world war was ended by a weapon of mass destruction, the nuclear bomb. And so too was the war on terror won by drone strikes and invasions of other countries that wiped out terrorist leaders. Mass violence in both cases was the answer.
This paradigm carried over to the War on Covid, as governments and industry partners got to work on the end game and exit strategy: mass inoculation of the population. Resistance to that ambition was met with mass firings and unprecedented labor market disruption.
And what was the result? The virus won the day, hands down. But do we hear apologies? Is there a reckoning for the tremendous destruction and collateral damage. Generally speaking, no. The truth is beginning to leak out in mainstream culture with books like The Big Fail, but those authors have already faced lynching in the form of a very hostile New York Times interview. “I feel like I’m on the witness stand,” said one of the authors during the interview.
To contain and combat: that was the goal of the policy, in words drawn from the modern history of US warfare abroad. The war finally came home in ways that have broken the American spirit, shattered dreams, and wrecked confidence in the future. The war failed in every way, at least according to its stated aims, but it was still a sure winner for elites. Tech, media, government, and of course pharma came out the winners, having redistributed trillions in wealth and vast power from the poor and middle class to the rich and well-connected.
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