How entrenched in political culture is the idea of lockdown to address a crisis? My optimistic bent says: not much. We are in the blowback stage. The nearly uncritical celebration for Michael Lewis’s book on the pandemic, however, sets me back a peg or two. In fact, it terrifies me.
By now, everyone knows Lewis’s literary trick. He investigates a notable event within a sector of American life about which most people care. As a journalist, he knows how the story ends. So do his readers. His job is to find unlikely people who came out as the winners by overcoming all odds.
In Lewis’s oeuvre, these are people who rise from obscurity to become decisive actors while bearing all the slings and arrows of the establishment they fought. They prevail in the end, as a lesson to us all. It’s a classic American story of the underappreciated underdog who acts with courage and principle, and mostly by instinct, to call the right shots and prove the conventional wisdom wrong.
It’s a nice device, provided you know the ending of the real-life story. The housing bubble broke. The baseball team won. The experts fell from grace. And so on. Let us look backwards to see the inner workings of hidden genius. The omniscient storyteller can detect the wise outsider and weave a story that makes everything turn out perfectly.
My own sense of Lewis’s newest book on the pandemic – The Premonition, which deploys this device in its infantilized predictability – is that he has made a profound error. He went to print too soon with an unsustainable thesis, one that doesn’t have a ring of truth.
He presumed from the outset of the writing that the outsider heroes who won the day are the public-health officials who pushed lockdowns – a social, political, disease-mitigation strategy without modern precedent. They overcame a stodgy establishment that had doubts about “social interventions” – essentially deleting the Bill of Rights – and thereby deserve to go down in history as prophets who made the correct calls and saved countless lives.
Yes, that’s right. He is making heroes out of the handful of intellectuals (very surprising how few there were and how they prevailed) who hatched the idea of shoving the entire population into becoming nonplayer characters in a disease-modeling computer algorithm. A more grim example of the failure of scientific public policy we’ve not seen in our lifetimes.
The error Lewis makes is in believing that the story of the pandemic lockdowns ended sometime in early 2021, a period in which lockdowners were hanging on even as their narrative was collapsing. But what a difference a few months make. States on June 1, 2021, are desperately opening, scrapping plans for some kind of controlled liberalization and instead getting rid of the whole thing in one fell swoop. Governor Charlie Baker gave the most hilarious excuse: because citizens “have done the things that we needed to do,” the virus was now “on the run” – as if viruses are volitional characters who are intimidated by political power backed by educational credentials and public compliance.
Despite the bragging of lockdown governors, it seems right now as if the Florida model – not the lockdown strategy of Blue States – has won the day. Ron DeSantis started ending lockdowns back in April 2020. Beaches filled up on Spring Break 2020, and there were no severe outcomes, despite the New York Times’ hysterical predictions. By September, the entire state opened with no restrictions at all. There was no disaster; indeed the outcomes were better than California, which stayed locked down for the better part of a year, losing residents, businesses, and credibility.
Florida’s triumph had a shaming effect on many of the lockdown states. Texas followed, state after state repealed mask mandates and capacity restrictions. Meanwhile, Governor DeSantis’s star is forever rising in his own state, and among Republicans. Something similar took place in South Dakota, where governor Kristy Noem never closed a single business and can rightly boast of a roaring economy and disease outcomes no worse than many lockdown states.
The reality of open states is nowhere mentioned in Lewis’s book. That’s only one blind spot among so many. He never mentions the economic cost of lockdowns. We hear nothing about a 50% drop in cancer screenings, the explosion of drug and alcohol abuse, the mental health crisis of teens, the lost year of education among so many children, the hundred-thousand plus wrecked businesses, the disaster of profligate fiscal and monetary policy that preposterously attempted to replace locked down markets, and the despair, shock, and awe spread throughout the population.
Nor does he mention a word about deeper controversies over the precise scale and impact of the pandemic itself. The entire book is based on a simple claim that this was as bad or worse than 1918, with not a word about the demographics of severe outcomes, that the average age of lost life roughly equaled the average lifespan, that the risk to children and teens turned out to be close to zero, that the virus itself proved to be as migratory geographically as the old experts might have predicted, that there remain tremendous controversies about testing accuracy and cause-of-death classifications (it will be years before this mess is sorted out).
We are nowhere near understanding what happened to us due to the pandemic and balancing that out against the terrifying and continuing harms of living under the lockdown policies that Lewis is somehow convinced (with no argument at all) were the right path.
Only two sentences in the entire book mention any expert who had doubts about lockdowns. There’s not a word about the Great Barrington Declaration or its nearly one million signatures, among whom are tens of thousands of scientists and medical practitioners. Nor the protests around the world. Nor the several dozen global and domestic studies that are unable to demonstrate any statistically observable truth about lockdowns saving lives– a reality that absolutely blows up his entire thesis that the lockdowners were right. Lewis never mentions this because this is not nonfiction; in its main thesis, it is fiction.
I’m particularly furious at his dismissive claim that Dr. John Iaonnidis “predicted that no more than ten thousand Americans would die.” In fact, the Stanford professor carefully avoided making such predictions precisely because he specializes in the practical (and moral) imperative of scientific humility. The 10,000 figure came from his early Statnews article, in which he was illustrating by way of example the complex mathematics of case fatality and infection fatality. He said that if the CFR is 0.3% “and that 1% of the U.S. population gets infected” this would translate to about 10,000 deaths.
Iaonnidis was not predicting this; he was illustrating the way the CFR/IFR works in mathematical terms and doing so in a way that made it easy for readers to follow. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization itself has accepted Ioannidis’s own estimates of the infection fatality ratio: generally less than 0.20% (lower than he initially speculated), but specifically for under 70 populations it is 0.05% – for which society was locked down! What Lewis says here is nothing but a smear of one of the few brave scientists who dared call out the sketchy science of lockdowns. Ioannidis would have made a much better subject for heroizing.
But such complications are too much for Lewis, which is why his book ignores essentially all scientific literature to appear in the course of these 15 months of hell, and also ignores the experience of every other country in the world, including those that did not lock down or exercise only light controls (Taiwan, Sweden, Nicaragua, South Korea, Belarus, Tanzania) and had better disease outcomes than lockdown countries. In fact, his laser focus on his supposed heroes is a wonderful literary device but it only works for telling a preset story. When you are dealing with a global pandemic in real life, the device falls apart as anything remotely describing the reality on the ground.
The heroes in the book are four: 1) Robert Glass and his daughter Laura, who in 2006 first dreamed up the idea of human separation (and social destruction) as the path to disease control, both of whom have largely disappeared 2) their acolyte Carter Mecher, deep-state White House employee under George W. Bush and Obama turned VA consultant who believed that disease would disappear if people were universally placed in solitary confinement, 3) Richard Hatchett, another Bush-era government official with medical training who fell for the lockdown idea and has otherwise spent his career in a mysophobic tizzy, and 4) Charity Dean, the previously invisible public-health bureaucrat in California who found herself in a high position due to her lockdown advocacy and who has since turned her fame into newfound profits in a well-funded pro-lockdown enterprise.
How these people managed to prevail over a decade and a half – taking on a previously rational public-health consensus in favor of normal social and market functioning during a pandemic – does in fact make for a fascinating study in how ideologically committed fanaticism can replace legitimately settled science. Dr. Glass, for example, admits to knowing nothing about viruses; he was a computer programmer who, like a classic crank, believed that his outsider status granted him special insight to which all established experts were blind. Mecher was an emergency-room physician who believes that fast action to stop bleeding is the only way to fix problems. Hatchett, I’m told, has real regrets today about his role but his penchant then was for doing something, whatever it was, to mitigate against being blamed for doing nothing.
Telling the deep history of lockdown ideology is the book’s strength. The title itself comes from Hatchett’s experience in the 2009 pandemic that never amounted to much. It was H1N1 and he and Mecher advocated shutting down schools, as they had favored for years and pushed again, to great effect, in 2020. It was said then that Obama had “dodged a bullet.” Hatchet had a different view, as summarized by Lewis: that nothing much happened was “a message in a bottle. A premonition. A warning.” Wow, talk about ignoring the evidence all around you or converting into a myth of your own choosing!
We learn from the narrative about a small group of people who were just itching to try a theory, certain that a deadly monster was coming that would require their awesome expertise. Any bug would do. All of them, really. When Covid-19 hit, this was their chance. The other experts who had long doubted their wacky ideas had gradually faded from view while their converts were appearing in bureaucracies, academic departments, and media outlets, thanks in part to generous funding by the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Lewis’s book is great at characterizing their views and thus revealing what’s wrong with them, however inadvertently. They do not regard pathogens as part of life. They think they alone know how to stamp all germs. The notion of natural immunity strikes them all as brutal. They aren’t good at making fine distinctions regarding risk, so the primary feature of SARS-CoV-2 – that it is almost not a disease for the young, a nuisance for healthy adults, while potentially deadly for elderly people with comorbidities – was lost on them because such risk profiles by age or geography (or pre-existing immunity) were not part of their models. Indeed, they believed the models more than the science, which is to say that they trusted their screens over reality.
I had written about all of this in early 2020 and throughout the spring, how “social distancing” theory had originated in a high-school science fair (Laura Glass was 14), how “nonpharmaceutical interventions” were nothing but a euphemism for shutting down society, and so on. In other words, lockdownism is ideology, not science. All of this is confirmed in this book. Lewis further shows how these radicals who imagined that they had outsmarted 100 years of public-health experience gradually came to exercise such heavy influence.
There are nuggets of fascinating reporting here. For example, he shows how Charity Dean, the lockdown guru of California, knew that her plans would never work if people regarded lockdown as imposed by the government alone. She plotted a media campaign, an irresponsible unleashing of public fear, a kind of patriotism of compliance, in order to inspire and instill culturally enforced interventions. We all experienced this: the rule by Karens, the shaming of the maskless, the doubters, the resistors, and the people who believe that human rights should pertain in a pandemic too.
Lewis’s book is either ridiculous or deadly dangerous, depending. My sense in putting it down was: this will never fly. People know too much about the failure of what the lockdowners did, the fallout, the devastation, the research, the all-out calamity particularly for the poor, the working class, and school kids. Still, the New York Times loved it, and so did 60 Minutes. My worry here is less about the book than the movie. If such a thing comes out, and his heroes prevail over the incredulous and the serious scientists who did their level best to protect society against fanatics, we will be in bad shape, sitting ducks just waiting for the next excuse to treat people like lab rats in someone else’s social experiment.
Thus far Lewis’s talent for storytelling has been entertaining and valuable to an extent, with no great cost for society. His talents this time – what if he had spoken with someone with actual knowledge? – could land us in a terrible place, unless there is serious pushback against everything in this book (I could write another 5,000 words). Fiction is harmless until it is not.