COVID19 is not a story of science, epidemiology, or disease. It is a story of human nature. The virus — and the modelers’ proposed response to it — presented humanity with a live version of the classic moral dilemma: if you could throw one person in front of a train in order to save five people at the end of the track, would you do it? Our response is foretold in psychological, anthropological, and sociological research. It is predictable, because we are human, and most of us do not understand ourselves.
There are arguments to be made on both side of this moral quandary, but we didn’t pause to debate. (The first red flag.) We didn’t ask whether the group of people to be saved were seriously ill, very old and expected to die soon. We didn’t request details about the man to be sacrificed, although common sense tells us these are clearly relevant. We didn’t reflect on the fact that we would never throw ourselves down to stop the train; that would be scary and would hurt our families. Most disturbingly, we took for granted that answering “yes, we will sacrifice this man who is not ourselves” would actually save many multiples more people.
There were obvious practical questions to raise on that point, such as “would one human body really stop a train?” “Is it really just that one person, for sure? Or will that only slow the train, so we will need to pile on someone else to get the job done? Who would that be? Me? How many will it really take?”
Sadly, we now know for sure that although we threw everything we had onto that track — hundreds of thousands of bodies, our collective peace and prosperity, our fundamental belief that the government cannot deprive us of rights without due process of law — we did not save any lives with our lockdown. We know this for many reasons, the main one because we have a control group. Sweden famously defied the Imperial College London models predicting it would have “96,000 fatalities by June if it didn’t listen.” Well, it didn’t listen — it refused to restrict movement and left businesses and schools open — but that mass death didn’t happen. Four thousand people died of COVID by June instead, 70% of them in naturally-isolated care homes with remaining life expectancies of 5–9 months. Even more tellingly, Sweden has only 1,100 additional deaths for weeks 1–25 of 2020 over the same weeks of 2018.
Nonconforming Sweden bravely persevered over brutal worldwide bullying, refusing to burn up its constitution on the altar of “safety.” New Jersey, on the other hand, imposed a very tight lockdown; there, “protecting the Bill of Rights is above the governor’s pay grade.” Despite 54 executive orders related to COVID19, each one more restrictive than the last, New Jersey — which has a similar population to Sweden, but more dense — lost approximately 14,000 people in 2020 over the same time period of 2019. Michigan, with both a population and density similar to Sweden’s, lost approximately 7,000 people in 2020 over the same time period (January-May) of 2019, despite imposing another famously draconian lockdown,
Sweden, without imposing the “suppression” measures recommended by the modelers, did 14 times better “saving lives” than New Jersey, and 7 times better than Michigan, both of which followed the advice of a man who projected that bird flu would kill 200 million people (it actually killed 282). And now we know: Neil Ferguson’s experiment with lockdown was completely misguided. At least in localities with sizable outbreaks, lockdowns correlate with more deaths, not fewer. Sadly, we knew this before: a 2007 CDC pandemic planning publication states that Nonpharmaceutical Interventions (“NPIs”) such as social distancing rapidly decrease in effectiveness once a disease has already infected 1% of the population. At best, lockdown — if implemented in a timely fashion — delays a few infections, moving the peak somewhat, but those infections reappear once lockdown is lifted.
This basic logic should have raised alarm bells in March 2020, because we could never lockdown long enough to develop a vaccine. But we had even more explicit warning. Eminent scientists such as Nobel Laureate Michael Levitt and Dr. John Ioannidis “called out” the gigantic mistake of lockdown before we imposed it. Nobody listened. We were too busy experimenting with crazy things like suspending the Constitution, ceasing to educate our children, and volunteering for house arrest of indefinite duration. Throughout the crazy spring we spent seated on our sofas, eating for entertainment and “homeschooling” unhappy children, more and more scientists spoke about how lockdown was only causing more damage, not helping. But they were screaming into a void. We had crossed the Rubicon.
From this experience we can — we must! — learn important lessons.
Lesson 1: Do not make important decisions while scared.
“You like to imagine yourself in control of your fate, consciously planning the course of your life as best you can. But you are largely unaware of how deeply your emotions dominate you. They make you veer toward ideas that soothe your ego. They make you look for evidence that confirms what you already want to believe. They make you see what you want to see, depending on your mood, and this disconnect from reality is the source of the bad decisions and negative patterns that haunt your life. Rationality is the ability to counteract these emotional effects, to think instead of react, to open your mind to what is really happening, as opposed to what you are feeling.” -Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature
The media did a brilliant job of making COVID19 into the Black Plague. For a brief time in mid-March 2020, it appeared quite likely that millions of us would actually die of it. The WHO estimated an astronomical 3.4% fatality rate. Northern Italy’s hospitals “nearly collapsed”. Then Imperial College London — such a posh and credible sounding outfit— made its prediction: 2.2 million Americans would die unless we imposed strict “suppression” measures, which we’d recently seen implemented in China. There, police welded apartment doors shut, and dragged anyone with a fever away from home to places unknown. All of this created a terrifying image of a brutal disease that imminently threatened our existence.
The media could have chosen to frame COVID19 differently, keeping society tidy and cool, ala the Swedes. It could have explained the drastic “lockdown” of China was a “show” to avoid the blame of the world; after all, left-leaning media reported as much just a few months earlier, stating that large quarantines were “very rare,” “never effective,” and contradicted “sound public health advice.” The media could have easily dug into the situation in Northern Italy in order to accurately report it for what it was: (1) an aging community, (2) with very few ICU beds per capita compared to the United States, which are always nearly full in the winter, and (3) which was experiencing, in a compressed time period, several months’ worth of deaths of very sick elderly people.
The media could have discredited Imperial College London modeler Neil Ferguson’s doomsday paper by blasting his past history of truly outrageous disease forecasts.
But none of that happened. Ferguson was depicted as credible. Northern Italy’s experience with COVID was represented as an accurate forecast of how COVID19 would play out even in rural Montana. And lockdown was offered as the only possible solution to save ourselves.
Media and politicians both benefit from public fear. Scared people are easy to control, and they respond well to “savior figures.” When their fear is of a disease that can (supposedly) only be acquired outside the house, they also consume a lot of media.
What, exactly, will people fearing imminent death agree to do? Or people who fear that their friends fear imminent death? I don’t think I have to explain that part. We all witnessed it, and we now know it was extraordinarily irrational. COVID19 is not much more dangerous than flu, unless you are both very old and very sick. Young, healthy people were shamelessly manipulated. Risk was grossly misrepresented. Media and government used our emotions to control us.
Our lesson is this: we ignore red flags when emotional. When experiencing fear, we must not ignore the calm people, the optimists like Elon Musk. (No, this ingenious visionary did not suddenly go crazy when he called the COVID panic “stupid,” he saw something others didn’t.) The scientists who are calm in their questioning are the ones who are thinking clearly. We should credit the people who are enduring massive crowdpressure to conform, and still stand firm. What they are doing must be very important, since they are taking a personal hit to get a message out to us. We must pay attention to dissenters, particularly when the pressure to conform is large, social disapproval is guaranteed, and there are very few of them. Dissenters gain nothing from standing out from the crowd. They have something to teach us.
We need to be willing to listen.
Which leads me to Lesson 2.
Lesson 2: Beware the downward pull of the group.
“We have a side to our character that we are generally unaware of — our social personality, the different person we become when we operate in groups of people. In the group setting, we unconsciously imitate what others are saying and doing. We think differently, more concerned with fitting in and believing what others believe. We feel different emotions, infected by the group mood. We are more prone to taking risks, to acting irrationally, because everyone else is. This social personality can come to dominate who we are. Listening so much to others and conforming our behavior to them, we slowly lose a sense of our uniqueness and the ability to think for ourselves. The only solution is to develop self-awareness and a superior understanding of the changes that occur in us in groups. With such intelligence, we can become superior social actors, able to outwardly fit in and cooperate with others on a high level, while retaining our independence and rationality.” — Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature
The above photo changed history. It started circulating on social media in late March 2020, went viral, and convinced nearly all of humanity that anyone who didn’t want to “help our frontline heroes” was evil. What better way to consolidate a team than to formulate a common goal of “saving lives” and “helping healthcare heroes”? Throw in the added bonus of a built-in common enemy, the dissenters, and you’re guaranteed to win! One word against your desired outcome (total compliance with lockdown) will doom any human to social ostracism, and possibly outright bullying, forever.
The social scientists who came up with this strategy knew exactly how to manipulate the vast maojrity of us: with the power of the social code. The U.K. actually published its propaganda guidance, which states its intention to: (1) use media to make COVID appear more threatening than it really is, and (2) force everyone to “lockdown” by convincing a critical mass that they are the “good guys” for agreeing to lockdown, and that dissenters are “bad guys” who don’t care about human life.
The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging . . . Messaging about actions need to be framed positively in terms of protecting oneself and the community, . . . Social disapproval from one’s community can play an important role in preventing anti-social behaviour or discouraging failure to enact pro-social behaviour.
The “stay home for us” photo neatly achieved these goals. The government sat back, relaxed, and watched the power of group dynamics and shaming control all of society. They didn’t even need police officers. There was no rioting in the streets, because the force of “needing to please our friends” is one of the most powerful forces in the world.
“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”
― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Now we have located that enemy, and he is us. There are powerful forces at work in the world, and they trace back to our human groupishness, our hive behavior. To our need to fit in. Without realizing it, we prioritize building alliances over finding the best, most equitable solution. We adhere to certain groups, even when they turn their backs on the morality that supposedly binds us. We fear offending, displacement, and standing out. This hive mentality served an evolutionary purpose, but in today’s world, it means authenticity gets buried, and what is left is superficial. I’m not sure it serves anyone to put on a show of agreement while resentments are building below the surface. I’m not sure it makes sense to sacrifice so much to please people who would abandon us the second we diverge in opinion.
“Once we give up searching for approval we often find it easier to earn respect.”
― Gloria Steinem
Many problems — from childhood bullying and exclusion, to unproductive warring of political parties, to the social control and shaming of neighbors deployed during COVID19 — traces back to this neverending search for approval. The dissenters are the only ones who let it go. In March 2020, they were asking, “If we use a lockdown, how long can we sustain it, and what happens when it ends?” “Doesn’t the fact that only 20% were infected on the Diamond Princess make this seem like a manageable problem?” “Couldn’t we quarantine high-risk people over 65, while the rest of us develop immunity so they can emerge faster?” All great questions which would have helped us avoid the misery, massive mortality toll, and fracturing societal effect of lockdown — if only people had felt free to consider them. It’s not like their valid points will go away if we ignore them, or the truth won’t come out. It will. The dissenters could have saved us all from taking an incalculably damaging action that ultimately will be revealed for what it is, and which is so momentous that it will be studied by scientists and historians for centuries: a moral panic; a massive overreaction to a moderate new flu.
We all want to be openminded people. We want to welcome diversity and spirited intellectual discourse. We aspire to be inclusive, empathetic, and forgiving. Surely we cannot opt into a system in which only one opinion is allowed, and all dissenters are ostracized and labeled “killers.” We must allow people to hold various opinions — including the opinion that lockdown must never happen again — and to freely express them without fear of reprisal.
We already drove ourselves off of a cliff. We failed to stop the train. But we still have a chance to save lives. We can do that by remembering what we stand for, by objectively considering the best path forward, by refusing to make the opinion of other people our highest priotity, by admitting our mistakes, and most of all, by freely expressing, and welcoming, dissent.