And what I got right. And what everyone else got wrong!
Really enjoyed this article. I do think it misses a key part of the story which is the seeming success of South East Asian, Australiasia and even European countries in supressing the virus compared to Britain and America. That really fed the narrative that the two English-speaking countries led by the hated populists had taken the virus lightly, and if we just had the common sense/determination to impose a proper lockdown then all would be well. This gets discredited as the virus spreads around Europe to the point that the UK is a middling rather than unusually bad performer, China proves to have been lying about its covid success, and other countries with the harshest lockdowns struggle to come out of them. And of course US/UK lead the world in developing and distributing vaccines. But I think in 2020 there was a real crisis of confidence in American and British science/medical communities that they had gotten this big call wrong
I had the very interesting experience of going into the pandemic as a public health person, but only on the undergraduate education side, and as an expert on pandemics specifically, but from a historical standpoint--that was my original academic training, and I had opened an exhibit on pandemics at Philadelphia's Mutter Museum at the end of 2019, literally a couple months before the actual pandemic (it was tied with a big Flu 1918 retrospective). So I knew a lot but had nothing to do with actual policy in any respect; I was just an observer. I had a lot of time to watch and think about what was happening. I did a little bit of writing about it on my blog that I think held up pretty well (if you're interested, website in my profile).
But one of the things I did both predict and watch happen in real time was a kind of breakdown amongst public health people who had actual or theoretical policy influence. Basically, you had a lot of people who I think in their heart of hearts believed that their expertise would matter more than it did. A lot of those folks kept thinking or even saying something along the lines of, "When it gets bad enough, people will realize that they should pay more attention to me / us." If you go back and re-read about Florida's reopening, for instance, you will find some great quotes along those lines. And a lot of those folks, or at least the smart ones, had a more or less accurate view of how bad it would be. I think we forget just how bad the numbers were: a lot of people died or were long-term disabled. Like, a lot a lot.
Since I had studied the history of pandemics, I knew that this would not happen. That's just not how it works. Public health people in Philadelphia got ignored while they were burying the dead in trench graves with steam shovels. Humans get comfortable with very surprising levels of suffering at astonishing speed, in a this-is-fine-dog-meme kind of way. The moment was never going to come for my colleagues where everyone was like, "This is your moment! Lead us! We agree with you about all kinds of things that we didn't agree with you about earlier!"
And I think a kind of sincere bitterness or disappointment over that drove at least some of the counterintuitive hardcore Covid doomerism amongst some of the public health community, because those folks kept expecting (and, because they were human, kind of secretly wanting) their moment to come, and it was never going to come. At least, that was one of my impressions.
I'm a liberal, but even I felt the public health community's permissive and politicized response to the BLM protests was incredibly damaging to their credibility. Conservatives responded, with some justice: "Ah, so protesting police violence is important but going to church isn't? Go to hell".
1. The deaths from COVID are now, and always have been, concentrated among the very old (75+) and already unhealthy. The age-based mortality rate was ignored or downplayed for reasons I still cannot understand, resulting in intense arguments among the rest of us around masking, schooling, travel and parties.
2. Matt doesn't mention the BLM protests and government/media reactions which took off at the same time as another polarizing and divisive issue.
I’m not sure what made me more conservative, but I reflect on this question a lot: the birth of my two pandemic babies over the course of the lockdown (April 2020 and December 2021) or the incredibly heavy handed that the Chicago/Illinois state government put in place (or light handed response in the case of the George Floyd riots)
I lost trust in both Democrats governing ability here in Illinois, and the experts who told people that it was ok to go protest enmasse and told us that the in person care my wife needed after her emergency C-section would be deadly for all involved. It was the lack of in person support, not the presence, that nearly killed her--and the state is responsible for that. And that’s before we start talking about the state enforced isolation that cut us two young parents completely off from our support systems.
Somewhat surprised that no one has brought up the early failure of the CDC to get tests out (unlike every other developed country). It’s still shocking to me- we had been funding the equivalent of a Navy SEAL organization for years and then discover they don’t know how to swim. I know (now) we probably couldn’t have pulled off Taiwan but having testing earlier on means we might have been able to figure out more quickly that, say, the early teachers who died probably didn’t get it from their students etc. It could have really helped make a lot of debates way less poisonous. Have we really looked into what happened and fixed it? When the next pandemic comes, will the CDC actually be able to get tests out?
To me the greatest political consequence of covid was deep disillusionment with American elites and establishment and the practical upshot was permanently diversifying my sources of information.
As a foreigner in this country I had the advantage of already reading multiple news sources from other countries when the pandemic began. This allowed me to see where real medical consensus existed and to what extent (Eg vaccines for adults good, how much time between doses and whether to vaccinate kids less clear) and crucially where the cdc was consistently, insistently months behind the emerging science, gaslighting the American public with terrible consequences (masks, aerosol transmission etc).
But the nadir was without doubt when cdc was willling to officially recommend and vaccine distribution policy that would have led to many excess death *accoridng to their own models* in order to gemuflect to some abstract random model of “racial equity” (even though such “equity” would mean more dead not just overall but even among black people). Nothing illustrates better the deep intellectual professional and moral failure , or rather betrayal, of the American establishment. It was also the time when mainstream news media eg NYT increasingly seemed to become akin to Pravda and started purging journalists at alarming rates.
So i discovered substack (including SB), started reading WSJ alongside NYT, and the dispatch etc, keep reading foreign sources, esp opinions of other medical establishments on constorversial topics of day (eg transgender health) am more supportive of judicial review (of all sides) than ever before am permanently more pessimistic about the us.
With regard to schools, it always surprises me that Gina Raimondo is not consistently celebrated as a hero for making the right call and getting RI schools open in Sep 2020. I mean, she’s the commerce secretary, but she was proven 100% right on an absolutely crucial pivot point in the pandemic.
"....My worst call of the year, though, came about six weeks after that piece ran when I got a bad case of Taiwan envy...."
Sure, but you've always been prone to Taipei behavior.
The conclusion I reached was that if you had the state capacity and popular trust in or obedience of government that Australia and China had, then we could have eliminated the virus before Delta. But once Delta and especially Omicron happened, that was impossible, as those countries themselves demonstrated.
Exiting hard lock down by vaccinating first is hard. Only New Zealand really succeeded in that. Other countries found that the vaccinated individuals started breaking lockdown immediately rather than waiting until a sufficient percentage were vaccinated.
For countries that can't achieve those levels of isolation from the outside world, and the aggressive months long domestic lock downs needed when they do have an outbreak, flattening the curve is more sensible than the wild policy swings most countries actually got.
It's worth saying that, for vulnerable people, this sucks. We are fundamentally saying to them "some of you will die, this is a sacrifice I am prepared to make". For some people, the only safe option would be a permanent ban on being maskless in an indoor space, which means permanent abolition of indoor dining and drinking. Many people have come to regard the ADA as a promise that if something cannot be made available and safe for disabled people, then it cannot be offered to anyone, so if it's unsafe for them to eat indoors, then it should be illegal for anyone to eat indoors. So they believe that fundamental promise has been broken. This isn't an unfair representation of some of the rhetoric around the ADA. That doesn't make it a fair representation of what was realistically on offer.
Finally, future policy: we should have plentiful stocks of masks and other PPE, which will need renewing occasionally. We should have a vaccine design programme and a faster approval process. We should improve ventilation and establish minimum standards for public venues and new housing. And the future pandemic plan should be: try aggressive lockdown to eliminate, if it doesn't work quickly, then switch to flatten the curve until the vaccine is rolled out. Note that lockdowns did work for the original SARS and for MERS and for Ebola, etc. We should be prepared to do a two week lockdown before the virus gets to us to try to stop it in its tracks.and acknowledge that it will only work a percentage of the time and if it doesn't we'll do curve flattening
>but progressives would never in a million years license things like cops kicking in doors to bust up illegal house parties<
Strong disagree. Rightly or wrongly, vast swaths of the progressive West threw valorization of personal liberty out the window in early 2020.
Similar pattern for me, but I confess to one difference that turned out to be quite wrong: I massively underestimated how poorly remote school would go for so many people. I was very resistant to "return to school", and my two boys were crushing online school. I could see why something had to be worked out for the younger grades, but from about 5th on - when you are in the actual learning process - school from home looked as great as work from home. I even started looking for online schools just in case I had to pay to avoid returning to in-person. I was surprised so many kids learned so little, when that data eventually came out.
I think the biggest mistake I made, and within my social circle more broadly, was not taking more advantage of outdoor socialization opportunities. We basically treated outdoor socialization as a total no-go, but we could have spent the entire summer of 2020 hanging out at the beach without significantly increasing our risk. This would have been a lot more fun than being stuck inside our apartment all summer long.
The murder of George Floyd was an important turning point. Just before, there were lockdown protests in Michigan and other states. Trump did his "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" thing, and there was a predictable backlash. Lots of people were on television lecturing about how you shouldn't be gathering in public.
Then George Floyd was murdered, and the messaging around gathering in public became very muddled. Some public health officials held the line that people shouldn't be gathering in public in the middle of a pandemic, while others basically said that you shouldn't gather in public... unless it's for an issue that we deem worthy.
I think it was those two events - LIBERATE MICHIGAN! and the George Floyd protests - which broke down the temporary consensus the country had about dealing with covid.
One serious thing that I think a lot of the anti-hawk crowd ignores is the fact that even without *legally-mandated* NPIs, a LOT of people were going to change their behavior en masse no matter what.
Businesses were GOING to fail. And the difference between "the universe we ended up with" and "no legally-mandated NPIs universe" isn't, say, *half* of the business failures, it's maybe only 70/80/90% of the failures - I'd personally put it closer to 90%, but to each their own.
There was a study that came out last year (I think?), that basically concluded there was no significant difference in GDP numbers between NPI-heavy states and NPI-light states. Florida may be able to claim a lighter GDP hit than, say, NY, but FL was on the higher side of the NPI-light distribution; states like SD and WY balanced out FL's overperformance. And Florida was an outlier mostly because its COVID-dove policies brought in in-migration which bestowed the generic economic benefits of population growth, not because those policies themselves were inherently effective at keeping GDP up.
Anyways, the point is, NPIs didn't cause as much economic harm as they're accused of. Most people were going to shut themselves in, avoid travel, and wear masks and shit regardless of what the CDC said. You can still be annoyed at NPIs for various reasons -- I certainly sympathize with the parents out there who were furious at unpredictable school schedules -- but it's important to keep those annoyances in perspective and not let it turn into "NPI Derangement Syndrome".
Here's what I learned from the pandemic:
-If you want an effective response to anything, you have to take every effort to not politicize things (e.g., the medical establishment shouldn't say that public gatherings are unsafe unless they're to protest racial injustice. That does nothing to help public health or racial justice.)
-Noble lies are counterproductive and should be avoided
-Medical ethicists and those who oppose human challenge trials are some of the worst people on the planet
-Teachers are underpaid and teachers unions are wayyy too powerful and should be crushed (i.e. teachers unions are the reason schools closed, but they could credibly say they were put at risk despite low pay)
-The evil greedy American pharma industry is actually kind of incredible and I was wrong for taking it for granted
-You have to craft policy to also cater to people who have different temperments than those who work in elite institutions (i.e., it became "brave" not to care about covid, and the concept of bravery is foreign to us liberal indoor cats)