No state was in a better position than California to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. It had a relatively young population, a climate that encouraged people to spend time outdoors, a tech industry that profited from the pandemic’s surge in online traffic, and top-flight medical and research institutions with some of the world’s leading experts on public health and epidemiology. But no state inflicted so much needless suffering for so long on its children and adults.
When the pandemic began, researchers in California were the first in the United States to analyze the threat accurately and offer sensible advice, urging focused protection for the elderly, while warning that school closures and lockdowns were futile and destructive. But instead of heeding their expertise, the progressives dominating the state’s public and private institutions launched campaigns to defame, ostracize, and silence them. These experts, like so many other fleeing Californians, had to leave the state to find leaders who embraced scientific analysis and rational policies.
No other state infringed upon individual liberties more zealously. California was the first to lock down and the last to end its state of emergency (at the end of February of this year). It closed not only schools and businesses but also playgrounds, parks, and beaches. A police boat in Malibu chased down a solitary surfer so that he could be arrested and handcuffed; another surfer was fined $1,000 for endangering precisely no one. Church gatherings were outlawed for nearly a year, until the Supreme Court finally overturned the ban. Other courts had to intervene to keep public schools in San Diego and Los Angeles from mandating vaccines for students.
California suffered one of the nation’s worst spikes in unemployment during the pandemic, and it was one of the slowest to recover economically, despite the increased profits flowing to Silicon Valley. In the spring of 2021, it ranked 47th among the states in a Moody’s Analytics index of economic metrics of recovery. It remained among the bottom dozen at the end of last year, when the 24 percent vacancy rate in San Francisco’s office buildings inspired headlines about “the most empty downtown in America.” Over the first two years of the pandemic, according to a scorecard by a team of economists, California ranked 39th among the states in overall economic performance and dead last in providing in-school instruction to students.
Yet the state’s leaders remain unapologetic. Governor Gavin Newsom insists that his policies were guided by “the science and data,” while using deceitful statistics to claim falsely that Florida’s less restrictive Covid policies were deadlier than California’s authoritarianism. Instead of acknowledging that the lockdowns were unnecessarily costly, he boasts how much the state spent to mitigate his errors: nearly $40 billion in direct payments and tax relief (which would have been more than enough to offset the state’s current projected budget deficit of $23 billion). Instead of encouraging scientific debate, Newsom signed the nation’s first state law, recently blocked by a federal judge, subjecting doctors to discipline by the state’s medical board if they provide their patients with Covid “misinformation.”
That word presumably means anything challenging the orthodoxy enforced so disastrously during the pandemic. The crackdown on dissent began at Stanford in the spring of 2020, when John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist and one of the world’s most cited scientists, warned that lockdowns could be a “once-in-a-century fiasco” because they were being imposed without any consideration of costs and benefits. He joined with Stanford colleagues, including Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of health policy at the medical school, to measure the spread of Covid in two California counties. Their results (subsequently confirmed by other researchers) showed that the fatality rate among the general population was much lower than the estimates being used by computer modelers, whose doomsday projections (2 million Americans dead by summer’s end, hospitals overwhelmed by 30 Covid patients for every available bed) terrified Newsom and other governors into locking down and ordering nursing homes to accept Covid patients from hospitals.
For daring to question the doomsday narrative, the Stanford researchers found themselves vilified in the media and bombarded with personal threats. The university’s administrators were cowed into hiring an outside law firm to conduct a fact-finding inquiry into a spurious accusation of bias. The inquiry found no bias, but the researchers endured continuing harassment from some Stanford administrators and faculty. “Academic freedom at Stanford is clearly dying,” Bhattacharya wrote in a recent essay recounting the hostility he faced after coauthoring the Great Barrington Declaration, a critique of lockdowns signed by thousands of scientists around the world in the fall of 2020—but that remained taboo for discussion at Stanford.
Bhattacharya’s department chairman blocked his attempt to hold a seminar discussing the declaration, and the medical school never invited him to present an alternative to the Covid orthodoxy that it was promoting. California officials ignored his advice. After Bhattacharya spoke at a roundtable hosted by Florida governor Ron DeSantis and questioned the evidence for masking schoolchildren, activists put Bhattacharya’s face on posters around the Stanford campus blaming him for deaths in Florida, and the chairman of epidemiology at Stanford circulated a petition at the medical school asking the university to censor such speech.
The social-media platforms in Silicon Valley censored the video of that Florida roundtable and other postings by Bhattacharya, as well as those of a fellow heretic at Stanford, Scott Atlas, a health-policy analyst at the Hoover Institution also consulted by DeSantis. Atlas predicted early in the pandemic that lockdowns would cost more lives than they saved and opposed them while serving on the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force. The Stanford faculty senate voted to declare his actions “anathema to our community,” and three Stanford professors published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association urging that he be punished by medical societies and licensing boards for “unprofessional conduct.”
Another early critic of lockdowns, Joseph A. Ladapo, fared no better in persuading his medical school colleagues at the University of California–Los Angeles. Dozens of UCLA professors signed a petition denouncing him for speaking out against Covid orthodoxy. As he recalls in a pandemic memoir, Transcend Fear, one colleague sent an e-mail to the chancellor (subject line: “Why does UCLA employ Dr. Ladapo?”) urging the university to issue a formal renunciation. Ladapo’s superiors sought unsuccessfully to vet his articles before publication. “My boss complained that she was spending half her time dealing with complaints about me,” Ladapo says. “I basically became an outcast in my department.”
But he, too, was welcomed by DeSantis, who appointed him Florida’s surgeon general in the fall of 2021. By then, Florida had already recovered to pre-pandemic levels of economic performance, and its mortality statistics were below the national average, despite its rejection of mask mandates and vaccine passports. When the CDC urged parents to vaccinate all their children, Ladapo weighed the minuscule benefits to healthy children against the risk of serious side effects, ultimately recommending against vaccinating kids—the same policy adopted in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, and other European countries. In California, by contrast, Newsom issued an order (currently suspended until at least the next school year) requiring all students above kindergarten to be vaccinated, and the state continues to urge jabs for all children older than six months.
When Newsom finally ended the nearly three-year-long state of emergency, he claimed that 56,000 more Californians would have died of Covid if he had followed Florida’s policies, basing that estimate on Florida’s higher rate of Covid mortality. But that’s not a valid comparison. When statisticians properly adjust for the age structure in each state—Florida has a much higher share of vulnerable elderly people—the rates in both states are below the national average. California’s rate is just slightly lower, and that difference is largely due to another confounding factor: the per-capita mortality calculations are based on each state’s population in the 2020 Census, but Florida’s population has been growing rapidly since then, while California’s has been shrinking. If you adjust for the actual population of both states during the pandemic, their per-capita Covid mortality rates are almost identical.
Newsom prefers to avoid discussing a more important difference: the rate of overall excess mortality, the number of deaths above normal from all causes during the pandemic. That rate is higher in California, particularly among younger adults who died from causes other than Covid—many presumably victims of the lockdown’s disruptions. If California’s excess-mortality rate over the first two years of the pandemic had equaled Florida’s, about 10,000 fewer Californians would have died. And if the state had heeded its own experts instead of its authoritarian leaders, tens of millions of Californians would have enjoyed healthier, wealthier, and happier lives.
Photo: Along with like-minded colleagues, Stanford medical school professor Jay Bhattacharya found himself vilified in the media and bombarded with personal threats for daring to question the Covid doomsday narrative. (TOM WILLIAMS/CQ ROLL CALL/AP IMAGES)