Keeping Fear Alive
Reluctant to set the public free, policymakers and the public-health bureaucracy set unachievable and unnecessary goals.
Throughout the pandemic, American political and public-health leaders have been following Rahm Emanuel’s classic dictum for power-seeking officials: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Now they’ve adopted a corollary: you never want a crisis to end.
So they are prolonging the national misery instead of easing it, which could be done with a few simple strategies. Explain to the public that the virus will never disappear but is no longer a mortal threat to the vast majority of Americans. Encourage the minority still at risk to get vaccinated by honestly discussing who is in jeopardy and what scientists have learned about infections. Promote treatments proven to prevent infection and speed recovery while avoiding unproven treatments and mandates that cause collateral damage and generate mistrust. Above all, make it clear to Americans that we finally have reason to celebrate: what once seemed an unprecedented danger is now just one of many pathogens that we know how to live with.
But the nation’s crisismongers aren’t about to relinquish their hold over the public, so they’ve set new goals that are as unachievable as they are unnecessary and harmful. Making vaccines available to every American adult is no longer sufficient; now the crisis cannot end until the entire population has been vaccinated. Instead of focusing efforts on vaccinating the vulnerable, officials obsess on compelling universal obedience, even if that means squandering vaccines on people who already have acquired natural immunity or are at minimal risk of serious illness.
The same progressives who regularly denounce “systemic racism” and “Western imperialism” are now enforcing policies that disproportionately punish minorities and the poor, both in the United States (the majority of black teenagers and young adults in New York have been banished from much of public life by the city’s new vaccine-passport policy) and in the rest of the world. The hypocrisy was deftly captured in a tweet by Martin Kulldorff, the Harvard epidemiologist: “If you favor university vaccine mandates for low-risk American and European students, when there is not enough vaccine for older high-risk people in Asia, Africa and Latin America, please remove your #BLM tags from your Twitter/Facebook profiles.”
Children are being sentenced to another round of unnecessary mask mandates and probably more school closures based on evidence-free warnings from Anthony Fauci and others that the Delta variant will be more deadly to them than the original virus. While the variant is more infectious, the evidence does not show it to be any more lethal. In fact, the current mortality rate among American children with Covid is lower than it was last year—and last year many more children died of the flu than of Covid. One of the most thorough studies, in England, shows that the survival rate for those under 18 with Covid is 99.995 percent. But instead of emphasizing these reassuring statistics, public-health officials like Jerome Adams, the former surgeon general, keep looking for new ways to scare parents and children.
“I’m an anesthesiologist,” he tweeted last weekend. “And a dad. And I can assure you in both capacities that your child will be far more comfortable if they’re in a face mask, than on a ventilator. If you’re making a choice on behalf of a child, please choose based on their comfort, vs yours.” He offered no new evidence that children are at heightened risk from the virus, much less any evidence that a mask would make any difference, but he did make sure to include a gruesome photograph of a child on a ventilator.
It was a new low in public-health demagoguery, but unfortunately not so different from the fearmongering of other officials, the press, and social-media platforms. They lament that a minority of the public remains reluctant to get vaccinated without recognizing that their own tactics are likely a chief cause of this reluctance. They have been misleading people for so long—and censoring challenges to their misinformation—that it’s no wonder polls show that an overwhelming majority of unvaccinated Americans say they don’t trust Fauci or the CDC.
Many of these unvaccinated people have mistaken ideas about vaccine side effects, but they’re not wrong when they tell pollsters that the dangers of the virus have been exaggerated and exploited for political purposes. The White House and its Democratic allies in the press have seized on the seasonal surge in the Sun Belt to attack Republicans for not mandating masks—while largely ignoring surges in Democratic strongholds with mask mandates and other restrictions, like Hawaii, Oregon, and San Francisco.
This political cherry-picking of data has been the norm during the pandemic. During surges last year, Florida and Sweden’s failure to lock down and mandate masks was blamed for the outbreaks—never mind that both places did better than average in limiting mortality over the course of the year. In Sweden, which kept its schools open without masks or social distancing during the spread of the Delta variant this year, the overall mortality rate this year has actually been lower than normal.
The CDC continues to undermine its credibility by claiming strong evidence for the efficacy of lockdowns and mask mandates. Dozens of studies have found that lockdowns are ineffective, and one recent analysis of trends in the United States and other countries found that lockdown policies are associated with an increase in excess deaths. The evidence offered by the CDC for mask mandates is weak, as Jeffrey H. Anderson has documented, and the most rigorous research—from more than a dozen randomized clinical trials—suggests that masks are ineffective (and possibly counterproductive) at stopping viral spread. One recent study, which tracked Covid case growth across the United States, concluded that “mask mandates and use are not associated with slower state-level Covid-19 spread during Covid-19 growth surges.”
Even Robert Redfield, who made unsubstantiated claims for mask efficacy last year while he was directing the CDC, now concedes that there is a “paucity of data” to support mask mandates. When asked if the CDC is wrong to be recommending masks for schoolchildren, he replied, “I’m saying that I haven’t been able to review data that supports that recommendation.”
His successors at the agency, unfortunately, seem less interested in reviewing data than in hiding it. As David Zweig reported in New York, when researchers from the CDC compared Covid-mitigation techniques at 169 elementary schools in Georgia, they found no statistically significant reduction of infections in schools that required masks for students, enforced social distancing, or installed barriers between desks. Those were important findings because it was the first such large study, but the CDC did not even mention them in the summary of research that it published. Instead, the agency went on recommending masks for all students.
The European Union’s equivalent of the CDC, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, has sensibly recommended against masking students under age 12 because of the physical, psychological, and social harms to children, but American officials have made no effort to weigh the costs and benefits. The National Institutes of Health hasn’t even bothered to study the negative impacts of its mask policies on children. Dozens of other researchers, though, have demonstrated an array of problems called “Mask-Induced Exhaustion Syndrome.” The problems include decrease in blood oxygen saturation; increase in blood carbon dioxide; increase in heart and respiratory rates; difficulty breathing; dizziness; headache; drowsiness; and decreased ability to concentrate and think.
Masking children at minimal risk from the virus was justified last year on the grounds that it might prevent infections of vulnerable adults who had no defense against the virus. But now that vaccines are readily available, why harm children for the sake of adults who have deliberately chosen not to protect themselves? Since when do children bear responsibility for adults’ decisions?
The mask mandates for children can’t be justified on ethical or scientific grounds, but they persist because they serve the interests of a certain class of adults. The purpose of this hygiene theater was described with blunt accuracy by Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and one of the few politicians who has actually been following the science during the pandemic. “Politicians,” he explained, “want to force you to cover your face as a way for them to cover their own asses.”
Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).