The Big Fail: What the Pandemic Revealed About Who America Protects and Who It Leaves Behind, by Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean (Portfolio/Penguin, 448 pp., $32)
The American response to the Covid pandemic was an unprecedented disaster— surely the costliest public-policy mistake ever made in peacetime—but most of the politicians, public-health officials, scientists, and journalists responsible still refuse to acknowledge the damage they caused. Many still pretend that the lockdowns and mandates were effective. Others argue that they did the best they could under the circumstances and dismiss critics as partisans trying to score political points. It’s time, they plead, for all of us to move on.
Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean have not moved on, and their new book, The Big Fail, is especially valuable for two reasons. First, it provides an insider’s view of how mistakes were made during the pandemic and how public-health officials and scientists blatantly violated basic principles of their professions. Second, these veteran journalists can’t be dismissed as conservative partisans. Nocera, who now writes for the Free Press, was a long-time op-ed columnist at the New York Times; McLean is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. Their book attacks Republicans, especially Donald Trump, along with other targets that left-leaning readers love to hate, such as the business executives who run hospital chains and have made America dependent on factories in foreign countries for masks and other medical supplies.
But The Big Fail also shows Democrats how much needless harm their leaders caused, and its subtitle is a dagger aimed at a liberal’s bleeding heart: What the Pandemic Revealed About Who America Protects and Who It Leaves Behind. Democrats in blue states reveled in moral superiority during the pandemic, denigrating the selfishness and stupidity of red staters who refused to lock down, close schools, and wear masks. They mocked #FloridaMorons on Twitter and proclaimed their devotion to “the common good.” The Right lambasted those Democrats for their virtue signaling (as in the Babylon Bee headline, “Inspiring: Celebrities Spell Out ‘We’re All In This Together’ With Their Yachts”). The Big Fail chronicles why they deserved it.
“Early in the pandemic,” Nocera and McLean write, “Madonna released a video. Sitting in a bathtub surrounded by red roses, with dramatic music playing in the background, she said, ‘It doesn’t care about how rich you are, how famous you are, how funny you are, how smart you are, where you live, how old you are, what amazing stories you can tell. [The pandemic is] the great equalizer, and what’s terrible about it is what’s great about it.’ She could not have been more wrong.”
The Big Fail totes up the lockdown’s damages and shows that they enriched Silicon Valley’s corporate behemoths and protected the affluent and well-educated. At the same time, they disproportionately harmed small businesses and the vulnerable groups liberals profess to care about. While many private schools stayed open in blue states, most public schools closed, leading to drastic declines in student scores, particularly in high-poverty areas. Six thousand restaurants in New York State and 20,000 businesses in California closed permanently. Nationally, 2.5 million restaurant workers permanently lost their jobs. High school graduates’ unemployment rate soared to 17 percent, a number even higher among black and Hispanic workers and twice the college graduate unemployment rate.
“Maybe—maybe—the social and economic disasters that lockdowns created would have been worth it if they had saved lives,” the authors write. “But they hadn’t. Imposed without any prior evidence of their efficacy, lockdowns helped ‘flatten the curve’ in the short term, which was certainly beneficial for beleaguered hospitals, but their long-term utility was negligible. To look at a list of countries and their death tolls, you would scarcely be able to guess which ones used lockdowns as a mitigation strategy and which ones didn’t.”
The lockdowns were a novel experiment advocated by computer modelers against the advice of eminent epidemiologists with experience in pandemics, notably Donald A. Henderson, who directed the successful worldwide program to eradicate smallpox. He, Tara O’Toole, and two colleagues published a paper in 2006 warning that lockdowns, school closures, and mask mandates would be ineffective and cause collateral damage that would be “devastating socially and economically.” Henderson died four years before Covid, but he disagreed with computer modelers throughout his life, as O’Toole recalls in The Big Fail. She quotes his advice to would-be lockdowners: “Look, you have to be practical about this. And you have to be humble about what public health can actually do, especially over sustained periods. Society is complicated, and you don’t get to control it.”
Henderson had urged public-health officials during a pandemic to focus on maintaining normal social functions and reassuring people, but instead, the Centers for Disease Control and other officials frightened everyone with worst-case scenarios based on absurdly unrealistic computer models. Trump initially resisted the calls to follow China in locking down, but he eventually succumbed to the media hysteria and pressure from Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. “By then,” as one official explains the administration’s decision in The Big Fail, “it was just, we need to do something.”
It was clear early in the pandemic that most young people faced miniscule risk from Covid and that schoolchildren were not significant spreaders of the virus. Yet the CDC didn’t drop its mask recommendation for schoolchildren until the spring of 2022, and even then, it continued—“incredibly,” as the authors describe the irrationality—to urge masks for children under five, an age cohort never advised to wear masks in European countries).
Many blue states kept schools closed long after they had reopened in other states and in Europe. The Big Fail offers three reasons for this folly. One was fearmongering by the CDC, which “kept emphasizing the possibility that children could get COVID-19 without explaining how minuscule the risk was.” Another was kneejerk opposition to Trump; if he wanted the schools reopened, then doing so must be wrong. The third was teachers’ unions power over Democratic politicians. Union leaders throughout the pandemic insisted on remote learning—and then, when confronted with evidence of the enormous harm to students, tried to deny their responsibility.
“On Twitter,” Nocera and Mclean write, “the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, kept up a steady stream of tweets claiming that her union had pushed hard to get schools reopened during the pandemic. Given how hard her union had fought to keep schools closed in 2020 and much of 2021, her tweets were practically the definition of gaslighting.” In a similar exercise, Fauci disavowed any responsibility for the lockdowns and for orchestrating attacks against scientists opposed to the CDC policies.
What will it take to avoid these mistakes during a future pandemic? Nocera and McLean suggest creating “a truly bipartisan Covid-19 fact-finding commission” to assess what went wrong. Such a commission “could point out the changes the CDC and the FDA need to make to regain their positions as trusted sources of health information” and “could examine why the public health establishment worked so hard to discredit dissident scientists.”
Some of those dissident scientists have proposed a list of 100 questions for a bipartisan commission to investigate. Would Democrats agree even to create such a commission? At this point, they, along with the public-health establishment and mainstream press, hope the public will forget their catastrophic blunders. But perhaps this book, with its reminder of just who was hurt during the pandemic, will prompt at least a few Democrats to examine their consciences.
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