Podcast podcast
Aug 11 2023

John Tierney joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the efficacy of Covid lockdowns and mask mandates and the proper role of government in responding to natural disasters. 

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is John Tierney. He’s a City Journal contributing editor. He writes about science, economics, politics, culture, and he spent more than two decades as a reporter and columnist for the New York Times. His work has appeared also in the Atlantic, Esquire, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and many other publications. He’s the author of several books, including the co-authored, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. Today though, we’re going to discuss his recent essays on the impact of the government’s response to Covid, something he’s been covering extensively for City Journal. So John, welcome.

John Tierney: Thanks, Brian.

Brian Anderson: State’s responses to Covid varied widely, so some imposed restrictions on residents for varying periods of time, sometimes weeks. Others limited residents, social, medical, and economic activities for more than a year. These lockdown policies were historically unprecedented, and two recent studies show that their consequences were in fact very far-reaching and disastrous, as you have detailed in a recent essay for City Journal. So I wonder if you could just give us a sketch of what those reports found, both how they approached this methodologically and what the results were. And according to these studies, what damage did the lockdowns cause, and did they do anything to constrain the spread of Covid?

John Tierney: Sure. I’ve been writing a lot about the lockdowns, that there’s been a lot of evidence over the last couple of years that they were not working and that they were causing a lot of damage. But these two new reports are interesting because they’re so exhaustive. One of them was done by a team of Americans and from Sweden, from Johns Hopkins and a Danish researcher. And they sifted through nearly 20,000 studies, they’re comparing lockdowns and Covid rates and mortality rates, and they picked out the best studies, the most rigorous ones, and this was comparing rates in states versus states, countries versus countries. And they concluded that the lockdown in the United States and Europe during the spring of 2020, that it reduced Covid mortality by just 3.2 percent, and that translates to 4,000 avoided deaths in the United States, which is really negligible when you consider that the ordinary flu kills 40,000 Americans every year, we don’t lock down to prevent that.

And even that 3.2 percent reduction, that may well be an overestimate to judge from the other study. And that was published by the Paragon Health Institute by a team of economists, all of whom were former economic advisors to the White House. It was a very good team of people, including Casey Mulligan from the University of Chicago and Joel Zinberg, and others. And they really did a very comprehensive look at the states in the United States, all 50 states and the District of Columbia. And what they did that’s also noteworthy is that they adjusted for each state’s population, the age structure of that population, that’s the first thing you should do in comparing Covid rates. One of the amateurish things during the epidemic is people were just comparing Florida with a much younger state and trying to draw a conclusion that way. So you have to adjust for the age, but they went even further than that and they adjusted also for the rates of obesity and diabetes.

Both factors greatly increased the risk of Covid. So then they did that, and then they compared the mortality rates in the states against the stringency of the lockdown measures in each state, and there was a widely used index from Oxford University called the Oxford Index that ranked countries and states according to various criteria, business and school closure, stay-at-home requirements, mandates for masks, and other restrictions. And the grand conclusion was that there was no statistically significant correlation between the stringency of a government’s reaction to Covid and the mortality rates. One example that I give in the city journal piece is that California and Florida shared roughly the same in their Covid mortality rates about the national average, even though Florida was one of the first to reopen, and California had the longest lockdown in the country and one of the most severe. New York State actually ranked first in the stringency of its lockdown measures, a very dubious honor, and it actually did worse than average, and it fared about the same as South Dakota, which never locked down and ranked last in the stringency of its lockdown measures.

Brian Anderson: How were these studies received? Was there any kind of rethinking that went forward? Were they covered at all?

John Tierney: Practically they got virtually no attention, as usual, and this has just been the pattern through the pandemic where really bad small studies that came out early and throughout the pandemic purporting to show that lockdowns worked or that mask mandates worked. These would get lots of attention from the mainstream press. But then the rigorous big studies that actually try to control for factors and ask you to look comprehensively, not just cherry-picking two states or cherry-picking one four-month period. Those studies have basically been ignored, and those studies have been consistent. These are the two most comprehensive that I’ve seen, but there have been lots of others.

And the basic rule is that the good studies show little to no effect of lockdowns, and yet unfortunately, they’ve just been ignored and nobody wants to admit that they were wrong. Florida’s a great example where when Florida had a surge during the summer, which is when the pandemic was worse in the south because people were indoors, there was all this attention, “Oh, Florida has a high rate.” Then the rest of the year when Florida has a low rate, when the pandemic is surging in the north, it’s simply ignored. Same story with Sweden. They got massacred by the media early in the pandemic because they had a high rate, and then it just ignored the rest of the pandemic because Sweden actually ended up with one of the lowest rates of excess mortality in the world by not locking down.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. You mentioned mask mandates. Mask mandates were also very controversial. Both the federal and state governments imposed masking requirements, and the durations of those mandates varied by jurisdiction pretty dramatically. A review released earlier this year by Cochrane, the world’s largest organization for evaluating health interventions found that I believe neither surgical nor N95 masks made a significant difference in reducing the spread of Covid and other respiratory illnesses. I believe I’m getting that right.

John Tierney: Absolutely. No, that’s right. And Cochrane is the gold standard for doing these large-scale evaluations where they go through all the clinical trials, they evaluate them, they have very strict standards for what counts and what doesn’t, and they’ve always been called the gold standard. So it was a real blow to the Maskaholics to get this finding. It was a little harder to ignore Cochrane because it’s got such a reputation, but even then there were people trying to attack the author or claim, “Well, just because they couldn’t find any evidence that masks work, doesn’t mean that the masks didn’t work.” Which is a very strange way, I mean, imagine trying to get a drug approved or a medical treatment saying, “Well, we have no evidence that it works, but it might work, and so why not do it?”

Brian Anderson: Economists have long argued that executive intervention is more often than not kind of harmful in the aftermath of natural disasters because it hinders the way people might voluntarily respond to a disaster. I wonder if that is significant in this context. What’s behind that phenomenon, and maybe what we might want to do to constrain government overreach in future emergencies?

John Tierney: No, that’s a great point, and I have to say I kind of heard about this, but I only recently just came across the literature on it for this piece in the City Journal. And it’s really interesting. There are a couple of European economists who have done really exhaustive studies looking at natural disasters around the world, and they control for all kinds of factors. And they look at whether the executive branch of the government uses the emergency to give itself sweeping powers. And what they find, it sounds odd probably to most people, but the more powers that the government sees is the more people die in the natural disaster. Now, that was the pattern established long before Covid. And these economists have also looked at Covid, and they consider it just the worst example yet of this. Because it’s clear that when the government seizes all these powers, when it upends people’s lives, it interferes with the natural efforts and the normal private efforts the people make to deal with a disaster. When a disaster strikes, people help their neighbors, they want to do it.

When the government suspends everything, when it suspends property rights, when it commandeered resources, it just tends to interfere with the functioning. And the other big problem these economists pointed out is that when they seize these powers, they use them often for a lot of purposes that have nothing to do with the emergency. We certainly saw that with Covid. We saw all this spending on giving the special-interest groups all these privileges that were given that had really bad effects afterwards. We had this hangover of inflation supply chain, and you can see how the lockdowns just interfere with daily life. One thing was that there were worries about staffing shortages at hospitals during the peak of the Covid surge. Well, one reason for that was the lockdowns that nurses and doctors had to stay home taking care of their kids. And this was something before the pandemic, experts for the CDC and other national health agencies, the pandemic plans of the U.S. and other countries recommended against lockdowns precisely because there was no evidence they would do any good and lots of evidence that they would disrupt things and cause more damage.

And unfortunately, those plans were just thrown away early in the pandemic when China claimed lockdowns work. So everyone said, “Well, we all have to do that.” And there were these kind of ridiculous computer models estimating the lockdowns would prevent 80 percent of the deaths and 2 million people were going to die the first summer in the United States. And these were absurd, but everyone panicked and did it. And instead of heeding the lessons from past pandemics and other natural disasters, the government just seized unprecedented powers. And the result was just unprecedented damage, especially to younger people. The kids who missed school, all the young adults whose lives were upended who were at very low risk of Covid. So we had rates of obesity, alcohol, fatal drug overdoses, depression, all sorts of other deaths. One notable thing was that Sweden, for instance, with student lockdown, it did not have any excess mortality among young people during the pandemic, the United States did. We had, I think a hundred thousand people, more than normal, died of non-Covid causes. And many of those deaths are presumably related to the lockdowns.

But as you say, unfortunately, instead of learning the lessons that we shouldn’t drastically expand government’s powers during an emergency, instead of learning the lesson from Covid, what’s going on now is the people responsible for this manmade disaster are refusing to take responsibility, and they’re actually seeking more power to do even more damage the next time. The CDC has promised to be even more aggressive in the next pandemic and is drawing up plans for that. And the World Health Organization is drawing up this new global pandemic treaty that if nations sign it would give the WHO legal authority to force countries to follow these policies that are so disastrous.

Brian Anderson: It’s really kind of an extraordinary phenomenon. So you mentioned the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, all of them repeatedly cited what turns out to be shoddy evidence to assert the efficacy of some of these interventions, whether it’s lockdowns, masks. Even as we’re discovering some of the information about vaccine safety was suppressed, about the origins of Covid, all of this. So evidence now abounds that they were misleading the public deliberately based on some of these recent revelations. And as a result of this, I think there’s a lot less trust for public health agencies now on the part of the public. So, I wonder what explains this willingness to twist or distort information or keep information from the public on the one hand, and what can these agencies do to regain public trust in the future?

John Tierney: I did an earlier piece for City Journal, “The Left’s ‘War on Science,’” and in another piece on the corruption of public health. And there’s really been this long-term trend before Covid where the Left uses “the science” to justify increasing the government scope, increasing regulation, increasing power. And this has been going on in lots of other areas where topics, it becomes taboo to criticize . . . You couldn’t talk about IQ, you couldn’t talk about race, you couldn’t talk about all these things, and the left’s been doing this for a long time. It’s just been getting worse. And the public health establishment has always been one of the most left-leaning. It’s really become devoted to expanding the government’s power, it has become its chief goal, actually. And so it’s really been captured by progressives. I’d written about all this before Covid for City Journal, but I have to say I was still stunned at how they could seize this much power, do this by damage and twist the science so badly and remain . . . No apologies for it, let us do even more next time.

And as far as what can be done, I also did a piece for City Journal, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” trying to think, “How do you stop this from happening?” Ordinarily after a disaster like this, and I mean a manmade disaster here by the public health establishment. The normal impulse is to have a blue-ribbon commission investigate and come up with recommendations. But it’s hard to imagine who you’d put on it, because the whole establishment was in on this. There were some prominent dissenters, but it became so politicized and the Democratic Party was so committed to this lie, and it’s hard to imagine Congress or the federal government actually doing a fair inquiry. Denmark recently did a big—I think it was Denmark has done and also Scotland—they’ve had investigations that have been really critical of the lockdown. But the U.S. establishment was leading the worldwide charge for lockdowns, and it’s hard to see how you could do a commission to do it.

One conclusion I had in that piece for City Journal was in some ways the best hope is in the next election if Ron DeSantis can make that an issue, at least force this. Because right now, the mainstream media just wants to forget it. And you’ve had a few half-hearted apologies. “Well, we just didn’t know any better.” Or “Let’s not look back. Let’s just forget about all that.” And we can’t, because they’ll do more damage with the next pandemic. And of course, climate change is the area where the “science” is being used to justify all kinds of unprecedented restrictions on freedom and on the economy. So I do hope that DeSantis and others can make this an issue in the campaign, at least force a discussion of it. And there needs to be just serious, serious reform. A lot of people should lose their jobs at the CDC. Of course, it’s almost impossible to fire public federal bureaucrats, but I mean, people ought to suffer consequences.

The journals that censored and the social media platforms that censored prominent scientists who dared to question the orthodoxy. People ought to, ought to suffer consequences for that. But it’s hard to imagine how that happens now that the progressives so completely dominate these institutions.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you, John. That’s a great overview of where we are on all of these issues. Don’t forget to check out John Tierney’s work on the City Journal website, that’s at www.city-journal.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnTierneyNYC, and we’ll link to his author page in the description where you can find all of the pieces we’ve been discussing today. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. As always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. John Tierney, thanks, always great to have you on 10 Blocks.

John Tierney: Thanks, Brian.

Photo: damircudic/iStock

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