Podcast podcast
Dec 14 2023

Joe Nocera joins John Tierney to discuss the government's disastrous response to the Covid pandemic.

Audio Transcript

John Tierney: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is John Tierney. I’m a contributing editor to City Journal, where I’ve been writing frequently about the disastrous response to the Covid pandemic. Today I’m joined by the author of a terrific new book on this subject, Joe Nocera, a journalist whose work I’ve admired for decades in magazines and books. Joe is a longtime op-ed columnist for The New York Times. He’s now a columnist for The Free Press, and he’s the co-author of the new book, The Big Fail: What the Pandemic Revealed About Who America Protects and Who It Leaves Behind. Joe and his co-author, Bethany McLean, are both veteran financial journalists and the co-authors of a previous bestseller, a history of the 2008 financial crisis titled All the Devils Are Here.

Now they’ve applied their impressive reporting skills to provide an insider’s view of how things went so wrong during the pandemic. Many of these mistakes will be familiar to readers of City Journal. We’ve been criticizing the lockdowns and school closures and mask mandates for three years now. These mistakes are not so familiar to people who’ve been getting their news from left-leaning media, and that’s one reason I think this book is so valuable. Joe, you and Bethany can hardly be accused of being conservatives. You both write for liberal publications, or you have written for them, and you share some of the perspective.

Joe Nocera: Yeah, absolutely. That’s true, although if you ask Bethany, as I did recently, and said, “What are your politics?,” she’ll respond by saying, “I have no politics. I believe in things that work.” I lean left. Again, I am a pragmatist. To take one example that has nothing to do with the pandemic, I strongly believe that vaping could save millions of lives, if only public health would get behind it instead of demonizing it.

John Tierney: I love it. Joe, you and I are on the same page. We’ve been two lonely crusaders for vaping.

Joe Nocera: I know. I know.

John Tierney: I agree with you, and you’ve done great work on that.

Joe Nocera: Thanks.

John Tierney: Anyway, you do have credibility with liberal readers. Now, at a time when many liberals want to pretend that Covid policies worked, or they just want to try and forget it or avoid the subject altogether, you’re showing them uncomfortable truths that they can’t dismiss as misinformation coming from knee-jerk conservatives. You show how the pandemic mistakes hurt the most vulnerable members of society: children, the poor, the working class, small business—the very groups that liberals profess to be protecting. Now, I’ve written that the response to Covid was the greatest public policy mistake ever made during peacetime. To me, the only thing that comes close is the Great Depression. Do you think that’s fair? How would you assess this?

Joe Nocera: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought to try to put it into any context like that. I’m scrolling through my memory right now and trying to figure out what we could have done, what compares to it, and I can’t really think of anything, so I’m going to allow your statement to stand uncriticized.

John Tierney: Okay, thanks. Well now, you write in the book that in the United States, lockdowns became equated with following the science. It was anything but. Yes, there were computer models suggesting lockdowns would be effective, but there were never any actual scientific studies supporting the strategy. It was a giant experiment, one that would bring devastating social and economic consequences. One of the strengths of your book is the great reporting you’ve done. You interviewed a lot of insiders at the White House and federal agencies. Do you want to briefly give a sense? I know it’s a complicated story, but how did this mistake get made?

Joe Nocera: Well, it’s a multipart thing. I mean, it begins with George Bush, George W. Bush, wanting a pandemic plan because he reads John Barry’s terrific book, The Great Influenza, about the 1918 pandemic. He says, “Oh, my God, this is going to happen again. We need a plan.” The two doctors that are put in charge of the plan, they don’t have an epidemiology background, but they’re smart guys and they’re modern guys, and so they get their hands on a model done by a high school girl, although I should note that her father is a government scientist in Albuquerque, that purports to show that if people are locked up, the disease doesn’t spread, and they really embrace this idea. A big fight ensues inside the White House where there are people who are opposed to this, primarily D.A. Henderson, the man who ended smallpox, and would seem to have some credibility on the subject.

John Tierney: He wrote a great paper back in 2006, I think it was, saying no lockdown, you don’t mandate masks. You try to have society continue normally, right?

Joe Nocera: Yes. This was the culmination of this battle inside the White House over what the pandemic plan would look like. He and three others, including Jennifer Nuzzo, who’s a pretty widely quoted talking head on this pandemic, they wrote a paper, and the conclusion was society works best when people don’t panic, and if public health causes people to panic with their mitigation measures, it’s a potential catastrophe, and that’s pretty much what happened, I would say. There’s a second part to this too, John, not to put you to sleep or anything.

John Tierney: No, it’s fascinating.

Joe Nocera: The other part of this is that the Chinese did it, obviously, and it seemed to be working. You shut down the whole city of Wuhan, and 55 million people in the first phase of the lockdown were locked down in China, but most people didn’t think that could ever happen in a Western democracy. Then Italy locked down when the pandemic moved to Italy, and they did the same thing. Suddenly, pro-lockdown forces are thinking to themselves, “Aha, we can do this in a Western democracy.” It was almost like a contagion in and of itself, as one country after another chose this strategy to fight the pandemic.

Now, the problem with the strategy, if the purpose of this strategy is to relieve the pressure on hospitals over a very short term, three weeks or so, there’s nothing wrong with it. If the strategy is that you’re going to lock everybody up and the pandemic is going to go away, that’s insane, because A, the pandemic doesn’t go away. It just kind of lurks around, waiting for you to leave your house, and B, all these virtuous people who are members of the Zoom class, they got their food from a guy from DoorDash, and they got their goods from some guy in an Amazon warehouse and FedEx and UPS and meatpackers, who got Covid like crazy. There was this whole sense that the working class and the poor had to put their lives at risk so that the Zoom class could feel virtuous.

John Tierney: Panic pandemic. I’ve called it that. Of course, this was fueled by the media. It was probably public officials who did it, and the media, to me, probably just with digital media and this instant-click stuff, but the mainstream media and just about everyone had that chyron on TV screens of the fatality rate, and I think that’s part of the problem with the media today. It’s always been scaring people, but it’s just got into complete panic porn with this and terrified people, as you say.

Joe Nocera: The Times made a mistake firing Don McNeil, who actually knew what he was talking about.

John Tierney: There’s another factor that seems to me that was going on, though, in the scientific establishment. Why did scientists go along with this? You have a great quote from somebody at the White House, I think it was, saying, “It just became ‘we had to do something,’ and this was something.” I understand why politicians feel a need to have to do it, this is something, therefore it must be done, but why did so many scientists go along with it?

Joe Nocera: Well, this gets into another thing that D.A. Henderson believed. He always made this distinction between shoe-leather epidemiologists and computer-model epidemiologists, and the computer-model epidemiologist felt very strongly that lockdowns would make a big difference. That is not science in the sense that you’ve proven the efficacy of something. That’s simply a scientific model based on hypotheticals. Because in England, Neil Ferguson, the head epidemiologist at the Imperial College in London, put out a study in mid-March that basically said if you don’t lock down and take other extreme measures, 2.2 million people in the U.S. will die and 500,000 people in England will die. If you look at his chart, if you look at his chart, he has them dying by August.

John Tierney: Right, 2 million people that summer. He called it the only viable strategy.

Joe Nocera: Even Trump panicked over that.

John Tierney: Right. I know that. I mean, the one person that didn’t panic was in Sweden, where they didn’t.

Joe Nocera: Yes, that’s right.

John Tierney: Tegnell was the head of it, but also this veteran, Giesecke. I wrote about that. I nominated them both for the Nobel Prize for Medicine, that Giesecke had been a pioneer of computer modeling in Sweden. He saw Ferguson saying it, and he just said, “This is a horror scenario of no use to anyone.” He knew how wrong Ferguson’s group had been in the past. They’d be predicting mass casualties and there’d be 300 people from a pandemic. He just knew that these models were so bad. He told Tegnell, “Pay no attention to these models.” Why did the rest of the scientific community?

Joe Nocera: Don’t forget, at first, Sweden’s numbers were high, and they were getting pummeled by the rest of the world. Public health experts, “Oh, my God, it’s a strategy for murder,” and so on and so forth. Today you go look at their numbers now, it’s like no better or worse than anybody. I mean, there are some countries that are better.

John Tierney: They’re much better than everyone else. They had one of the lowest excess mortality rates.

Joe Nocera: Excess mortality, they’re really one of the lowest. That’s right. They’ve actually done very well, and people should look to what they did. It’s not like they did nothing. I mean, you can’t do nothing. They did. They protected.

John Tierney: They trusted their citizens to take sensible voluntary action.

Joe Nocera: Well, and that’s why 97 percent of their citizenry was vaccinated when the time came, because they trusted their government.

John Tierney: Right, and we’ve just lost that trust here. I think another factor, and this may be a little afield, but the public health establishment for decades, I’ve written about what I call the left’s war on science. The progressives for a century have been using science to justify, and they’ve now started calling it the science, which I define as anything that justifies greater government control over people’s lives, from the eugenics movements, to population control, and now climate change.

The public health establishment is really one of the most captured groups, for decades now. Someone did the history of the public health thing and said they used to do great things like controlling malaria, genuine public health mode. Then they got into now, where they’re into so many basically progressive causes of gun control, and basically that its primary purpose has become how do we expand government control over people to save people from themselves?

Joe Nocera: Okay, so John, this is where my liberal side emerges. I believe in gun control. I think it’s important.

John Tierney: Right, but I would say that whatever you think about gun control, I don’t think the public health people, the doctors, know much about that. That’s for scientists in other fields. The public health establishment, for example, also their association supports guaranteed universal income. I mean, they’re into left-wing causes, and then claiming that they’re doing this on a scientific basis.

Joe Nocera: The best example of this during the pandemic, of course, was the way the public health establishments would mock and scorn Florida because people were going to the beach, and then when Black Lives Matter happened, they said, “Oh, yeah, it’s okay. It’s okay to rally for that, because it’s so important.” It’s like, “You might get Covid, but don’t worry about it, doing something that matters.” It was ridiculous. The truth of the matter is you were safer at the beach in Florida than you were at a Black Lives Matter rally.

John Tierney: They were arresting solitary surfers in California. It was really insane.

Joe Nocera: Well, the worst thing California did was they passed that law that said, “We can arrest you, Mr. Doctor, for spreading misinformation.” Well, what the heck is misinformation, Gavin? Come on, man.

John Tierney: Yeah. I mean, I would argue that has been a big feature of scientific debate for decades now. It’s been going on in other fields about IQ, race, gender differences. All these things have become taboo, and you get ostracized because people want to use these scientific findings to advance politics, so you have to silence anyone who tries to debate them because that’s a justification. I think to me, the pandemic was a culmination of that process.

I think what’s also happened is just that these institutions, scientific institutions, the universities, the funding agencies, the journals, the professional societies, they’ve just become more and more dominated by progressives. I think you had a perfect storm here. As you point out in the book, anything Trump wanted to do was of course automatically wrong.

Joe Nocera: The greatest example of that was the schools, where the science was absolutely clear that schools were safer than homes, and that kids were being damaged far more by not being in school than by doing remote learning.

John Tierney: I mean, it was just unbelievable how that went on. How do you see us avoiding this problem the next time?

Joe Nocera: I don’t.

John Tierney: One thing you talk about, for instance, is the mask shortage, and you say it wasn’t so much Obama but Congress, although it was a Democratic Congress that didn’t fund refilling the stockpile.

Joe Nocera: Yeah, but it’s not just refilling the stockpile. This is where I think you’ll disagree with me quite a bit, I’m guessing, is because from my point of view, the embrace of globalization by the U.S., the wholesale embrace, left us naked when the pandemic came because we didn’t have any resilience in our system. The Chinese, that we all get our masks from, they said, “Well, I’m not going to give them to you. We’ve got a pandemic. We need it for our people.” We were left flatfooted. I think that this points up to a broader problem in the economy, which is that we have outsourced so much of the things that we need that we are vulnerable to another country’s blackmail, or another pandemic or so on and so forth.

In terms of the next time, I believe pretty strongly that the next time there will not be a lockdown, because people won’t stand for it. It’ll have to be much more on the Swedish model, because the thing that public health really never took into account was the way human beings behave. The reason they lost so much credibility was because at a certain point, they were saying things like ‘wear a mask’ when it was obvious that you didn’t need to wear a mask, or a million things like that. I think the next time, it is quite likely that there’ll be less locking down and more just taking certain precautions that make sense until a vaccine arises.

John Tierney: Well, I hope you’re right. I see, for instance, the WHO, the World Health Organization, they’re trying to get this new pandemic treaty that would give them powers to order everyone, so that Sweden wouldn’t be able to show people the right way. Also, I mean, I still see places, doctors’ offices, that are still doing masks, which makes me lose confidence in them as doctors. I still think a lot of people still haven’t admitted that these things were wrong. I mean, Rochelle Walensky of the CDC, she said, “Yeah, we made some mistakes,” and Fauci said it too, “We didn’t do enough early enough. We weren’t tough enough.” I fear that those agencies, the public health establishment, is still going to be there. Now, you mentioned the possibility. Do you think that a blue-ribbon Covid panel could accomplish something?

Joe Nocera: In a normal environment, I think the answer is yes. The blue-ribbon commission after the financial crisis really did a lot of good, in my opinion. Historically, the commission after the 1929 market crash led us to the SEC and so on. In the environment that we live in now that is so polarized, it’s hard to imagine anything good coming out of it, because it seems to me that both sides would just fight about did lockdowns work or did they not work, did masks work or did they not work. It is very hard for me to envision a scenario where people of good faith on both sides come together and really evaluate what makes sense and what doesn’t.

John Tierney: I spoke to Scott Atlas, the professor at Stanford, who was who was an early critic of lockdowns. They passed a resolution denouncing him in the Senate and said he should have his medical license stripped. He said he thinks that any commission in Washington will just get dismissed as partisan, no matter what it is. I’ve tried to think. Jay Bhattacharya, one of the great scientists during this, and you quote him in the book, he does favor a commission, and he thinks that the data are just so clear that how could a group deny it? What I’ve tried to think about is who would you put in charge of that commission? I mean, the whole public health establishment was in on this fiasco.

Joe Nocera: I think I would probably put Jennifer Nuzzo or Michael Osterholm in charge of it. Osterholm was another prominent talking head, a very esteemed epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. He told me recently that he didn’t think the lockdowns worked, and he didn’t think in most cases masks worked unless you had an N95.

John Tierney: Right. Osterholm, I think you quote him in the book when Jay Bhattacharya and the others did the Great Barrington Declaration, that he called it pixie dust and pseudoscience.

Joe Nocera: Jennifer Nuzzo, I mean, one of the things I really liked about her—she’s never talked to me, which really annoyed me—but in 2019, just before the pandemic hit, she oversaw a massive study about how we should think about a pandemic. If one came, what should we do? It was for Johns Hopkins, and there was a section in there about mitigation measures, and she said, “We should not embrace any mitigation measure until we know whether it works, until we know about the efficacy.” She says in the report, “At this point, we don’t know.” That to me was one of the most honest statements. You didn’t hear anybody saying that.

John Tierney: Actually, the CDC’s official plan and the U.K.’s plan and Canada’s plan, they all said you don’t lock down, you don’t mandate, you don’t have public mask mandates. They all said that based on the evidence. It’s just everybody threw out those plans. I worry. Nuzzo is an interesting suggestion. I just wonder if people will say, “Well, she was anti-lockdown to begin with. She’s biased.” I was thinking, would somebody like Steven Pinker do it? I suppose the left might dismiss him, but certainly he’s a liberal.

Joe Nocera: That’s pretty interesting. That’s a pretty interesting thought, yeah.

John Tierney: You need somebody outside the public health establishment who knows numbers. Economists did some of the better work on this.

Joe Nocera: Yes, they did.

John Tierney: Because they actually were looking at numbers and trends.

Joe Nocera: They did the best data on excess mortality.

John Tierney: Yeah, definitely. That was something that just got ignored throughout. Well, I hope you’re right about us not repeating this, but I guess my personal feeling is that it is hard to imagine. I mean, the Biden administration would never, I think, appoint a Covid commission. They have no interest. I guess I think that if DeSantis won or if the Republicans got the Senate and Rand Paul was the head of that committee, they would do something. As you say, they probably would just get dismissed as partisan. Well, at least we have smart people like you writing books.

Joe Nocera: Oh, thank you.

John Tierney: I hope that this one really makes an impact with people who’ve been trying to ignore these lessons. We’re out of time now, but I urge listeners to read more about this in Joe’s book, The Big Fail: What the Pandemic Revealed About Who America Protects and Who It Leaves Behind. You can read my review of the book at www.city-journal.org, and you can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal, and on Instagram @cityjournal_ mi. As usual, if you like what you’ve heard on this 10 Blocks, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Joe, thanks for a great discussion and a great book.

Joe Nocera: John, thank you so much. I so appreciate being here.

Photo by Ryan Faas/iStock

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