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Mistakes by CDC and other 'experts' had tragic societal, economic and political consequences
By Gary Abernathy
The country will never fully recover from the bad choices
The Centers for Disease Control’s admission last week that it botched how it handled the covid pandemic merely reinforced that our national response to covid was a tragedy on at least three levels — scientifically, economically and politically.
Turns out, few really “followed the science.”
Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the CDC, said, “To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes, from testing to data to communications.” That covers just about everything.
The problem with the CDC is not that it’s an imperfect organization. The problem is that Americans were bullied and shamed into pretending it was a perfect organization. To question its conclusions and recommendations was to risk being banned from social media, being called anti-science and accused of endangering public health.
Americans must always be free to question their government, whether in the legislative branch or the health care field.
Based almost entirely on CDC guidance, the United States paid the price in at least three ways.
1. The faulty science
Shutting down the country included ordering people to stay home from work, school and other activities (even churches that continued to hold services were shamed for doing so), and ordering “non-essential” businesses to close. Most people probably agree now that the human toll of these decisions — job loss, additional drug abuse, depression, mental health issues, suicides — was a worse price to pay than just continuing business as usual — albeit with targeted closures, lockdowns and quarantines instead of the blanket ones that were ordered.
There was no escaping the pandemic without illness and fatalities, and claiming that such things could have either been mitigated or worsened by this action or that is only a theoretical exercise. Despite what people want to believe, there was no man-made course of action that would have spared us the heartbreak that such things bring. What we do know is that the additional misery this country endured as the result of our bad decisions could have been avoided. Heart attack deaths matter, too. Overdose deaths matter. Cancer deaths matter. Our exaggerated response to covid made it more difficult for people to be diagnosed and treated for all those things.
Millions of Americans recognized this, and many of us spoke out against the one-size-fits-all approach that was implemented. In mid-March of 2020, I wrote a Washington Post column questioning the official national response:
There is no doubt that prohibiting large gatherings will save lives, because keeping people apart is the way to combat communicable disease. The question Americans must always wrestle with is whether the benefits are worth the freedoms we surrender in the process. And it is not irresponsible to ask that question. In America, it would be irresponsible not to ask it.
Freedom is always a trade-off with safety and security. For instance, highway officials know that for every five miles per hour that the speed limit is increased, a certain number of additional fatalities occur. But the benefit of getting places faster has often been deemed an appropriate trade-off for the lives it will cost.
While many applaud the government’s restrictions on our freedoms now, there are those who worry more about unintended consequences. At an emergency management meeting I attended here Monday after a possible coronavirus case was identified, law enforcement was advised to be ready for more domestic altercations. First responders I spoke with later wondered how many more stress-related conditions hospitals would see, including coronary cases…
…Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases… said, “I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting.” He might be right; I am, of course, not the expert he is. But like any American, I know how to freely assess and live with risk as I go about my daily life. I expect I am not alone among my fellow citizens in my concern that those personal choices are being taken from me —and how many more might be taken in the days and weeks to come.
In other words, the science that was followed was strictly focused on the pandemic. The science that was ignored was on the even worse physical and mental health ramifications of that myopic focus, as well as trampling on the Constitution in the name of “health and safety.”
The promises that were made about the vaccines have been upended and revised countless times. First, the effectiveness of “herd immunity” was wrongly downplayed. Then, we were told that vaccines would protect us from the virus and prevent it from being spread by those vaccinated. Then we were told that, well, there would be break-through cases, and it is, after all, possible to infect others anyway. Finally, we were told that while we all might get covid anyway, the vaccines would prevent serious illness or death.
Meanwhile, countless Americans who declined to be vaccinated lost their jobs and were otherwise made to feel like outcasts. There were even suggestions that the non-vaccinated should be denied medical care for other health issues. Follow the science?
2. The social and economic fallout
In another column a few days later, after Congress passed a $2 trillion pandemic bailout, I noted our rapid, final descent into socialism.
We have crossed the Rubicon. When historians record the moment that the U.S. economy transitioned from free-market capitalism to democratic socialism, they will point to this week. Watching it all unfold has been like witnessing a plane crash in slow motion. When the smoke clears, what’s left will be a feeble relic of the United States we once knew.
For months, the rising influence of big-government liberals such as Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has caused many Democrats to worry that their nominee would be vulnerable to the label “socialist.” They should no longer be concerned. We are all socialists now.
And the following month, in April of 2020, I wrote about the blowback that came to me and everyone else suggesting we were on the wrong track.
Those of us who disagree with responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic by intentionally crashing our national economy — necessitating a $2 trillion (so far) rescue/bailout/stimulus (take your pick) — are coldhearted lovers of money over human lives, according to many columnists, commentators and others.
Such accusations suggest a lack of understanding about the role a strong economy plays in our health and well-being. Numerous studies have found that illness and early deaths resulting from drug abuse, alcoholism, smoking and mental health problems — including suicides — increase with unemployment. Children of parents who lose jobs can suffer permanent damage. The latest estimates predict 47 million could become jobless, equaling 32 percent unemployment. Let that sink in.
I don’t point out those articles to say “I told you so.” If you thought I was wrong then, you may still think I’m wrong now. I point them out to remind everyone that anyone who suggested that the CDC could be wrong — just as others like Fauci could be wrong — were subjected to ridicule and demands that we be silenced. Just check out the comments following any of the columns above.
Social media companies began to ban — or label as “misleading” or “false” — posts that contradicted official agencies like the CDC or the World Health Organization. One of the worst things that happened during the pandemic — and in some cases is still happening — was not health related. It was the effort to crush alternative viewpoints, or at the very least to shame people into falling in line.
Economically, our terrible and irresponsible response to covid forever changed the U.S. economy. It is not an exaggeration to say that, using the pandemic as justification, we went from free market capitalism to government-manipulated socialism. The strings attached to the trillions in government “covid” spending meant that private businesses big and small were suddenly faced with even more bureaucratic rules and red tape than ever before.
People say, “This isn’t socialism. Socialism is when the government owns the businesses and the means of production.” That is essentially what has happened. When the government pours trillions of dollars (tax dollars that don’t really exist in this case) into private businesses and other organizations, the rules and regulations that come with it in essence put the government in control of those businesses, making it a de facto owner. When government “rescues” society from a problem it essentially created in the first place — in this case through lockdowns, quarantines and shutdowns — by flooding the country with government money and its accompanying bureaucracy, it has basically implemented a form of socialism that is only one small step away from the official, full-blown version.
3. The election impact
The pandemic was also used — in following CDC directives — to justify drastically altering the means of conducting the 2020 election. The expansion of early in-person voting, the practice of mailing ballots to every voter, the last-minute state-by-state rule changes to allow more voting by mail, the establishment of “drop boxes,” eliminating some polling places to consolidate them into fewer locations and other changes fundamentally altered the election process.
It was clear to many at the time, and has become clearer for almost everyone since then, that most of this was unnecessary, based on the CDC’s admissions that it made “some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes, from testing to data to communications,” as Walensky says now. Those changes dramatically altered the election landscape — rather than the pandemic shrinking the number of voters, as would be logical, it actually resulted in more votes cast than any time in history. The states being unprepared to handle those votes led to the chaos and suspicions that followed.
Such high voter participation is a good thing, some will claim. In fact, it’s not. Making it so easy to vote as to be almost unavoidable is not good for society. It leads to people voting who otherwise have no interest in doing so, because they are typically too apathetic to care or know what they’re voting on. In a Post column last year responding to claims that some states were trying to make voting more difficult, I made that point.
Our politics are less about achieving good government and more about winning and keeping power through the machinations of the cleverest campaign gurus. The successful ones are feted by glowing reviews and rewarded with the golden tickets of book deals and television gigs. “We knew we had to maximize turnout in that part of the state” is a typical post-election boast, complete with self-congratulatory descriptions of how the miracle was achieved. It’s understandable — there are no prizes to be won by sitting back and waiting to see who votes on their own initiative.
How much better would our government be if elections were decided by voters participating only because of their own sense of duty and patriotism, not because they were harassed by partisan operatives, or because the government ordered more drop boxes conveniently placed or millions of ballots mailed directly to homes?
Ideally, every American would be so enthusiastic as to line up at the polls days in advance, as they would for free concert tickets or when Walmart opens its doors for Black Friday. But what really matters is that every eligible citizen who wants to vote is able to cast a ballot — yes, without any unfair impediment, but it’s also okay if some planning and effort is required. Leaving everyone else to the comfort of their indifference would be fine, even if it made get-out-the-vote programs obsolete, and “suppression” an incessant but unfounded allegation.
Further, the pandemic was effectively weaponized as a political issue. Two things dramatically impacted then-President Donald Trump — the decision to shut down the economy and criticism of his response to the pandemic itself.
Tremendous criticism from his opponents in both politics and the media, and pressure from “health experts,” eventually led to Trump agreeing to shut the economy down, just as governors were folding on the state level in too many cases. Trump’s adversaries knew well that a strong, booming economy was Trump’s ticket to re-election. When it was artificially crashed, Trump’s main claim to success crashed with it.
Trump was also unfairly raked over the coals for his response to the pandemic. Fauci said that Trump was listening to him and agreeing to the recommendations from him and other experts on how to combat the pandemic. But that wasn’t the preferred media narrative. For example, Trump, to this day, is accused of recommending that people inject themselves with bleach — a ludicrous claim that has been shot down by fact checkers, including PolitiFact. But reporters and columnists are still allowed to say that Trump said such a thing.
Trump has admitted that at first he tried to downplay the pandemic, a decision that many people in Trump’s position would have made to avoid unnecessary panic. In retrospect, it can be argued that he should have continued to downplay it. What we know now about the ineffectiveness of the “six-foot rule,” the kinds of masks Americans were being told to wear, etc. supports the argument that the illnesses and deaths that have occurred (in part due to covid, but also due to other “co-morbidity” factors) may well have occurred anyway — without shutting down the economy, spending trillions and trillions of dollars that don’t exist, and unnecessarily impeding the freedoms of all Americans.
In fact, Trump should to this day be cheered for devoting the resources necessary — along with his personal advocacy — for Operation Warp Speed, which resulted in a vaccine being rushed to completion faster than at any time in history, and faster than any experts said was possible. Slim chance of that ever happening. (And yes, Pfizer benefited from, and was motivated by, Operation Warp Speed, despite what some claim.)
If there’s anything good that comes from the CDC’s admission that it dropped the ball, it could be that real-time criticism of health professionals and the science they claim to be certain about is once again fair game. Shutting down criticism of government officials, including health experts, is more dangerous than any disease could ever be.
On a lighter endnote, Fauci has now made official his intention to step down from his government post by December. Remember when he said that attacking him was like attacking science? I had to appreciate this meme making the rounds this week.
Liz Cheney gets what she wants: a new ‘anti-Trump’ career
To recap, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming voted to impeach former President Donald Trump, joined with Democrats on the highly politicized Jan. 6 select committee, pronounced the Republican Party “very sick,” and then asked Republicans to vote for her in last week’s Wyoming GOP primary.
Predictably, she went down to a resounding defeat, and then held a press conference to pretend it was a victory. In my Post column, I noted:
Cheney’s defeat will temporarily magnify her martyrdom, but everyone will soon remember that while today she’s defining patriotism as opposing Trump, during a brief 2013 Senate campaign she insisted that “patriotism” was “obstructing President [Barack] Obama’s policies and his agenda.” Patriotism is apparently a moving target…
…Cheney will assuredly wear her defeat as a badge of honor, a testament to putting country first in ways that lesser Wyoming Republicans did not have the character to emulate. It’s a popular narrative trotted out about Cheney, her Jan. 6 committee colleague Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and any other Republican willing to chastise not just Trump but their party in general.
The jilted lovers of the GOP operate under the delusion that Republicans have just temporarily lost their way, and, once they realize their folly, will find their way home. But while the GOP fell hard for Trump in 2016, its lukewarm response to John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 demonstrated that when it came to traditional suitors, the bloom was already off the rose.
I also pointed out that it would be good for the country if critics would quit lecturing the Republican Party for not being the party they wish it was (but still didn’t like when it was that party, either) and accept it for the new, populist, Trumpism GOP that it has become — even if it ought to move forward without Trump himself at the helm.
I appreciated the chance to be part of several panels and programs focusing on Cheney and the direction of the GOP. One of them was a Washington Post “Twitter Live” discussion with fellow columnists Eugene Robinson, Dana Milbank and Henry Olsen, moderated by James Hohmann. It was archived for playback. Check it out.
I also enjoyed discussing the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago on Inside California Politics, which airs in several California markets.
And even though Hoppy Kercheval was enjoying a few days off, his fill-in, Dave Wilson, invited me on to talk about the status of the GOP.
And one of the more comprehensive programs was NPR’s “On Point,” originating from Boston, where I joined panelists for an hour-long show focusing more on the Ohio Senate race between J.D. Vance and Tim Ryan, and figuring out what it all means for Ohio and the nation. Host Meghan Chakrabarti put together an intelligent examination. Also on the program were reporters Haley BeMiller and Jack Beatty.
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