What we did didn't work. Let's learn from that.
We were swindled, fooled, bamboozled, and lied to during the pandemic. The public-health establishment misled the American people about the value of masking, closures, and social distancing. No one has accepted blame. Understanding how badly we failed is not only an inevitable part of the “told you so” process, but, more importantly, a lesson for next time. Just ask the Swedes.
Let’s unpack it.
The key element of misdirection in the American swindle was case counts, those running numbers on screens telling us how many Americans had tested positive for Covid. If you’re curious, it looks like some 60 percent of us have had Covid at some point, with most of us experiencing mild or no symptoms.
How high the case numbers went in your neck of the woods depended a lot on the amount of testing taking place. More testing meant more “cases.” For me, when I had a very mild set of symptoms all clearly in line with Covid, I never even bothered to test. Like most people, I just sat around the house for a few days until I got better. My spouse, who had no symptoms, never got tested, either. Neither of us were included in the ever-growing case counts that dominated the headlines for years.
Not that it matters. The case count tells us very little. Hospitalization totals are useful for managing caseload, but often are indicative of protocols like testing patients upon entry to the hospital. Many hospital treatments changed, too. Initially, many Covid-positive people were hospitalized and put on respirators. Before long, many doctors realized infections associated with long-term respirator use were killing people, too.
Eventually, hospitalization numbers went down. That stat, too, only told you so much. Since Covid proved fatal primarily to the elderly, many hospitalizations began with something else only to end with Covid. My own father suffered a blinding, massive stroke, went into hospital, and caught Covid there, to officially die of respiratory failure. I’m not sure if he counted as a Covid death or not.
Now the bad news: Modern medicine cannot cure death. Everybody dies. Most Americans who don’t die earlier in life in accidents typically die after the age of 77. In 2020, heart disease and cancer each killed about double the number of people that Covid did.
The only statistic that really matters then when talking about the roughly two years of the pandemic is “excess deaths,” deaths beyond the usual couple of million that occur every year.
Sweden did very little in terms of halting work and school, or forcing masking and social distancing. The U.S. did quite a bit more. The U.S. states known for their Covid “efforts,” particularly New York, had excess deaths worse than or similar to do-little Florida. These states expended an awful lot of effort and angst, and suffered great collateral damage (addiction, suicide, unemployment, social unrest, failing grades), for very little benefit.
And we were lied to by the Covidians. In July 2020, the New York Timesstated Sweden’s “decision to carry on in the face of the pandemic has yielded a surge of deaths without sparing its economy from damage. Sweden’s grim result—more death, and nearly equal economic damage—suggests that the supposed choice between lives and paychecks is a false one: failure to impose social distancing can cost lives and jobs at the same time.”
Tsk, tsk, said the media. And they’re still saying it. Despite Florida having 148 excess deaths per 100,000 to New York’s 248, Politico‘s May 1, 2022, headline read: “Florida lost 70,000 people to Covid. It’s still not prepared for the next wave.”
Much as Florida did, Sweden allowed restaurants, gyms, shops, and most schools to stay open. People went to work; some voluntarily masked, some not. Their decision stood in stark contrast to the U.S., where, by April 2020, the CDC recommended draconian lockdowns, throwing millions out of work and school.
The U.S. is the only major Western nation that still demands a negative Covid test for entry, including for its own citizens. The U.S. is the only nation where every Covid therapeutic, such as new anti-viral drugs that lessen the severity of a positive case, is filtered through the lens of partisan politics.
In addition to leaving our economy in shambles, America’s Covid strategy apparently did not consider the age disparity in excess deaths. Globally, most Covid deaths occured among persons age 77 and older. People exposed to Covid in their 70s have twice the mortality rate of those exposed in their 60s, and 3,000 times that of Covid-exposed children. But everyone was made to wear a mask as though everyone were at equal risk of Covid, and without solid evidence that mask mandates significantly lower viral spread in the community.
The data were clear in China from the early days of the pandemic. Death rates for elderly Chinese in the early days of the pandemic, who were not social distancing, and elderly Americans, who were social distancing, were very similar. Swedish intensive-care-admission rates showed sharp declines after early pandemic peaks despite a lack of state-imposed shutdowns.
Age-specific solutions were needed for a virus with age-specific effects. We ignored or overlooked the data. We are paying for that mistake now. Savings lives or saving the economy? Both, please. Ask the Swedes.
America’s pandemic response was wrong across the board. Its failure is attributable in part to red-blue politics and a pathetic desire for control by Democratic governors.
It was also exacerbated by Americans’ underlying health, which is worse than most other developed countries. Our underlying health woes are exacerbated by income inequality and high rates of poverty, and maddening levels of obesity, diabetes, and “deaths of despair,” especially among the underclass. Black Americans were hit harder by Covid than white Americans. The poor were hit harder than the well-to-do.
Whatever we did, whether we masked or locked down or stayed open and maskless, we still would have suffered because of these underlying issues. Fixing the next pandemic means fixing America first.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.