A Brief History of Lockdowns: Part I
As many of our countries contemplate another round of closures, a look at how we got here.
In February 2020, medical bureaucrats, journalists and politicians across the West were in agreement: Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, posed a minor threat. Corona alarmism was the province of internet conspiracy theorists and anonymous Twitter accounts. Then, beginning very precisely on 8 March, opinion shifted, and our leaders decided one after the other that Corona is among the greatest threats facing mankind. Why and how they reversed their views, is a question that has hardly been explored. It can’t be the changing science: Research does not accumulate in the space of days. Nor does new, direct experience with the virus seem a likely answer: Western outbreaks were in their infancy when this seismic realignment began.
The webzine Vox is an important barometer of American elite opinion, and their archives are one way to understand how the Corona narrative developed in the earliest months of 2020. Vox writers had almost no interest in the virus at first. In January they ran only 10 articles with the Coronavirus tag; in February, it was 25. Then in March, everything changed, as Vox posted 453 pieces on the pandemic, followed by an all-time high of 525 in April. By this time, the pandemic had become an obsessive theme in American politics and central to establishment media narratives against Donald Trump.
The press had spent a good part of 2019 reporting favourably on the democracy protests in Hong Kong, and an anti-China seam runs through the earliest Vox coverage. How Hong Kong’s protests are shaping the response to the coronavirus is one early headline; Corona hid the severity of its coronavirus outbreak and muzzled whistleblowers – because it can is another. On 6 February, Vox seems hardly concerned that Corona might have a “case fatality rate ... around 2 percent”; an expert explains that “deaths still appear to be in people who are at risk of dying of other respiratory diseases.” On 18 February, Vox assures its readers that they’re much more likely to get the flu than Corona: “While nearly 2,000 people have died in this outbreak so far, seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 650,000 people annually.”
Finally, on 27 February – as the situation in Italy seems to be deteriorating – Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias contributes Vox’s first serious piece on Corona. Yglesias later admitted he was personally worried in February, but that he kept his views on the necessity of masks to himself, because mainstream opinion held otherwise. Here, Yglesias describes two strategies for dealing with the virus. There is “containment,” where officials try to stop infections outright. This can only work when there are a very few cases, and if it fails, you are left with “mitigation,” where you must settle for slowing the spread to keep hospitals at capacity. Mitigation, Yglesias says, consists of “social distancing,” namely, “postponing or cancelling mass gatherings ... closing schools ... or encouraging telework.” These things amount to “flattening the curve.”
By today’s standards, Yglesias’s write-up seems eminently sane. Nowhere does he describe or recommend lockdowns, contact tracing or mass testing. That’s because all of these measures fall under the rubric of containment. In our world they have been deployed on a massive scale, in a hopeless attempt to contain and perhaps even eradicate a virus that has spread across nations and continents. Before 2020, nobody even dreamed of attempting mass containment like this, and at the end of February, it’s clear Yglesias has no idea it’s a possibility. And so, as Corona draws ever nearer through early March, Vox remains firmly within the mitigationist frame. On 3 March, they ask What is “social distancing,” and how can it slow the coronavirus outbreak? On 4 March, Vox reports on Italian school closures as a mitigationist measure, quoting an Italian official explaining that “we need to avoid a big wave of cases.” On 5 March, they say that face masks are useless and denounce xenophobia.
This brings us to our next crucial article, from 6 March, by Brian Resnick. We are now on the verge of the first western lockdowns in Italy. Resnick explains that Corona is “hard to contain, since it’s possible to spread” it “before showing any symptoms.” Curve flattening is again a theme: “The risk is high, and we may not be able to contain the virus. But we do have tools to slow it down.” Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch makes an appearance to suggest herd immunity might be achieved at only 50% infected. It’s also acknowledged that even mitigation can inflict “collateral damage.” Resnick restates standard Vox anxieties about “groups that are unfairly targeted and stereotyped as being disease carriers”; he also contemplates cancelling events, “telework” and even targeted protection of the vulnerable as measures that might soften the blow. While all these policies are cast within the mitigation framework, containment looms ominously at the margins: “New cases in China are now declining thanks to the government’s dramatic measures to contain the virus,” Resnick writes. Apparently oblivious to strict stay-at-home orders that had been imposed throughout Hubei, he says these measures consist “mainly” of “case finding, contact tracing, and suspension of public gatherings.” Seasonal effects, now totally banished from respectable thought, are still permitted at this early moment, and Resnick hopes that “Covid-19 naturally stops spreading as fast during the summer.”
As Italy announces the first western lockdown, Vox seems confused. Having no conception of mass containment or its purposes, they run a strange 9 March headline announcing that Italy has been placed under “travel restrictions.” Only on the 10th, as the population-wide quarantine is extended to all of Italy, are Vox able to call what is happening there a lockdown. Even so, they remain puzzled, erroneously explaining that lockdowns are about “slowing” the spread, rather than stopping it. They want to know if America could use lockdowns too, but they also seem uncertain that lockdowns work. They may have only bought Wuhan a few days, and they have steep costs, including “psychological trauma.” The expense China incurred with their Hubei quarantine “will continue to be incurred for decades to come.”
On 12 March, Vox forgets this brief moment of anxiety and returns to prior tropes, with a piece debunking alarmist rumours about Corona. The only notable change is a shift in tone towards China. Just a month earlier, Vox had been eager to accuse China of lying about the virus, whereas here they denounce “claims about the Wuhan lab” as “a dangerous conspiracy theory.” The key to beating the virus is adopting the right mitigation strategies; the US must “test more people with symptoms, inform the public about the risk, isolate the sick, and institute social distancing measures like cancelling events.” Pharmaceutical treatments, today ignored and even mocked by the press, are still worth pondering: Vox wonders about how we might medicate for cytokine storms, which they presume caused much of the youth mortality in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Here and there the alarmist narrative breaks through. On 13 March, Vox fears that Italy’s coronavirus crisis could be America’s and clarifies that Covid 19 is not the flu. It’s worse. The next day, though, they’re worrying once again about xenophobia.
Corona alarmism doesn’t consistently colour Vox’s commentary until the end of March, as Covid deaths in America approach their first-wave peak. A 29 March article, on 4 lessons the US should learn from Italy’s coronavirus mistakes, signals the new mood: “First and foremost, the US has to recognize the seriousness of the situation.” People who are “skeptical of the Covid-19 threat” are “dealing in the past. The coronavirus spreads stealthily, with those who contract it not showing symptoms for days.” It has become Italy’s “greatest crisis since World War II”; the fault is laid at the feet of “a halting and inconsistent response from government officials” who “were slow to implement strict social distancing measures.” Scepticism of the Corona threat is also blamed. We are told, hilariously, of “one ominous episode” in which “a group of politicians engaged in deliberate handshakes even after the Covid-19 risks were known – and one of them was diagnosed with the infection a week later.” The impetus for this write-up, bizarrely, turns out to be an alarmist piece published by three epidemiologically unqualified “business” authors in the Harvard Business Review.
It is strange but true: Vox, normally at the vanguard of western opinion-making, is behind the curve when it comes to Corona. The distinction between mitigation and containment escapes them until very late. When they finally do come to terms with the gathering hysteria, they seem uncertain of the reasons for it. In this, Vox is typical of the media more generally. Reporters are now among the foremost preachers of Corona alarmism, but in the beginning they were followers. Wherever the epicentre of Corona concern is to be sought, it’s not with the press.
The World Health Organisation, an agency of the United Nations which “mostly tries to regulate health security by specifying how domestic laws, institutions and processes should operate”, spent most of January 2020 confused and conflicted about Corona. Chinese health authorities formally recognised human-to-human transmission only on the 21st, ahead of a WHO meeting the next day, where the body controversially elected not to declare Corona an international emergency. WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted that Corona was as yet only “an emergency in China” and pleaded very strangely that there was “‘no evidence’ of human-to-human transmission outside China.”
China locked down Hubei the very next day. Press reports at the time described an important division within the WHO, with Corona alarmists outvoted by a more sanguine faction, who believed China could control the outbreak. China had presumably sold the WHO on their mass containment plans, and the body agreed to downplay the threat internationally. On 28 January, the WHO even rated the virus as a “moderate” risk. There was an outcry; Tedros emended the assessment to “high” and said there had been an “error”. As the WHO’s continued praise for China drew criticism, Tedros doubled down and said he would “praise China again and again” because “its actions actually helped in reducing the spread of coronavirus to other countries.” When asked to comment on the Chinese lockdown, Tedros was circumspect: “China has taken measures which it believes will be effective. But we hope from our side that they’re both effective and short in duration.” That same day, Gaudean Galea, leader of a WHO team in China, took very much the same line:
[T]rying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science. It has not been tried before as a public health measure, so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work. ... We will note carefully to what extent it is maintained and how long it can take. There are pros and cons ... Such a decision obviously has social and economic impacts that are considerable.
The WHO backpedalled just a week later, declaring Corona a Public Health Emergency of International Concern” on 30 January. At the same time, they told the press they were preparing a “WHO-led mission” to China to study the outbreak. This soon became a “Joint Mission,” a junket featuring a panel of 25 international experts, who toured China from 16 to 24 February. Their investigations culminated in a Beijing press conference and a 40-page report that sealed all of our fates.
This document is ground zero for lockdowns in the West. It contains many odd moments. Its authors, for example, are not convinced that Corona is very infectious. They place the basic reproduction factor between 2 and 2.5, well below current estimates. They write that “Community transmission has been very limited,” and that the virus “is transmitted via droplets and fomites during close unprotected contact.” “Airborne spread,” today the bane of our existence, “has not been reported ... and it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission.” Aerosolised transmission, now extensively documented, is a major reason that lockdowns don’t work. The virus can spread within apartment complexes and through air ducts. Was there an attempt by the authors of the report to downplay the transmissibility of SARS-2 and portray it as the kind of virus a lockdown might be able to contain?
And then there’s the bizarre evidence that the report authors present for success of Chinese measures. In Figure 2 (p. 6) of the report, we find this graph of cases in Wuhan, by date of symptom onset. The red line (my addition) indicates the day the lockdown was imposed. Infections plainly plateau too early for the Hubei measures to be the cause.
A similar graph in Figure 3 (p. 7), which provides the same figures but for all of China, undermines their case still further. Remember, strict lockdown was imposed on Hubei alone, but here we find the same basic case pattern occurring across the whole country.
This dubious evidence is joined to overt praise for the mass containment of Hubei, in hyperbolic terms that read like Chinese state propaganda: “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” China’s policies are hailed as “a science and risk-based approach.” Whereas most of our countries love nothing so much as monotone, one-sizes-fits all mass containment, the report lauds China for deploying “Specific containment measures” that were “adjusted to the provincial, county and even community context.” The Chinese people benefit from “deep commitment ... to collective action,” and “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic.” As a result of all this boldness and vision, “China is already, and rightfully, working to bolster its economy, reopen its schools and return to a more normal semblance of its society.”
Then comes the very worst part: “China’s uncompromising and rigorous use of non-pharmaceutical measures to contain transmission ... provides vital lessons for the global response.” The authors worry only that the “global community is not yet ready” to enact “the only measures ... currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans.” Westerners were not ready for lockdowns. The only hope was to make them so.
Curtis Yarvin has pointed to reporting in STAT from 11 March, about the debate that opened up as containment advocates in the WHO urged lockdowns on national medical establishments. Mike Ryan, head of the WHO health emergencies program, complained that “we’ve had this unfortunate emergence of camps around the containment camp, the mitigation camp – different groups presenting and championing their view of the world. And frankly speaking, it’s not helpful.” Ryan demanded “an evolved approach,” one that does not “live on strategies of the past” but that “takes the learning of the previous eight to ten weeks” into account. “Eight to ten weeks” means the Chinese lockdown. The “strategies of the past” are the mitigationist thinking of western epidemiology. As Ryan said these words, the containment camp in the WHO had already won its most important victory. This came on 8 March, as Italy announced the first western lockdown in Lombardy.