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A Brief History of Lockdowns: Part II
As many of our countries threaten another round of closures, a look at how we got here.
Continued from Part I.
Mass containment cannot be enacted at the whims of medical bureaucrats. Not even in China. Nationwide house arrest requires vast popular support, and so it is unsurprising to find that lockdowns and Corona alarmism travel together.
In late January, as the WHO pondered whether to declare a public health emergency, social media filled with videos of people collapsing in the streets of Wuhan. In a curious pattern that we’ll see repeated over and over, these videos were immediately picked up by the press. The world has now witnessed almost 250 million official Corona infections. Nowhere in the West has anyone experienced sudden, incapacitating Covid symptoms like these. What is more, all of these videos appeared on or just after 23 January, the exact day that the Chinese locked down Hubei province.
These videos were all fake. They strike us as farcical today, because we have been sold a very different Corona mythology. Our stories are more about how Corona will kill our grandparents, overwhelm our hospitals, reinfect the recovered, and cripple the healthy. They are part of a much different information campaign, and yet they belong to the same general playbook: First, a government opts into mass containment. Then, alarming information fills the airwaves to justify the restrictions.
In the days following 8 March, Europe and North America were flooded with a coordinated pro-lockdown messaging campaign that had two purposes: It had to provide political cover domestically for the Italian government’s population-wide quarantine; and it had to further promote the lockdown path of China and Italy to other nations.
The lockdown was only a few days old in Italy, when the Chinese pro-lockdown propaganda campaign documented by Michael Senger began raining hysteria upon Italian social media. “From March 11 to 23,” Senger writes, “roughly 46% of tweets with the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China, go Italy) and 37% of those with the hashtag #grazieCina (thank you China) came from bots.” Other human-managed accounts began at the same time to construct the appearance of widespread alarm over the threat posed by Corona, and massive popular support for draconian measures against it.
A day before this Twitter campaign started, on 10 March, a Bay Area thinkfluencer named Tomas Pueyo posted an article full of lockdown hysteria to Medium. Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now went viral immediately. Within days it had achieved over 40 million views. It is an unremarkable rehash of the reasoning that underpins the WHO’s February report, spelled out as simply as possible for a broad audience. Its central argument is that countries with apparently worse outbreaks, such as China or Italy, are merely further ahead of other nations on the same curve: “If you want to understand what will happen, or how to prevent it, you need to look at the cases that have already gone through this: China, Eastern countries with SARS experience, and Italy.” Nine days later, Pueyo posted a follow-up essay, The Hammer and the Dance, which was read almost as widely. It recommends lockdowns (the hammer), followed by other measures like contact tracing (the dance), to “buy us time” and contain Corona until better options become available. This time, Pueyo was popularising Neil Ferguson’s notorious Imperial College modelling study of 16 March.
Pueyo’s pieces would go on to receive endorsements from medical bureaucrats far and wide. His inaugural write-up was translated into 40 languages, and is one of only two citations in a widely discussed letter that 500 academics sent to the British government demanding “stronger measures” on 14 March. “The Hammer and the Dance” came to be earnestly studied by politicians and planners all over the world. Both pieces repackage novel, disturbing policy recommendations from the public health bureaucracy, as dramatic, oversimplified sciencey essays, clad in the trappings of viral internet counterculture. They were shared informally via blogs and email; they conferred on early readers, including many powerful people, the sense of being at the cutting edge of thought and theory.
Who is this Tomas Pueyo, whose sophisticated propaganda helped sway the international lockdown debate? Before Corona, he was interested in “storytelling.” He wrote a book in 2017 on the narrative structure of Star Wars. That same year he gave a bizarre TEDx talk about Why Stories Captivate. He claims to run the homework aggregation site Course Hero.
While millions read Pueyo’s mass containment manifestos, press reports on conditions in northern Italy changed dramatically in tone. Before the lockdown of Lombardy, sporadic articles characterised the Italian health system as “strained” (2 March) or noted that some Italian hospitals had set up triage tents to sort Corona patients (4 March). Beginning on 7 March, however, the press adopted a new focus on the dramatic experiences of front-line health professionals and the grim prospect that healthcare would have to be rationed, and some patients left to die.
This shift appears to have its origins in a very small number of social media posts. By far the most important is an emotional Facebook essay from 7 March by a Bergamo physician named Daniele Macchini, detailing his experiences treating Corona patients. Italy’s largest newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, printed Macchini’s story verbatim on their website, with no additional reporting, the very evening after he posted it. A doctor named Silvia Stringhini provided a viral English translation on Twitter two days later, on 9 March. These posts became the basis for countless news stories in multiple European languages, within days (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for just a few).
The details of Macchini’s story are therefore important. Before Corona came to Italy, his Facebook page had been inactive for months. It came alive exactly on 24 February, when he forwarded a public service announcement from a colleague about why Corona is worse than the flu. This is the precise day that the WHO Joint Mission gave their Beijing press conference endorsing containment, and that (as we’ll see below) Italy reorganised its Corona response. Macchini’s timely forward explains that Corona is far more infectious than influenza, and that without drastic measures, too many will be infected at once and overwhelm Italian hospitals. On 4 March, Macchini forwards another colleague’s “clinical impressions” of Corona patients, complete with treatment advice. This includes an exhortation not to hesitate ventilating severe Corona cases, and to do so at high positive end-expiratory pressures. Macchini’s viral post from 7 March merely combines themes from these prior messages with his own feelings of exhaustion and urgency. He describes how his hospital was reorganised to accept an influx of Corona patients, and reports that they have indeed been striving around the clock to treat many elderly Italians suffering from viral pneumonia. He explains at length why Corona is not the flu, and he says that “ventilators have become like gold.” On the eve of the 8 March lockdown announcement, he exhorts his readers to “be patient, even if you cannot go to the theatre, the museums or the gym. Try to have pity for all the old people you could kill.”
While Macchini’s Facebook essay is surely the most significant, a second social media post also circulated widely, particularly in the Anglosphere. On 9 March, a Twitter account in the name of a London anaesthetist named Jason Van Schoor posted a wildly popular thread along the same lines as Macchini. Van Schoor claimed to be relaying the experiences “of a well respected friend and intensivist/A&E consultant who is currently in northern Italy.” We are to believe that this person had gotten in touch with Van Schoor “to give ... a quick personal update about what is happening in Italy, and also give some quick advice about what you should do.”
Van Schoor appears to be a real doctor, and there’s no doubt that conditions in Lombard hospitals were rough in March. Why reports on these circumstances had to come at second hand, in perfect coordination with the 8 March propaganda push, is another matter entirely. “We’ve stopped all routine, all ORs have been converted to ITUs and they are now diverting or not treating all other emergencies like trauma or strokes,” Van Schoor’s thread reads. “There are hundreds of pts with severe resp failure and many of them do not have access to anything above a reservoir mask.” Anybody “above 65 or younger with comorbidities” is “not even assessed by ITU.” The anonymous doctor has friends who are “in tears because they see people dying in front of them and they c[a]n only offer some oxygen.”
Van Schoor’s friend claims that your hospitals, too, will be overwhelmed according to a “pattern” that is “the same everywhere.” At first you will have “a few positive cases,” but people will “still hang out in groups, everyone says not to panick.” Then, you will be flooded with “Tons of patients with moderate resp failure,” who will steadily deteriorate, all while “Staff gets sick so it gets difficult to cover for shifts, mortality spikes also from all other causes that can’t be treated properly.” Even though Van Schoor’s friend supposedly got in touch with him to provide treatment advice, he does no such thing, bizarrely explaining that “Everything about how to treat them is online.” He only message is political. We should “not be afraid of massively strict measures to keep people safe.” Governments need to impose these “strict measures,” and if they don’t, your loved ones will be denied healthcare. He urges us not to be like those people who say “that’s bad dude and then go out for dinner.” The parallels to Macchini’s essay are obvious. Van Schoor’s thread went up the evening after Stringhini translated Macchini’s remarks on Twitter, and both threads are formatted much the same way.
At least one journalist asked to be put in touch with the Italian doctor experiencing these terrible conditions. Van Schoor never replied publicly; if there ever was an article with more details from the source, I’ve not been able to find it. A sceptical reader asked for evidence, and got pictures of a lot of medical equipment in one room and another room without much medical equipment in it. “These are photos of ORs being cleared in Bergamo,” Van Schoor explained. Thereafter the account went almost totally silent. (Since 10 March it has tweeted only four times.) Separate reporting from the same time, while confirming rough conditions in Lombard hospitals, appears not to substantiate the more extreme details of Van Schoor’s report. Its message was nevertheless amplified by high-circulation British tabloids like The Daily Mail and Metro.
Reading these stories today, it is the ventilators that stand out above all. Up to this point, they had been a side theme in the media; most of the early, pre-Macchini stories surrounded a WHO situation report from 1 March encouraging countries to increase their ventilator supplies. Macchini’s essay made the ventilators a common trope, and the myth of the ventilator bottleneck soon was taken up everywhere. One of the earliest adopters was the World Economic Forum; they linked to both Macchini’s and Van Schoor’s accounts in a 9 March post proclaiming that Every ventilator becomes like gold.
The guidance to ventilate severe Covid patients early, and at high pressures, was pushed from the very beginning by Chinese medical advisers; we’ve seen that Macchini himself knew this advice and repeated it. The ventilator bottleneck is one reason that the UK abandoned mitigation in favour of mass containment. They had planned for a pandemic flu and failed to consider the increased ventilation requirements of Corona patients. In truth, Corona patients were being excessively ventilated, and the myth of the ventilator bottleneck collapsed in the first half of April, as doctors realised the practice was killing their patients. Once countries opt in to mass containment, though, they can never opt out. Nobody got to go back to mitigation.
In other corners of Twitter and the American blogosphere, the mitigationist slogan that we must “flatten the curve” became overtaken by exhortations to “crush the curve” via lockdowns and other mass containment policies. “Crush the Curve” is the slogan of advocacy groups (for example in Idaho and Utah), the title of a 23 April editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine by medical bureaucrat Harvey Fineberg, and a Twitter hashtag current to this day. This signal of unflinching commitment to lockdowns and other extreme containment measures originated with a TakiMag column Steve Sailer published on 10 March. There, Sailer sources the idea of curve-crushing to Gregory Cochran, co-author (with Henry Harpending) of The 10,000 Year Explosion, and occasional blogger. Sailer writes that Cochran introduced him to the idea of curve-crushing “on Monday,” that is to say on 9 March, precisely as the Corona messaging storm was rolled out. “Cochran had long been advocating flattening the curve as the proper target, but he realized ... this is the wrong idea,” Sailer writes.
Because containment policies have no basis in observation or evidence, they must be accompanied always and everywhere by abstract mathematical models. Thus the early thoughts of Cochran and Sailer were informed by the impromptu epidemiological models of one of their blog commenters. These efforts were soon overtaken by heavyweights like Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College, who rushed to assemble mathematical models to prove mass containment could work. Ferguson almost surely began work on the first, most influential and now thoroughly discredited Imperial College model during the WHO’s Joint Mission in mid- to late-February. It was published on 16 March, and popularised within days, as we have seen, by Pueyo, who was conduit through which Ferguson’s alarmism reached governments beyond the United Kingdom. Pandemic models are country-specific, depending as they do upon on the healthcare resources, managerial proclivities, and political possibilities present in the modelled jurisdiction. Pueyo’s role was not only to simplify and popularise Ferguson’s analysis, but also to extract his vision from the specific context of the United Kingdom and present it as the correct course of action to countries everywhere. Seized by modelling envy, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer convened a team in the days after 16 March to throw together an anonymous pseudoscience study full of dire predictions similar to those in Ferguson’s paper. This was then used behind the scenes to win support for longer and more extreme containment among politicians and journalists.
The most significant element of this messaging campaign, is a clear effort to take Corona’s seasonality off the table. This effort had both a Chinese and a western end, reminiscent of the panic videos from January and their counterpart ventilator mythology from March. By mid-February, Hubei had endured three weeks of lockdown, and new Corona infections were in decline. Yet the middle of February is also past the peak of the Chinese flu season (see the second figure here). Were cases merely declining in Hubei because of the weather? Scientists in the circle of Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch threw together this co-authored pre-print from 18 February (likely begun around the 10th) that answered this question in the negative: “Changes in weather alone ... will not necessarily lead to declines in case counts without implementation of extensive public health interventions.” A fuller study, more directly relevant for the unfolding Western pandemic, ensued on 6 March. Here, Lipsitch and his colleagues argued that the first pandemic wave would be largely undeterred by summer. Lipsitch made similar statements on his blog around the same time: “Changing seasons and school vacation may help, but are unlikely to stop transmission.” Lipsitch’s decree, now totally discredited by experience, echoed around the world. Within days, Christian Drosten, director of virology at the Charité hospital in Berlin and a preeminent European Corona prophet, declared that seasonal effects would be “relatively small” and that Germany would face “a peak in cases in the period between June and August.”
Banishing Corona‘s seasonality had two consequences: It pre-emptively destroyed arguments that we should hold out for the summer, and it ensured that any decline in infections after the March lockdowns would be attributed to mass containment rather than environmental effects.
Crush-the-curve, that lockdown slogan, finally made its way into Vox on 15 April: We’re flattening the curve. Can we crush it? A month after the ideological groundwork had been laid for shutting down much of our social and economic lives, Vox writers finally grasped what containment amounts to. The article is an unsettling read. In April, it was spring weather, rather than mass containment, that was crushing the curve, but since Lipsitch had killed the idea of seasonality in early March, we had entered a strange new world. Whatever Corona did could reflect only policy and individual choice. It was moreover no longer enough to have hospitals at capacity. The goal had become as much containment as possible, up to the point of eradication. As much as you have crushed the curve, you must keep crushing it more, until you have achieved Zero Covid. Victory had become the goal, and every infection a small defeat. This is a recipe for forever lockdowns, a nightmare that we are all still living through.
The messaging campaign and corresponding shift in opinion that unfolded in the wake the Italian lockdown knocked down one national medical bureaucracy after the other. We are all footnotes to the Italian story. Only Sweden survived, and just barely. Before 8 March, WHO enthusiasm for the Chinese approach mattered very little in Germany, for example. At the end of February, Christian Drosten said he expected 60-70% of Germans to get Corona sooner or later. He explained that he only hoped to slow the rate of infections, so that hospitals could deal with the stress. He envisioned that Corona, mitigated in this way, would devolve in a few years into an ordinary “cold” that nobody would notice anymore. Two weeks later, Angela Merkel drew headlines across the world when she repeated Drosten’s statistic. German politicians no less than Vox opinion makers had no idea what was happening at first. Mass containment did not make its way into German policy until 19 March.
Although Italy was the first domino to fall, it did not lock down because things were bad. That is not why anybody ever locks down. Italy instead seems to have stumbled into the policy by accident. Health officials discovered community spread in northern Italy towards the end of February, beginning with the cluster surrounding “Patient 1” from Codogno, a 38 year-old marathoner who acquired the virus from an unknown party and finally tested positive on 20 February. As the WHO issued its endorsement of Chinese containment on the 24th, Italian health authorities were tracing Patient 1’s contacts. Everyone involved still believed they were dealing with a small, localised outbreak. This was a classic scenario for containment, and so they had no problem implementing the WHO recommendations. Walter Ricciardi, who represented Italy on the executive board of the WHO, became an important player in managing the Italian response. On 24 February, he was given official charge of international coordination in matters relating to the pandemic. Labs were organised for mass testing in northern Italy to assist in the containment operation. Thus, the two ingredients you need for forever lockdowns – mass testing and pro-containment bureaucrats – were put in place, but for local suppression.
Around 27 February, we find a curious thing: Ricciardi is complaining to journalists that Italy is conducting too many tests. He says they have tested over 11,000 people in the same week that France tested only 1,000. People without symptoms are being reported as active cases to the WHO. Other Italian medical bureaucrats explain that they were only trying to identify the hot-spots. Now that these have been found, they’ll return to more ordinary, diagnostic testing. Plainly, even Ricciardi thought that he was doing local containment of a few clusters at first. The early prototypical lockdown restrictions in the Italian “red zones” are to be seen entirely in this light. As Ricciardi realised the virus was far more widespread than assumed, it was already too late. Disease statistics are a political force unto themselves, and mass containment in Italy was a fait accompli.
The result was an unprecedented experiment, as Italy endured the first and one of the hardest European lockdowns. Chinese medical advisers arrived and complained that there were too many Italians on the streets of Rome. Infections did not begin their decline until spring. Curiously, the suppression of Corona with warmer weather is exactly what Ricciardi said would happen on 15 March. It seems he didn’t get the no-seasonality memo from Lipsitch. Other officials, of course, hastened to say Ricciardi’s hopes for an improvement with warmer weather were baseless.
Corona alarmism, rooted in a series of fantastical, ever-changing claims about the nature of the virus and the disease it causes, originated as political cover and promotion for lockdowns. Mass containment is the primary reason we were told to worry about Corona. Western public health establishments knew nothing of lockdowns, mass testing, or wide-scale contact tracing before 2020. It was the Chinese government that first attempted containment of this sort on a massive scale, and the Chinese co-opted World Health Organisation, that endorsed their approach and promoted this policy to the world. The intellectual and ideological framework for mass containment came to the West in a several-day period around 8 March, as Italy announced the first European lockdown in Lombardy. In the many months since then, western lockdowns have failed to contain Corona in Europe and North America, even as virus hysteria has become an enduring cultural and political fixation, and a great well of demand for more lockdowns, now and forever.