Alex Berenson's Pandemia: A Review
Alex Berenson, Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives (Regnery: Washington D.C., 2021). 464 pp. ISBN 978-1-68451-248-5. $29.99.
For the first months of the pandemic, I was a Corona hysteric. I had the virus very early; for four days I was extremely sick, and as I recovered and Europe began to lock down, I read the panic pornography of Tomas Pueyo and thought we might well be facing a mass casualty event. Everything reinforced this message, from obscure Twitter accounts to colleagues to German state media. There were critics too, but in those early days it was hard to find them. Those who came to my notice turned out to be saying a lot of things that were just wrong, and in this way they played into the hands of the containment regime. It was easy for casual readers to think that sanity and good judgement lay entirely with Team Lockdown.
I found Berenson’s Twitter account in mid-March. I didn’t agree with him most of the time, but it was clear to me that he was more than just another crank. He had a way of pointing out simple facts that nobody in the press wanted to talk about, and – more importantly – that you didn’t realise nobody was talking about. Totalising media discourse has a way of appearing seamless and comprehensive even when it’s not, and it can be very hard to get outside of it. When Neil Ferguson published his panic model on 16 March, for example, I was pretty sure it was propagandist nonsense. (Even in my hystericist days I was never that far gone.) But not until reading Berenson’s tweets did I realise that the press was happy to report on dire Corona forecasts, and happy to report on dire mortality statistics, but very reluctant indeed ever to notice the ongoing failure of the models to predict anything. Little observations like that planted small doubts in my mind, which by late-summer bloomed into a total rejection of containment and all its crazy advocates.
Berenson’s Pandemia comes with the first wave of major dissident monographs on Corona. Its companions include Michael P. Senger, Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World; and Robert F. Kennedy, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health. Importantly, all three authors are Americans. For reasons we may never fully understand, Europe has been ground-zero for Corona in the western world; hysteria hit the United States slightly later than it did here, and Americans trust their overtly partisan media far less than most of us on the Continent. All this means that critical views got an earlier start in the United States, and they were never as thoroughly deprived of oxygen as they were, for example, in Germany.
Berenson’s great strength is the same quality that earns him criticism now and again from people in our circles: He’s a centrist who notices things. Before Corona, he was best known for Tell Your Children, a book on links between marijuana use and mental illness, which the 1968 generation would prefer not to think about. His work on Corona has much the same flavour. It has brought him to vastly greater renown, and also sealed his systematic exclusion from establishment discourse. He’s been banned from Twitter, deboosted by the algorithms and attacked in the mass media. His latest book appears not with Simon & Schuster, who published Tell Your Children, but with the smaller, conservative press Regnery.
Pandemia is three things: A brief history of containment and the first part of the vaccine program in America; an inquiry into key empirical matters surrounding the lethality of SARS-2, and the efficacy of lockdowns, masks and vaccines (much of which appeared earlier in his four-part Unreported Truths series); and a kind of pandemic autobiography, where Berenson recounts his growing prominence on Twitter and how this affected his own life.
At his best, Berenson reads like a reporter from the late 1990s, before the overt politicisation of the American media, beamed to 2020 in a time machine. He considers all of the questions our own journalists have spent two years ignoring and advances only the most obviously defensible arguments. If you had to give one book on the pandemic to an English-reading normie, in the hopes of convincing him that masks, lockdowns and vaccines are not the way, Pandemia would be it. There’s a reason Berenson is not on Twitter anymore: Many people support the hygiene dictatorship because they believe flatly wrong things, and telling them the truth in simple language is a radical act.
Berenson’s story is a specifically American one: It’s about how Trump’s insouciance to the threat of SARS-2 provoked the opposite reaction from the media, and about how his casual promotion of hydroxychloroquine made the whole of matter of treatment an establishment taboo. It’s about how early mortality in New York, a prominent centre of American society and media, “meant that [New York’s] problems were broadcast all over the world, cementing the perception that Covid was exceptionally dangerous” (p. 135). It’s about how a powerful if previously obscure medical bureaucrat named Anthony Fauci assumed a central role in promoting first lockdowns, then masks and finally vaccines, ultimately anointing himself the literal embodiment of science on these matters. And, towards the end, it’s about how the vaccines failed to stop transmission and turned out, if anything, to accelerate infections, while also inflicting countless avoidable injuries on the vaccinated masses.
Reading this book in Germany is an odd experience. All those things happened here too, just slightly earlier and for different reasons. Germany got lockdowns without a major sports organisation like the NBA cancelling their season, and without the panic models of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. (Models are mostly an Anglophone thing; the German academic establishment didn’t have prominent modellers until the second wave.) We locked down without any serious mortality at all. Our Corona policies unfolded under the chancellorship of Angela Merkel, Trump’s near-perfect opposite and the darling of the German press. We got vaccines and masks just like the Americans, but without Anthony Fauci, who gets as good as zero airtime outside the English-language media.
Clearly a central part of the Corona story, is how every country’s pandemic narrative ends up in much the same place, despite widely varying particulars; and how national stories confine you mostly to the realm of proximate causes.1
In specific areas, of course, single countries ended up playing outsized, international roles: The earliest chapters of western lockdowns were written in Italy; the nefarious pandemic models are part of the British story; the mass testing mania emanated largely from Germany. For the United States, that international role came relatively late, with the development and early authorisation of the vaccines. Thus a German reader will regret that Berenson, who plans a separate book on the vaccines, limits his coverage of vaccine development and authorisation in the United States to the final eighty pages of Pandemia. This is exactly where Corona in America becomes a matter of overarching international concern.
Another limitation of the domestic perspective, is that it can put the more unusual aspects of national policies beyond the scope of analysis. Reading Pandemia has further convinced me that the American response was peculiar in two ways:
First, the American media hysteria began somewhat later, and it was far less coordinated in its earliest stages than in major European countries. This is remarkable, because it’s usually the opposite; American press narratives tend to precede their European counterparts by days or weeks.
Second, Corona hit while the American establishment was waging pitched battle against the presidency of Donald Trump. Political and media actors were willing to do anything, from casting doubt on the efficacy of the vaccines to lifting containment restrictions, if it would hurt Trump’s presidency. (In much of Europe, containment policies had the opposite effect, leading as in times of war to a much more uniform political discourse.) This led to the near-complete suspension of Corona hysteria in June 2020, for the establishment-endorsed Floyd riots. Nowhere else on earth was Corona so suddenly relegated to a matter of secondary concern. My impression is that this all but broke the back of lockdown policies in the United States. Thereafter restrictions became heavily regionalised and laden with partisan political signalling. This emboldened the political opposition to containment far earlier than anywhere else; it made Corona astrologers like Anthony Fauci even more central to the containment hardliners, who then needed avatars of an allegedly apolitical and empirically true science more than ever; and it ultimately changed the whole American discourse on lockdowns and masking.
I remember conversations I had with old American friends – blue-state progressives all of them – who were more sceptical of containment than I was at the start. After the summer of 2020, when I voiced my own growing misgivings, they either changed the subject or stopped talking to me altogether.
Of course, it would be unfair to probe the limitations of a book, without also noting its strengths. Berenson’s discussion of masks and the policies surrounding them has been one of his strongest points, both here and on Twitter. I (and I suspect others) at first tended to avoid this issue, because we thought it was important to concentrate energy on the more dire issues of mass closures and house arrests. I’m now convinced this was the wrong approach. You can’t read Pandemia without wondering whether masks might be the Achilles heel of the whole Corona complex. Their use has no basis in evidence, and yet mask mandates are defended by the entire establishment, who invoke a nebulous ‘science’ that nobody can ever quite call into being.
The tone of Pandemia is also very good. “We should be done with Covid,” Berenson says at the end. “This book should not have to exist. Two years on, Covid should no longer be a focus of my life, or your life, or almost anyone’s life. It should belong to virologists and epidemiologists and doctors and nurses” (p. 375). Exhortations like these to relax, to see things in context, and to live your life, are the only things that can bottle up the Corona demons. Dissident discourse often gets this very wrong, and it’s one of the reasons Berenson is so important.
Pandemia has various poignant moments; in a second post for subscribers I’ll highlight some specific observations that I find intriguing or that seem worth elaborating upon. For now, I’ll close with this story (from p. 130f.) about the time Berenson’s wife, Jackie, was nearly arrested for removing caution tape from playground equipment:
Police tape cordoned off swings and slides. Basketball hoops were removed. In Venice Beach, California, the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation filled the ramps and half-pipes at a skateboard park with sand.
Snitches made sure the rules were enforced. My wife and I saw the insanity first hand when we took our kids to a park near the Hudson River whose swings and slide were cordoned off with tape. It was a beautiful spring day – but we were the only family present.
Enough, Jackie said. She tore down the tape.
A car was parked in the lot at the edge of the playground. A woman sat in it. She lowered her window and yelled that she would call the police. And she did. Within minutes, a police officer drove up and threatened to arrest Jackie. Jackie hated backing off, but she didn’t want to be arrested in front of our kids. We left.
The next time, we found another playground, one that didn’t have police tape.
So the lockdowns went on. Stupid laws, stupidly enforced, with just enough flexibility and loopholes that open rebellion seemed more trouble than it was worth.
From the very first, containment was calibrated not to stop Corona, but to enable its own implementation. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that it has so totally failed in everything but self-propagation – the one thing that containment was truly designed to do.
The whole Corona phenomenon has been nothing but useless policies that are implemented because they can be, not because they help. It has been a festival of circular arguments and feedback loops such as I have never seen in my life. It has been manipulative press propaganda creating political demand for more manipulative press propaganda, it has been lockdowns driving up care home mortality creating calls for more lockdowns, it has been mass testing leading to higher case numbers driving even more mass testing. It has been millions of people, above all journalists and bureaucrats who make our news and our policies, self-radicalising over months of social isolation and demanding ever more extreme measures against a virus that, ultimately, just isn’t that dangerous.
Probably nobody important in his lifetime will acknowledge it, but Berenson’s calm, rational, and diligent reporting has been crucial to breaking the spell of Corona in the West. Voices like his will only get more important in the coming decades. Corona is ending, but I very much fear that the crazy is just getting started.
Before you start yelling at me: The deeper origins of containment are a far harder problem than even my more conspiratorial critics appreciate, with the trail either going cold at the doors of the WHO or the Chinese border; or dissipating in a maze of pandemic planning and public health discourse going back decades.