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Was the Covid response a coup by Western intelligence agencies?
On Thursday, friend-of-the-blog Michael P. Senger posted an important essay to Substack, in which he asks whether the “Response to COVID” was “effectively a coup by the Western intelligence community.” Everyone should read it, as it summarises in one place a range of evidence that Senger and others have collected pointing to the role of the defence and intelligence actors in promoting lockdowns, especially in America.
Many readers have asked me in sometimes polite and sometimes highly hostile and dismissive ways to comment on these ideas for a long time now. I find this surprising, as I don’t disagree with any of Senger’s specific observations, and I don’t think they’re necessarily in conflict with my own theses of What Happened in 2020. I’ve long held that the bureaucracy succumbed to very radical ideas about how to suppress SARS-2 between February and March 2020, and as the defence and intelligence sectors are part of the institutional apparatus of the government, it’s only logical to think that they should’ve fallen prey to these ideas too. Perhaps it is true, though, that my overall interpretation of events departs somewhat from the Intelligence Coup Thesis. In what follows, I’ll try to explain why.
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The Specificity and Novelty of Mass Containment
Senger and others have surely shown that key members of the American defence establishment were very worried about SARS-2 and willing to follow the lead of China in pandemic policy from the beginning. Their advocacy, however, seems to be of two types. Either it occurs very early but doesn’t seem to be about mass containment specifically, or it occurs rather later and indicates an endorsement of lockdowns around the same time everyone else was endorsing them.
To forestall objections, I will risk trying the patience of my valued readers by explaining once again, in excruciating detail and with many citations, what I mean by “mass containment” and why I think a rigid, autistic, unrelenting focus on this particular concept is necessary to understand the events of 2020.
Almost all reporting and government statements on pandemic policy since March 2020 have worked to cover up the fact that lockdowns were not supposed to happen. The Western public health establishment never planned for them; everybody was supposed to do what Sweden did. To obfuscate the significance of the cataclysmic policy reversal that occurred in March 2020, pandemicists now pretend that lockdowns were merely the “social distancing” and school closures and work-at-home advisories that they had always fantasised about.
These blurred distinctions have necessarily coloured alt-Covid discourse too, but if we want to understand the events of early 2020 in particular, we must maintain firm distinctions among three different hygiene regimes.
These are 1) outbreak containment, 2) pandemic mitigation and 3) mass containment.
Plans for 1) outbreak containment had been current since SARS at least. The idea is that limited, confined outbreaks can be contained by harsh quarantines like those which Japanese authorities imposed on the Diamond Princess in February 2020. Should outbreak containment fail, then in the pre-2020 programme only 2) pandemic mitigation remained an option. Mitigation is a fuzzy set of measures that can be everything or nothing. Work-at-home advisories, school closures and “social distancing” had all occurred in mitigationist plans at one time or another. “Social distancing,” which has become a synonym for “lockdowns” in the Anglosphere especially, is an old concept that achieved particular currency with the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic. Before 2020 “social distancing” was never about locking down. In 2009, the WHO recommended “social distancing” as a “mitigation” measure for “low resource communities.” They described it as “keeping at least an arm’s length distance from others” and “minimizing gatherings.”
What never clearly existed and nobody in the Western public health establishment had ever explicitly planned before 2020 was 3) mass containment, which is the attempt to make 1) outbreak containment operate on the scale of entire populations, where it was previously thought only mitigation would work.
Contrary to what some of my critics maintain, the Wuhan lockdown was not pandemic mitigation, and it was not outbreak containment either. It was a new, third thing. Thus WHO Director Tedros at first remained noncommittal about Chinese lockdowns, telling the press on 24 January that “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.” WHO team leader Gaudean Galea was even more explicit:
[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.
Mitigationist planning is very sensitive to “social and economic impacts,” which is why a lot of early pandemicist discussion of the Chinese lockdowns expressed anxiety about these drawbacks. Mass containment, on the other hand, does not care about anything but virus suppression. Mass containment came to the West via the 24 February report of the joint WHO-China mission, which endorsed the Wuhan lockdowns and recommended this strategy to all nations.
Since the first-wave lockdowns, nobody will acknowledge the distinction between containment and mitigation, but this talk was all over the place in the earliest days of the Corona era.
The American progressive pundit Matthew Yglesias, writing in the odious webzine Vox on 27 February 2020, explained the distinction as follows to his readers:
The ideal thing to do when faced with an infectious disease outbreak is to contain it — isolate one or more areas where the outbreak is occurring, treat patients there, and hope the vast majority of the world will be spared. …
What we are realistically looking at now is not containment of a virus that is already on multiple continents, but efforts to mitigate the harm that it does by slowing its spread. …
In a pandemic of a severe disease without mitigation, a huge share of the population gets sick all at once — overwhelming the health care infrastructure, undermining the reliability of emergency services, and overall causing a degree of devastation beyond the specific medical impact of the virus. …
Even with effective mitigation a lot of people get sick, but the caseload is spread out and society can continue to function.
Note that Yglesias, writing just three days after the crucial 24 February lockdown endorsement, has no conception of mass containment. If containment fails, mitigation is for him the only other option.
Two weeks later, on 11 March, an article appeared in STAT on the turmoil that the WHO lockdown endorsement of 24 February had unleashed among the pandemicists themselves:
For weeks, a debate has raged about whether the virus could be “contained” — an approach the WHO has been exhorting countries to focus on — or whether it made more sense to simply try to lessen the virus’ blow, an approach known as “mitigation.”
That argument has been counterproductive, Mike Ryan, the head of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said Monday.
“I think 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 told reporters.
And still later, in the infamous 16 March Imperial College paper that helped tip the debate in favour of mass containment, Neil Ferguson and his team also showed a clear consciousness of the distinction between mitigation and containment, or – in his words – “suppression”:
Two fundamental strategies are possible: (a) mitigation, which focuses on slowing but not necessarily stopping epidemic spread – reducing peak healthcare demand while protecting those most at risk of severe disease from infection, and (b) suppression, which aims to reverse epidemic growth, reducing case numbers to low levels and maintaining that situation indefinitely. Each policy has major challenges. We find that that optimal mitigation policies (combining home isolation of suspect cases, home quarantine of those living in the same household as suspect cases, and social distancing of the elderly and others at most risk of severe disease) might reduce peak healthcare demand by 2/3 and deaths by half. However, the resulting mitigated epidemic would still likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed many times over. For countries able to achieve it, this leaves suppression as the preferred policy option.
Mitigation is any hygiene regime designed to “flatten the curve,” that is to reduce the steepness of its slope. It is about slowing, not stopping, infections. Mitigation is also not great; various pandemic planners had long fantasised about a range of draconian mitigationist interventions. Since 2007, Carter Mecher’s co-authored study of influenza mortality in 1918 made school closures an attractive mitigationist measure for many American planners. However bad social distancing, banning mass gatherings, and closing schools and workplaces might be, though, they are not containment unless their purpose is to “crush the curve”. Not only lockdowns, but also mass testing and contact tracing characterised mass containment in the West. Contact tracing in particular indicates a strategy to stop infections, and is diagnostic of a mass containment strategy. Any hygiene regime taking credit for collapsing case waves is also by definition claiming to be engaged in mass containment.
The Virus Visionaries of the Pandemic Memoirs
I have no doubt that a wide variety of figures advocating highly interventionist pandemic mitigation, particularly in the United States, have ties to the defence and the intelligence establishments. An important reason for this, is that the defence sector is awash with money and a crucial source of grant funding. When Donald Henderson founded the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, an important pandemicist think-tank, he called it the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies and initially depended heavily on defence sector grants. Notably, this influence has been attenuated somewhat in recent years, as Big Philanthropy has gotten in on the game of pandemic planning. Thus the Open Philanthropy Project poured millions into the CHS after 2017, hoping to refocus its efforts on “global catastrophic risks.” The philanthropists lent pre-2020 pandemic planning a new third-world focus and intensified their interest in vaccines. There is doubtless a lingering defence influence here, but public health is an overwhelmingly civilian operation, and evidence for defence funding or the intelligence ties of specific people does not automatically make the whole business of pandemic response a defence or an intelligence operation. It is merely one influence among many in a massive enterprise.
At least for the sake of argument, I am willing to accept all the claims made for the intelligence ties and the influence of key pandemicist thinkers and virus hysterics like the physician Carter Mecher. But I have also noticed a pattern in these claims of influence that we would do well to take note of. This pattern is that triumphalist books on the Covid response very frequently feature an archetypal character that we might term the Virus Visionary. The Virus Visionary is often (but not always) rumoured to have nebulous defence or intelligence associations, is invariably involved in cutting-edge Virus Visionary investigations, and begins ringing the Virus Visionary panic bell before anybody else. Pandemic memoirs have yielded a litany of Virus Visionaries – not only Mecher, but DARPA programme manager Michael Callahan, Trump-era Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx, British Health Minister Matthew Hancock, and others. The phenomenon is apparent even in German literature on the response, which has drawn attention to the alleged early role played by a “Health Security” functionary named Heiko Rottmann-Großner.
The Virus Visionaries are an artefact of how journalists write books. They interview people, and these people are eager to claim credit for themselves and their associates in formulating policy. Journalists are vulnerable to this self-aggrandisement because they’re writing what are essentially non-fiction novels, which require “main characters” (Michael Lewis’s formulation) to reduce the complexities of the bureaucratic response to a comprehensible plot. This doesn’t mean the Virus Visionaries aren’t real, but it does mean that they’re giving their interlocutors a very partial picture. It is also curious that the influence of the Virus Visionaries becomes hard to spot as soon as one begins studying documentary evidence for what happened.
Often the chronology of these accounts is unclear, but it is very hard to find any Virus Visionaries advocating mass containment before the WHO endorsement on 24 February. Characteristic of the Virus Visionaries is that they are isolated figures – lone heroes not clearly connected to other events, and this makes their significance correspondingly difficult to interpret. Thus the author Brendan Borrell has DARPA programme manager Michael Callahan acting like a kind of virological James Bond, always in the right place at the right moment, but what it all adds up to is uncertain. He jets off to China to treat Covid patients in Wuhan in January, he flees Wuhan by boat to escape lockdowns, he travels to Japan to provide advance intelligence about the Diamond Princess cruise ship outbreak, and then he returns to the United States to impress on the Trump administration the importance of acquiring ventilators. Matthew Pottinger, for his part, starts demanding travel bans on 27 January, emerges as an early and dogmatic promoter of masking and testing, and advocates for Mecher-style school closures. Pottinger also worked to secure Deborah Birx’s appointment to the role of White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator. Birx in turn begins actively promoting lockdowns, but apparently only upon hearing about the Italian lockdown after 8 March.
As far as I can tell, the Virus Visionaries acquired their Covid hysteria along with everybody else. This would be why the narratives which feature them adhere to the same general chronology of escalating radicalism we see everywhere. The key events in this chronology are the WHO endorsement of lockdowns on 24 February 2020, the Italian lockdowns of 8–10 March, and Neil Ferguson’s pro-lockdown modelling study on 16 March. Tomas Pueyo’s viral Medium posts on 10 and 19 March played a very important supporting role, especially for Europe. All of this happened in the open, among civilian planners, civilian journalists and civilian scientists, although I have no trouble believing that the intelligence services and actors within the defence establishment helped things along, especially in the United States.
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