More Salem than Thanksgiving
Coronavirus panic has set America back hundreds of years
Had King James’s Privy Council contained a proto-Anthony Fauci in 1620, there might not have been a Thanksgiving holiday for the current-day Fauci and his peers to cancel four centuries later. The transatlantic voyage that brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock would have been unthinkable under the ‘stay safe’ philosophy that now governs American life.
Nearly half the 102 occupants of the Mayflower died in their first year of settlement at Plymouth, sometimes at a rate of three a day. Such a mortality rate was predictable. The earlier outpost at Jamestown, founded in 1607, lost 66 of its original 104 settlers in its first nine months. By 1609, following the also predictable loss at sea of a ship coming to resupply the colony, starvation at Jamestown had grown so dire that residents dug corpses from their graves to eat any remaining flesh, later reported the colony’s first president in 1625.
Other early settlement casualties included the outpost of Roanoke, which simply disappeared. Overall, for every six would-be colonists who ventured across the Atlantic, only one survived, according to one estimate. Trying to establish a new life in the New World was most definitely not ‘safe’.
And yet the voyagers kept coming, driven by something beyond safetyism — religious zeal, ambition, passion for discovery, the desire for greater freedom. Those Americans who later spread across the continent, whether as solo explorers or in wagon trains, likewise eschewed a ‘stay safe’ philosophy.
Today, we are strangling American society in order to avoid a risk of death so infinitesimal — roughly 0.001 percent — for the majority of Americans that it would not have registered in any possible cost-benefit analysis governing both notable American endeavors and quotidian activities over the last four centuries. Our current Thanksgiving Day mantras — ‘Stay within your pod. Stay within your bubble. Stay within your household’ (in the words of a University of California, San Francisco, epidemiologist); don’t travel, don’t share food, don’t touch your family members or friends, speak only in hushed tones — make a mockery of the spirit that creates a country and sustains human life.
This present moment is less like that first Thanksgiving celebration and more like the Salem witch frenzy of 1692. To be sure, the coronavirus is real; witches were not. The virus has cost thousands of lives; witches did not. But the fear that has gripped much of the population over the last year, whipped up by sundry experts and authorities, is as disconnected from reason as that emblematic burst of hysteria in colonial Massachusetts and other such panics throughout medieval and early modern Europe. The shared features of all such contagious fear events include the following:
The belief in ubiquitous threat
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has advised Los Angelenos to ‘assume that everyone you encounter is infected’. Under even the most liberal assumptions of undetected community spread, however, only a small fraction of Los Angeles’s population would be infected and currently contagious.
As for the threat of death, most of the population faces none from the virus. The average age of coronavirus decedents is 80, which is four years higher than the average life expectancy for US males in 2018 and just a year under the average life expectancy of females. Most decedents have underlying co-morbities. Up to two-thirds of coronavirus casualties may have died of other causes by the end of 2020. Forty percent of US coronavirus deaths have occurred in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Sadly, death is already the fate of virtually all residents of such facilities, however much we may understandably try to defer it.
Scapegoats and stigma
Public officials have piled onto those intransigents who do not wear masks in the great outdoors, blaming them for the spread. Outdoor mask refuseniks have been screamed at and shamed by citizen enforcers of the outdoor mask dogma. The media imply false causal connections: ‘Wisconsin health officials reported more jaw-dropping COVID-19 infection numbers Thursday,’ recently reported the Chicago Tribune, ‘as people continued to flaunt recommendations to wear masks’ (emphasis added). But there is no evidence for open-air transmission, absent highly unusual packed settings and prolonged contact. Transmission, per the CDC’s own contact tracing guidelines, requires a cumulative 15 minutes of close contact with an infected person, overwhelmingly in poorly ventilated, cramped indoor settings. In the outdoors, circulating air disperses any possible viral dose to the point of non-existence, even if most outdoor encounters were not too fleeting to be of concern.
People who have recovered from the virus are shunned as pariahs, despite their lack of infectious status.
Amulets and ritualistic gestures
The mask is believed to possess totemic power, even though there is little evidence that its use correlates inversely with community spread or that it protects wearers from infection. A new gesture is being added to the ritual of ostentatious plein air mask-wearing: the supplemental hand defense. In the faculty housing area of the University of California, Irvine, masked walkers now regularly cover their mask with their hands if they see an unmasked passerby approach, no matter the large berth each will give the other and their short-lived proximity.
Magical formulas and the arbitrary exercise of government power
Once hysteria takes over, any expectation that public officials will act according to reason is discarded. New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has long set a metric for re-closing the city’s schools: a three percent infection rate among the tested population. He arrived at the number in conjunction with the teacher’s union. How did the mayor and union come up with it? We don’t know. Is it related to anything real? By definition, no. The evidence is by now overwhelming that children have virtually no risk of dying from the virus, nor do they spread it to adults. A random sample of 16,000 students and staff in New York City schools yielded only 28 positive tests; none of those cases resulted in serious illness or death. The New York City school system, were it a free-standing community, would be among the nation’s safest places to reside. Nevertheless, the mayor, along with other mayors across the country, has now reshut the public schools, guaranteeing that the academic skills of black and Hispanic children will fall further behind those of whites and Asians. More racial strife and phony charges of systemic racism will follow.
Virginia requires that children from age two onwards wear masks. Such a practice, lacking any grounding in actual science, will likely have crippling psychological consequences.
The rising caseload and the oncoming Thanksgiving holiday have triggered a new explosion of arbitrary government dictates. Oregon’s governor is limiting social gatherings to no more than six people. How did she arrive at that number? By no known body of evidence. If it existed, presumably the six-person ceiling would be universal. But Yolo County, California (where Sacramento is located), has a 16-person cap on Thanksgiving and other gatherings, while Kentucky is limiting Thanksgiving to eight people from two different households. The state of California magnanimously allows a grand total of three households. Before celebrating such relative liberality, note that California requires that the lucky three social units (whose members must of course all be masked) disperse after two hours. That three-household, two-hour ceiling applies even if the gathering occurs in a public park, where the chance of transmission is at its lowest ebb.
Without any advance warning, Los Angeles County shut down all outdoor dining on November 23, signing the death warrant for thousands of restaurants and casting thousands of workers back into unemployment. Restaurant owners had invested thousands of dollars into outdoor heat lamps and other outdoor dining equipment; they will have to throw out thousands of dollars of food.
Los Angeles County has no evidence of any transmission among outdoor diners. It is reacting blindly to a rising case count, even though more than 72 percent of the new cases reported on November 21 were in the lowest risk category — people under 50 — and nearly half of the 34 county residents who died of COVID-19 on November 21 (per the usual over-inclusive count methodology) were over 80. Protecting those octogenarians does not require wholesale business destruction.
The experts are so confident in their fear-induced hold over the popular mind that they feel no compunction about self-contradiction. The CDC has acknowledged that there is little surface transmission of the virus. Yet it recommends that should someone be so rash as to attend a Thanksgiving gathering outside his home, he must bring his own food and utensils so as to avoid touching his host’s kitchenware. We are regressing further back along the civilizational path to medieval times, when everyone carried around his own spoon on his belt. At least those medieval trenchermen followed the environmentally sound practice of reusing their spoons. The CDC advises that all utensils and plates be thrown out after the Thanksgiving meal, showing yet again that environmentalism is usually just empty virtue-signaling.
The experts fear no rebellion over rules that destroy the very thing that they purport to regulate. Bringing your own meal to Thanksgiving and not even sharing it cancels the spirit of holiday. Thanksgiving becomes indistinguishable from those cheerless ‘family dinners’ where every teenager microwaves his own chosen frozen food and then slinks back with it to the privacy of his bedroom and smartphone.
Case counts have been the object of veneration for months, despite their near meaninglessness. The obsession with the case count is an implicit admission that the death rates have been a disappointment, for they are falling rather than increasing. Currently, infections among the young make up the lion’s share of new cases; in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for example, 61 percent of confirmed and probable cases are connected to the university there. Most of these cases among the young are asymptomatic: the infection is so mild that the infected person is unaware he even has it. These infections are being picked up thanks to mandatory testing in college and school settings. It is not just the young, however, that are frequently asymptomatic. Across the entire population, a whopping 40-45 percent of cases are initially unknown to their bearer before a test comes in positive.
A rising case count among the least at-risk population is not something to be feared, since it heralds the approach of herd immunity. Males in the 20-29 age bracket without underlying conditions have 99.9997 chance of surviving a coronavirus infection; females in that age bracket have a 99.9998 survival rate. The risk of death is 630 times higher for individuals age 85 and over compared to 18- to 29-year-olds.
Yet since the start of the pandemic, the media and their bevy of public health sources have histrionically covered case counts, usually on an hourly basis, as if they signaled imminent doom. A curious thing has happened of late, however. We are only now learning that the summer was not a time of crisis, contrary to the daily headlines. That period is now being cast as a halcyon benchmark against which the current dark crisis is to be measured. ‘There is a real danger in complacency, and we are seeing the effects of that play out in real time,’ an infectious diseases specialist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School recently told the Washington Post. ‘Across the country, we have begun to see another increase in infections and deaths after a period of time with low transmission.’ Who knew? Neither the experts nor the media let on that we were ever in a period of low transmission.
And despite today’s raging headlines, the current crisis is still largely anticipatory. Los Angeles County’s director of public health, Barbara Ferrer, has been leaning heavily on the promise of future disaster. ‘This much of an increase in cases may very well result in tremendous suffering and tragic deaths down the road,’ she told the Los Angeles Times on November 12. For now, however, the number of hospitals that are severely burdened nationally is small; at least a quarter of all cases now being labeled as coronavirus hospitalizations in the daily media count were likely admitted for other problems and only retroactively classified as coronavirus cases following a positive test. California governor Gavin Newsom has put 94 percent of the states’ residents under another stay-at-home order. But only six percent of the state’s hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, up from four percent in early November.
Nationally, the case fatality rate and presumed infection fatality rate continue to drop.
Almost all the businesses being sacrificed on the altar of coronavirus fear are as innocent as the vestal virgins of old. The public health authorities have no idea what is driving the current spread. They have no hard evidence that outdoor or indoor restaurant meals are responsible; they certainly have no evidence that shopping is responsible. And yet millions of livelihoods are being destroyed in the exercise of inebriating, limitless power. ‘We don’t want you going into restaurants and sitting and eating outside, and we don’t want you going into retail establishments either,’ Los Angeles’s ubiquitous Barbara Ferrer pronounced recently. Ferrer has no basis for stigmatizing retail establishments.
The shaming of heretics and dissenters
Neuroradiologist Stanford scientist Scott Atlas and the physician scientists who signed the Great Barrington Declaration have been denounced for challenging the efficacy of economic lockdowns, school shutdowns, and outdoor mask requirements. Their heresies have been borne out by the evidence.
The director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, a major purveyor of pandemic panic, claimed in the Wall Street Journal that the pandemic was threatening ‘jobs and businesses’. It is not the pandemic that is threatening jobs and businesses, however, political decision-making is. COVID is also ascribed a power that it does not likely have. The New York Times has dedicated a special section to ‘those we’ve lost’ from COVID (ignoring the many more people we lose each day to cancer and heart disease). One alleged COVID casualty was a 101-year-old veteran. We are to believe that without COVID, he would have lived an indefinite number of further years.
An advanced civilization builds towards the future, as the Pilgrims and other New World settlers understood. It accumulates social and economic capital to be drawn on by individual discoverers and entrepreneurs for further progress. Now, however, we are cannibalizing our economic inheritance, in the fantastical belief that government transfer payments, generated from ever increased debt, can substitute for private economic activity. Our capital, now being recklessly destroyed by arbitrary government fiat, will take generations to rebuild. We take for granted everything that hard-won prosperity has provided us — well-functioning services (compared to Third World disorder), dependable maintenance, the luxury of choice. We will miss such prosperity when it follows the fate of those millions of businesses whose loss is causing despair, substance abuse, and suicide.
A mature civilization understands that risk is part of life and that there are higher purposes — even mere sociability — than avoiding death at all costs. No great venture can be accomplished if staying safe is life’s only guiding principle. Now, however, our elites mock courage and perseverance, explicitly repudiating the virtues that built this country. President Trump, upon leaving the hospital after a coronavirus infection, admonished the country to not ‘be afraid’ of the virus, in the Washington Post’s words, and to not ‘allow it to dominate’ our lives. That eminently reasonable exhortation, once expected in a leader, is still being denounced by public health experts and the media nearly two months later. If Americans do not repudiate this ethic of fear, future Thanksgivings will be even bleaker than this year’s.
This piece originally appeared at Spectator USA
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion. Follow her on Twitter here.
This piece originally appeared in Spectator USA