Project Fortress: Two Years to Slow the Spread
In the first two months of 2020, the Trump administration drafted a policy document—stamped “not for public distribution or release” and indeed kept from public view for several months—that would guide decisionmakers at every level of government and every sector of the economy in dealing with a new virus that came to be known by the scientific shorthand “COVID-19.” In March of that terrible year, the administration unveiled elements of that document under the banner “15 Days to Slow the Spread.” Two years later, Americans are still fighting to roll back the mandates and arbitrary executive fiats, still trying to return to normalcy, still clawing back their liberties, still weighing the lessons learned.
Lesson One: Free nations should never take their cues from tyrant regimes.
Whether through incompetence or intention, the COVID-19 pandemic was born in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—and so was the playbook for responding to the pandemic.
“It’s a communist one-party state…We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought,” as now-disgraced British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson recalls of the PRC’s response to COVID-19. “And then Italy did it. And we realized we could.”
Ferguson’s computer models terrified governments across the Free World into imitating the PRC and locking down. From Europe to America to Australia, there were different shades and gradations to the lockdowns, but all of them trampled upon individual liberty, human rights and the constitutional rule of law.
The Trump administration’s aforementioned strategy document, for instance, envisioned “social distancing,” “workplace controls,” “aggressive containment,” and “non-pharmaceutical interventions” at the federal, state, local and private-sector level. These would include “home isolation strategies,” “cancellation of almost all sporting events, performances, and public and private meetings,” “school closures,” and “stay-at-home directives for public and private organizations.”
It’s no surprise that tyrant regimes like the PRC pursued a “zero COVID” strategy, ordered lockdowns, ruled by executive decree, and limited freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, and religious, economic and cultural activity—all for what those in power deemed “the greater good.” Dating to the time of Pharaoh, that’s what tyrants do. And that’s the very reason America’s Founders wrote a constitution that limits the power of government—even in times of crisis. President Eisenhower (in 1957-58) and President Johnson (who was stricken during the 1968-69 pandemic) respected those limits during past pandemics, and governors and mayors followed their lead. Sadly, the opposite happened in 2020-21.
Lesson Two: Free societies depend on citizens and leaders who think critically and have a sense of history.
The destruction wrought by the lockdowns has many fathers—computer-modelers who terrified federal policymakers with guesses dressed up as certainties; health officials who were given the levers of government without any sense of or care for unintended consequences; governors who ruled by executive fiat. But also sharing in the blame are a media herd that lazily or purposely conflated terms, inflated tallies, and fueled fear; a public-education system that has failed to inculcate critical thinking for more than a generation; a citizenry lacking any historical knowledge older than yesterday’s top-trending tweet.
James Madison observed that “A people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Without such knowledge, he warned, a democratic republic is “a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” And here we are.
There was apparently no one in the Oval Office in March 2020 with a sense of history—no one with a modicum of humility to ask: “Haven’t we, as a society and a government, dealt with viruses like this in the past? Didn’t something like this happen in the late 1960s and late 1950s? How did we respond to those pandemics? What did government do—and not do—back then? Can we trust these computer models? Are the costs of locking down—economic, societal wellbeing, individual wellbeing, constitutional, institutional—worth the benefits? Is there anything in the scientific canon that challenges this lockdown strategy?”
I knew the answers to such questions in 2020, and I’m no expert in public administration or public health. I’m just a writer. But such questions were never asked in Washington in March 2020—and so they were never answered.
Predictably—albeit far too slowly—the lockdowns proved impractical for a country founded on individual liberty, ineffective from a scientific standpoint and intolerable to an ever-growing number of Americans. Yet in the COVID culture’s refusal to allow a return to normalcy and in its Orwellian lexicon—“the next two weeks are critical…15 days to slow the spread…30 days to flatten the curve…follow the science…six feet apart or six feet under…shelter in place…track and trace…no mask no service…proof of vaccination required…get the shot and get back to normal”—we have been reminded of the human tendency to control other humans, the penetrating potency of fear, and the state’s default desire to expand its reach and role. Once these pathologies are unleashed, as they were in March 2020, they are not easily or quickly subdued.
Lesson Three: The flexibility of federalism is superior to the conformity demanded by centralism.
Blessedly, our federal system of government—characterized by political power shared across local, state and federal governments—makes it difficult to force everyone in every state, every county, every city to do the same thing and to keep doing it. Wary of centralized executive power, the Founders wanted it that way. Indeed, they presided over a process that saw the states create the federal government, not the other way around. Thus, as Alexis de Tocqueville marveled, “The intelligence and the power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country…instead of radiating from a common point, they cross each other in every direction.”
Like a real-world civics lesson, the pandemic highlighted for Americans their decentralized-by-design system of government: Governors began pushing back against Washington, state legislators against governors, sheriffs and police chiefs against mayors, businesses, houses of worship and individual citizens against all of the above.
By late 2021, even those who earnestly—if fancifully—believed the federal government could “beat the virus,” as President Biden vowed, conceded that “there is no federal solution.” More accurately, there is no government solution in a free society to stopping the spread of COVID-19. To be sure, the federal government can access, allocate and deliver resources, coordinate multi-agency and multi-sector responses, stay regulations and make massive bulk purchases. But it cannot stop the spread of a virus.
Some bristle at the haphazardness of what evolved into a patchwork response to COVID-19. But this is a reflection of exactly what America’s Founders envisioned. What made sense for New Jersey and Oregon, what Californians and New Yorkers tolerated from their governors in responding to COVID-19, didn’t make sense and wouldn’t be tolerated in South Dakota or South Carolina, Iowa or Florida.
Equally important, the laptop class in those lockdown states cannot claim that government policies saved more lives. Jay Bhattacharya, an MD-PhD professor of health policy at Stanford Medical School who has studied infectious disease for two decades, recently sifted through the CDC’s age-adjusted deathrate data for locked-down California and free Florida. “What I found was that they’re almost exactly equal,” he reports.
Lesson Four: Under our system, the legislature is the primary branch of government.
Just as the federal government’s reach must be checked by the states, the pandemic reminded Americans that executive power must be checked by the legislature.
America’s constitutional order begins with Article I’s description of the House of Representatives. The makeup of the House is determined “by the people”—not by a king or general, not by a president or governor, not by a committee of experts occupying the “commanding heights.” Tocqueville wrote of the House of Representatives, “Often there is not a distinguished man in the whole number.” Yet the Founders determined that the House—precisely because it reflected the common man—would take the lead in all the key activities of governing, especially restraining and reversing executive excess.
State constitutions follow this model. Yet with many state legislatures convening only a couple months per year—and some permitted to convene in extraordinary session only by a governor’s order—gubernatorial power ran amok in the first crucial months of the pandemic. Governors may be granted authority to take the lead in public-health emergencies. But as state lawmakers, state attorneys general, state and federal courts, and elected law-enforcement officials made clear, that authority is not absolute. Governors are not empowered to rule by fiat. Emergencies don’t override the Bill of Rights or basic human rights—and cannot last forever. A governor’s emergency authority cannot usurp the powers and prerogatives of the legislature.
Thankfully, dozens of states have restored balance to the constitutional order by reclaiming their role and rolling back gubernatorial powers.
Lesson Five: Every policy must be weighed against unintended consequences.
Government-ordered lockdowns did more damage than the disease itself. But don’t take my word for it. “History will say trying to control COVID-19 through lockdown was a monumental mistake on a global scale,” concludes Mark Woolhouse, a former pandemic advisor to the British government. “The cure was worse than the disease.”
“If you have a disease and you don’t know its characteristics,” Bhattacharya explains, “you don’t know its death rate, you don’t know who it harms, the precautionary principle says, well, assume the worst about it.” And public-health experts did exactly that. However, even as they assumed the worst about COVID-19—assumptions which should have been revised by April-May of 2020, as hard data supplanted the guesswork of people like Ferguson—they assumed the best about their response to COVID-19, specifically that the costs of their sweeping policy directives were justified by the risks of COVID-19 and would do more good than harm. Bhattacharya calls this “a catastrophic misapplication of the precautionary principle.”
And so, millions of necessary surgeries were canceled or postponed in the U.S. due to lockdown edicts. Heart-attack death rates soared because fear of COVID-19 kept patients away from needed care. Researchers project thousands of excess cancer deaths in America as a result of delayed screening caused by lockdowns. Half of cancer patients missed chemotherapy treatments. More than half of childhood vaccinations were not performed.
The Brookings Institution concludes, “The COVID-19 episode will likely lead to a large, lasting baby bust…a drop of perhaps 300,000 to 500,000 births in the U.S.”—in just a year’s time. This is not a function of deaths among women of childbearing age, but rather of fear and despair.
Millions of Americans were put out of work, as government lockdowns erased careers and entire industries. The isolation, job loss and depression triggered by the lockdowns led to tens of thousands of deaths from substance abuse and suicide, alongside dramatic spikes in suicide attempts among teenage girls and drug-overdose deaths.
Domestic violence and childhood malnutrition increased because of the lockdowns. Hundreds of thousands of cases of child abuse have gone unreported due to the lockdowns—a consequence of kids not being in school, where abuse is often first detected. And we may never be able to quantify the costs of a year-plus without classroom instruction, but researchers predict decreased life expectancy and decreased earnings. The lockdowns will scar this lost generation for decades.
In 2020, the laptop class shruggingly said that everyone should just shift to digital technologies for a few months or a few years. But the rest of us soon realized that most Americans cannot work from home; that many of us cannot learn from home or worship from home; that “virtual”—virtual learning, virtual work, virtual worship—means “not real”; that the faux connections of our digital age are no substitute for real connection; that what was true in the beginning remains true today. “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Indeed, the spiritual-emotional costs of the lockdowns are deep and wide. It is during times of crisis that people most need the peace and comfort of visiting a house of worship. The lockdowns stripped that away, preventing tens of millions of Americans from gathering together for worship. Trying to be obedient to God’s call while being good citizens, many houses of worship shifted to livestream liturgies. For houses of worship to do this by choice is reasonable; likewise, for individuals to choose not to attend worship services out of concern for their own health is an expression of individual responsibility—the essential analogue to individual liberty. But for people of faith to be barred from holding or attending religious services by executive diktat is something that should never happen in America.
It’s telling that the first words of the First Amendment focus on religious liberty. The notion that government has no place deciding whether, where, when or what a person can peacefully worship is a foundation stone of our free society. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways—or at all—to grasp this.
Lesson Six: Without scientific consensus, it’s impossible to “follow the science.”
Scientists disagree on many things, including how to respond to COVID-19. Yes, scientists with the biggest megaphones advocated for lockdowns, mass-quarantines of the healthy and something akin to “zero COVID.” But just as many scientists, perhaps more—scientists with as many credentials and letters next to their names as Anthony Fauci, Rochelle Walensky and Deborah Birx—strongly opposed lockdowns and instead advocated for the approaches free societies have taken for a century in response to novel viruses. In fact, some 60,000 scientists have gone on record urging a return to those scientifically-proven methods: targeted protection for the most vulnerable; quarantines of the sick; individualized medical decisions for the rest of society, alongside limited disruption of economic, commercial and cultural activity. Their lodestar is the late Donald Henderson, who led the effort to eradicate smallpox. Henderson presciently argued against lockdowns in 2006.
Free societies are always striving to find a balance between the public good and individual liberty—especially in times of danger. But that’s impossible when the experts in a particular field (public health in this case) don’t agree on how best to respond to the danger. Bhattacharya explains that “in public health, there is a norm of unanimity of messaging…but the ethical basis for that norm is that the scientific process has worked itself through and reached a mature stage.” Importantly, there are “enormous fights going on within the scientific community” and “uncertainty within the scientific community” over COVID-19. Sadly, that lack of certainty and lack of consensus didn’t give the public-health popstars pause. Instead, Bhattacharya says “people like Dr. Fauci jumped to this public-health norm” and “in effect, shut down the scientific debate.”
Ironically, Fauci himself is emblematic of the lack of scientific certainty: In January 2020, Fauci said of COVID-19, “This is not a major threat for the people of the United States.” In February 2020, he concluded, “The overall clinical consequences of COVID-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1 percent) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968).” Then, in March 2020, he reversed course. He did a similar one-eighty on masks, saying there was no need for masks in the winter of 2020, before urging “universal wearing of masks” in the summer of 2020, and then recommending double-masking in early 2021.
It’s all well and good to justify these reversals and the rejection of scientifically-proven responses by declaring, “When the facts change, we must change our minds.” But given that the underlying facts of prudent pandemic response didn’t change, given the chaos caused by public-health reversals, given the consequences of rejecting what worked during the pandemic of 1957-58 (which had a far higher case-fatality rate than COVID-19), Americans can be forgiven for questioning “the science” and doubting the scientists. Indeed, how can citizens and elected officials “follow the science” when the country’s highest-profile scientist doesn’t even agree with himself?
Lesson Seven: America is not supposed to be run by esoteric experts.
The COVID-19 crisis is a case study of what can go wrong when policymakers defer governing to topic experts.
To be sure, good leaders seek and consider the advice of topic experts. However, topic experts base their recommendations on their specific area of expertise, which by definition is limited and esoteric. They’re not equipped to take into account all the tradeoffs and factors—constitutional, political, economic, commercial, cultural—elected officials are expected to consider. And that’s why they’re not empowered to govern.
Think of it this way: We want presidents to consider what the generals recommend, but we wouldn’t want the generals to be in charge. We want governors to consider what labor and business recommend, but we wouldn’t want the AFL-CIO or Chamber of Commerce to be in charge. Yet that’s what happened during the COVID-19 crisis, as most elected chief executives simply deferred all of policymaking to public-health experts.
Fr. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, reminds us that there are “questions that a scientist, speaking strictly as a scientist, cannot answer for us. For questions about moral value—how we ought to decide and act—science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer.”
Lesson Eight: The PRC is not a responsible global power.
The world now knows that Xi Jinping’s regime lied about human-to-human transmission; allowed thousands of people to leave Wuhan for destinations around the world long after the regime was aware of the outbreak; ordered scientists to delay sharing information about coronavirus-genome sequencing for several critical days or weeks; blocked global health officials from accessing Wuhan; muzzled and arrested scientists in Wuhan who tried to sound the alarm over COVID-19; and carried out a premeditated plan to hoard 2.5 billion pieces of medical protective equipment as the virus swept the globe.
This confirms what many of us have argued for many years: China’s internal political system is an international problem (see here, here, here and here p.50). As dissident leader Xu Zhangrun observes, “A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.”
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. A shorter version of this essay was published by the Brownstone Institute.