Remember when we were told that China was a model for the world in controlling Covid? Sure, as a totalitarian state, it was able to weld people inside their homes and monitor its citizens via drone. But many in the West believed that such measures were necessary. They argued that the abandonment of personal liberty was an appropriate way to fight a respiratory virus.
Now Shanghai is the model for the terrifying dangers of giving dictatorial powers to public health officials. The harrowing situation unfolding there is a testament to the folly of a virus containment strategy that relies on lockdown. For two weeks, the Chinese government has locked nearly 25 million people in their homes, forcibly separated children from their parents, killed family pets, and limited access to food and life-saving medical care—all to no avail. Covid cases are still rising, yet the delusion of suppressing Covid persists.
In America, many of our officials still have not abandoned their delusions about Covid and the exercise of power this crisis has allowed. As the Shanghai debacle demonstrates, of all the many terrible consequences of our public health response to Covid, the stifling of dissenting scientific viewpoints by the state might be the most dangerous.
I would know: For the past two years I have been the target of a smear campaign aimed at demonizing those who dare to question official policy. Now, a proposed California law threatens to make such dissent career-ending by handing the state the power to strip medical licenses from doctors who disagree with government positions on Covid.
I do not practice medicine—I am a professor specializing in epidemiology and health policy at Stanford Medical School. But many friends who do practice have told me how they have censored their thoughts about Covid lockdowns, vaccines, and recommended treatment to avoid the mob. Though Stanford is supposedly a bastion of academic freedom, one junior untenured professor recently wrote to me: “I have heard you several times on television regarding the Covid issue and find myself resonating with your views. I am inclined to express those very same opinions to my colleagues and administrative members at Stanford. I have been reluctant to date because quite honestly, I expect that my faculty appointment would not be renewed. I have the perception that free speech is just not there.”
This forced scientific groupthink—and the fear and self-censorship they produce—are bad enough. So far, though, the risk has been social and reputational. Now it could become literally career-ending.
According to California Assembly Bill 2098, physicians who deviate from an authorized set of beliefs would do so at risk to their medical license. The bill, written by Assemblyman Evan Low, a Democrat in Silicon Valley, and currently making its way through the California Legislature, is motivated by the idea that practicing doctors are spreading “misinformation” about the risks of Covid, its treatment, and the Covid vaccine. It declares that physicians and surgeons who “disseminate or promote misinformation or disinformation related to COVID-19, including false or misleading information regarding the nature and risks of the virus, its prevention and treatment; and the development, safety, and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines” shall be subject to “disciplinary action,” which could result in the loss of the doctor’s medical license.
The language of the bill itself is intentionally vague about what constitutes “misinformation,” which makes it even more damaging. Doctors, fearing loss of their livelihoods, will need to hew closely to the government line on Covid science and policy, even if that line does not track the scientific evidence. After all, until recently, top government science bureaucrats like Dr. Fauci claimed that the idea that Covid came from a Wuhan laboratory was a conspiracy theory, rather than a valid hypothesis that should be open to discussion. The government’s track record on discerning Covid truths is poor.
The ultimate effect of the bill will be to chill public criticism by California doctors of mistaken government public health diktats since few will want to put their licenses in the hands of the very public health officials with whom they disagree over the interpretation of science. Even legitimate dissent from public health orthodoxy by licensed doctors may be excised from the public square as a consequence. Worse, the widespread distrust Americans now have in public health institutions will only deteriorate further.
And that’s to say nothing of the impact this bill would have on the practice of medicine. Doctors have an obligation to treat each patient as an individual. Yet the California Assembly bill turns doctors into agents of state public health rather than advocates for their patients.
The last couple of years have been a revelation when it comes to public health measures for battling COVID-19 and whatever bugs come next. We’ve seen that masks offer little protection unless they’re the uncomfortable medical variety, states that locked down hardest took nasty economic hits in return for little if any health benefit, and kids isolated by decree from their peers suffer mental health issues.
But don’t tell the politicians—they want more!
Across the country, government officials seem eager to revive mask mandates and, perhaps, other artifacts of pandemic policy, if only as reminders of the high-tide mark of their emergency authority.
“If we do start seeing an uptick, particularly of hospitalizations, we may need to revert back to being more careful and having more utilizations of masks indoors,” Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, taunted a COVID-weary nation on ABC News earlier this week.
Sure enough, within days the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended the mask mandate for federally regulated travel; Philadelphia’s city government did the same for indoor spaces. (Many colleges and universities followed suit.)
Not that face masks make up the entirety of pandemic theater. Political figures ordered businesses and schools closed (while exempting themselves from inconvenient rules), restricted travel, and savaged anybody who objected. But the evidence suggests these authoritarian measures impose high costs in return for little benefit. A new working paper covering state-level pandemic policy published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that closing businesses and schools increased unemployment and reduced GDP without reducing deaths from COVID-19.
“The correlation between health and economy scores is essentially zero, which suggests that states that withdrew the most from economic activity did not significantly improve health by doing so,” wrote authors Casey Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist, and Stephen Moore and Phil Kerpen of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity. (Hawaii is an exception, suggesting to the authors “that island locations can, by sustaining significant economic losses, reduce mortality for a year or more.”)
The study largely replicated findings in an earlier paper by Jonas Herby, Lars Jonung, and Steve H. Hanke that lockdowns in Europe and the United States were ineffective.
All of which is to say that the pandemic, and the policy responses to it, have disrupted American social life in ways hardly seen since Prohibition. The effects of COVID-19 have arguably been more widespread, reaching into classrooms and churches and other community gathering centers, not just drinking establishments. Opportunities for informal interactions dwindled precipitously at the onset of the pandemic; two years later, many of those opportunities either have yet to return or have come back in altered forms. Think of the difference between a scheduled Zoom meeting and an ad hoc office happy hour: Something is lost, even if it’s not precisely clear what.
Even such extreme/inhumane Zero-COVID policy won’t stop spread of the virus. China’s public health officials are just delaying the inevitable & inflicting great harm/suffering on the people. Yet some “experts” in the U.S. still urge us to emulate China.