What are the origins of the SARS-Cov-2 virus? Was it genetically engineered by humans? Was it released from a lab in Wuhan, China through malice or negligence, regardless of origin? How deadly is it? How does it compare to past pandemic-causing viruses? Is this the first pandemic in a century? Why did individuals panic and obsess over this virus and the pandemic to which it led even though they did not to other pandemics? Are so-called “non-pharmaceutical interventions” politically justified? Are they efficacious? Do they do more harm than good? And how trustworthy are the organizations that informed, or purported to inform, the public about the COVID-19 pandemic and other health crises?
In The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Crisis into a Catastrophe (Regnery), Douglas Axe, William M. Briggs, and Jay W. Richards answer some of these questions and not others. Their book is a generally informative chronicle of a recent, rapidly changing, and complex topic.
Written and published before recent surges and vaccine announcements, The Price of Panic is an overview of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis from the earliest documentation of the virus late last year to about summer 2020. It also contextualizes the events of the last year and compares and contrasts them to past pandemics and plagues and the political responses, or lack thereof, to same (they note that there is no record of interventionist Woodrow Wilson publicly commenting on the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic).
The authors recount a bizarro—some would say nightmare—world both before and after the worldwide COVID-19 panic, from a World Health Organization beholden to the regime of Communist China to US nursing home residents sent back to nursing homes while mobile supply hospitals were shuttered without seeing a single patient. They dedicate considerable space to questions of whether or not the virus was manmade. Comparing and contrasting spike protein regions of SARS-Cov-2 to other coronaviruses, they conclude it is extremely unlikely the virus was engineered (and, if it did happen, it was an example of ineptitude). They do seriously consider the possibility the virus escaped from a lab, whether purposefully or otherwise, and provide some evidence to support that possibility.
The authors also pay considerable attention to notorious WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Ghebreyesus is a malaria expert who is affiliated with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, an Ethiopian political party that they describe as both communist and ethno-nationalist. The book provides several examples of the organization’s and Ghebreysus’s apparent pro-China dissembling. One of them was a series of Tweets downplaying the possibility of person-to-person transmission of the latest coronavirus. (China’s Tweet was actually more open to the possibility of person-to-person transmission than WHO’s.) Another was a Canadian physician and representative of WHO hanging up when a journalist asked him about Taiwan. When the journalist reconnected the call and asked the same question, the physician deflected, replying that he already talked about China, which the journalist hadn’t mentioned. (China does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.)
Further, the book includes details about the computer models used to panic governments into unprecedented, drastic action with serious economic, social, and other consequences. The two most commonly cited models were the Imperial College London model and the Institute for Health & Metrics at the University of Washington model. The former model was designed by Neil Ferguson, an epidemiological modeler already notorious for his wildly inaccurate and meaningless predictions in the past. The authors note that Ferguson was caught violating his own lockdown recommendations. (They do not mention the nature of the violation: a sexual relationship with someone he met on the internet.) The model predictions were off by orders of magnitude (as were those of all the other models).
Fascinating is the section outlining the late Donald Henderson’s opposition to the idea of “social distancing” and “lockdowns”. Henderson, who was an epidemiologist, is widely regarded as the individual most responsible for eradicating smallpox from Earth. He entirely rejected the idea that shutdowns and six-foot social distancing were efficacious tools to control a pandemic or would not do more harm than good when the ideas were first proposed early in the twenty-first century.
Later, they explain how the media helped spread panic far and wide. For instance, the media (and authorities) continued to cite models that had long been discredited. (As of publication, Google continued to provide their users with a long-debunked 3.4% death rate.) They identify three steps: “Excessive Noticing”, “Obsess Over Cases”, and “Compare Kiwis to Tangelos”. Regarding the first step:
“Picture an autumn setting. The newspaper headlines are about something a politician said. Half the country greets it with applause, the other half with outrage. Further down the front page, a celebrity speaks about a subject she knows nothing about, and a grateful nation welcomes her words.
“Buried at the bottom is a small item. A person has died of an illness doctors say was likely caused by a virus. A week later, the news is much the same. Only now, somewhere nearer the top of the page comes the report that sixteen people have died from the virus. Another week later, with eighteen new cases, journalists are asking the sources on their contact lists why the deaths might be increasing. They report that ‘questions are raised about the deaths.’ News of the virus’s death toll now takes top spot each day. Before long, deaths have rocketed to 118. This grows to 165 in another week and 259 the week after. Experts warn of an exponential rise. Everyone gets a crash course on doubling times. Doctors warn that the virus will stress hospitals, maybe to the breaking point, unless something is done. Nobody knows what this ‘something’ is—just that it better come quickly.
“Politicians scramble. The Drudge Report posts pictures of the awful demise of some of the virus’s victims. Another outlet quotes the neighbors of a man who had said, ‘I’m not worried about this thing’ and then died of it a week later. Public mood shifts to the opinion that scoffers like that have it coming. New deaths in the United States break one hundred a day, then more than two hundred a day—each and every day. Panic and fear are everywhere. In the worst week, 1,626 deaths are recorded. The news is all virus, all the time. Then, just as politicians are ready to issue shelter-in-place orders, deaths fall to 1,179 a week, a clear decrease. The order is delayed. Predictions of a second spike, based on a computer model, go viral. The pitch of the panic is still feverish. Yet the drop proves real. For the first time in two months, a week passes with fewer than 1,000 deaths. The next week it’s down to 738. Then only 500. ‘We’re not out of it yet!’ warn the nation’s top experts. The L.A. Times runs a story under the headline: ‘Californians are losing their fear of the virus, setting the stage for disaster.’ But even as they broadcast their fear, the weekly deaths drop below one hundred to fifty-three. Then forty-three. Then twenty-six. The following week we all forget the virus and return to other outrages du jour. Until next year, when the cycle repeats. As it would every year if we gave a blow-by-blow account of the seasonal flu in the United States.
“Apart from that L.A. Times headline, the hype in the above account is fiction. But the death numbers are real. We have taken them from the 2017–18 flu season. The numbers change every year, but the general shape of the peak … repeats every year, not just in the United States, but throughout the world.” (loc. 473-500)
Whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic is less or more dangerous in general than seasonal influenza (it is certainly less dangerous to the young), the principle is sound. The media is currently doing both “excessive noticing” and “obsessing over cases” with their obsession with, and constant tickers of, “cases”, including many positive PCR tests (which even The New York Times has called into question and Dr. Anthony Fauci has called “meaningless”). Attention is also paid to the obfuscation of “infections” (often asymptomatic or very mildly symptomatic) with “cases” (which require medical treatment). In step three, they point out that all-cause mortality is a better metric to determine the severity of a pandemic than focusing only on pandemic deaths. (In other words: Is the pandemic killing otherwise healthy people? How many of its victims likely would have died of other causes?)
Later, Axe, Briggs, and Richards examine the timing and effects of so-called “lockdowns”. With a series of graphs, they show that the “lockdowns” do not appear to have had much, if any, effect on cases and deaths—and that cases had already started declining before the shutdowns were instituted. Additionally, they criticize claims that lower-than-predicted death rates were a result of shutdowns and mandates, comparing such pronouncements to the famous “Rainmaker” effect:
“It’s absurd for anyone to claim that the model justified lockdowns. This feature—looking good no matter how bad your predictions—reminds us of the classic ‘Rainmaker Scam.’ Desperate for rain in the summer of 1894, the people of one Nebraska town hired a ‘rainmaker’ to solve their problem. His ‘rainmaking’. apparatus consisted of ‘two ten-gallon earthenware crocks,’ one called the ‘thundermug,’ the other the ‘lightning-mug.’ They were black boxes to the townspeople, because ‘as the stuff that does the mischief is inside, the true inwardness of the contraption is not visible to the naked eye.’ They had to trust the expert (the rainmaker), who declared that it would rain within five days. Or, if it didn’t, that would mean that there was ‘something wrong with the atmosphere’—for which the rainmaker had a yet more expensive remedy.
“That trick of claiming that any outcome proves you were right can really come in handy. One California doctor used it masterfully when the death numbers turned up short. ‘What we’re trying to do is prevent people from dying, that’s what we’re trying to do in the Bay Area,’ he said. ‘The early projections were that there would be 44,000 deaths in the Bay Area. There have been 210 so far so I think we’re doing pretty damn good and I certainly don’t want to mess with that kind of success.’” (loc. 1433)
Axe, Briggs, and Richards do a generally remarkable job writing a book with this depth and scope in such a short period of time. They convincingly write that doomsday predictions should have been received with skepticism. They explain why the likes of Ferguson and the constantly flip-flopping Fauci constantly overstate the dangers of pandemics and understate (or even evade) the dangers of closures, shutdowns, etc. (they call it being “wrong in the right direction”). The authors should also be commended for their pithy epigraphs—instructive quotes from Sowell, Hayek, Mencken, et. al., one of them cited from this publication.
Downsides of the book include its obvious conservative framework. They have an obvious proclivity for religion and social conservatism. (They mention abortion twice.) Also, while conservatism is their implicit frame of reference, the book is lacking a more explicit, overarching intellectual framework to understand pandemics, or emergencies, or human life, in general—or the COVID-19 pandemic in particular. The book lacks an explicit positive philosophy, focusing on the negative—panic, myopia, etc. The closest they come to a positive philosophy is in passages like this:
“In this book, we diagnose and dissect the response to the crisis by the public, the press, and the government. Historically, it’s during crises that governments expand their reach. And unfortunately, they almost never retreat after the crisis has passed. Alas, the panic over COVID-19 has given rise to an expert-media industrial complex. It has the power to trigger public panic, which in turn inspires government overreach. These experts and their like-minded media heralds now have even more incentive to use our fear and our compassion against us.
“To resist this new force, the rest of us need a way to distinguish evidence from extrapolation, and data from models. We need to know just how hard it is for scientists and physicians to tease out the many causes that contribute to death in human populations. We need to be able to tell truth from truthiness, and wisdom from hokum. To know when experts are trustworthy, and when they’re blowing smoke. We need to know what happened and how it happened, so we can keep it from happening again. Or the coronavirus will turn out to be the least of our problems.” (loc. 169-177)
Nonetheless, The Price of Panic is a generally comprehensive factual overview that is fair and fair-minded. Whether or not all of the authors views are correct will take time to determine, but those views are presented responsibly. Unlike so many publications on all sorts of topics today, it does not engage in well-poisoning or assuming bad intentions among those with whom the authors disagree. Whether or not it will find an audience, it should have one.