The crucial turning point in the career of Florida’s Ron DeSantis came with his handling of the coronavirus panic of 2020. Deploying a lighter touch than nearly all states from the beginning, Florida opened up completely, to the screams of horror from major media. He then eschewed mask and vaccine mandates, while keeping schools and beaches open.
His new book The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival explains the backstory to his response and reveals the intense pressures he faced at the time, including the scientific influences that drove his decision-making.
Chapter 10 opens with some quotations from President Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex. “Eisenhower cited the alarming risk that what he termed a “scientific-technological elite”—an elite that is neither interested in nor capable of harmonizing all the competing values and interests that are the hallmark of a free, dynamic society—could commandeer policy and, ultimately, erode our freedoms,” DeSantis writes. “The response to the COVID-19 pandemic vindicated President Eisenhower’s fears, to the detriment of the people of the United States, especially our nation’s children.”
The remainder of the chapter serves as a competent historical survey of the calamity: how it began, how pseudoscience took over, the media complicity, and the strange way common sense and normal liberty were all thrown out the window. As governor, he faced a choice to go along or go his own way. He chose the second path. The narrative in this book is revealing of the stress, the frenzy, and the difficulty of making a hard decision for freedom in the midst of every special interest demanding that you go the other way.
His summary statement of the period:
The elites that drove the response to the COVID-19 pandemic fomented hysteria when they should have promoted calm, produced shoddy modeling and analysis to try to justify destructive policies, asserted certainty when nuance was called for, and allowed political partisanship to trump evidence-based medicine. The cornerstone of the US COVID response—the so-called “15 Days to Slow the Spread” that evolved into boundless Faucist “mitigation”—was ill-conceived, crafted based on inaccurate assumptions, and blind to the harm that heavy-handed public health “interventions” inflict on society.
While doing little, if anything, to slow the course of disease spread, this response in much of our country curtailed freedom, destroyed livelihoods, hurt children, and harmed overall public health. It also exposed the partisanship and rot in public health and the scientific community writ large. In the weeks leading up to President Trump’s announcement of the “15 Days to Slow the Spread” on March 16, 2020, it didn’t seem to me like the US was going to shut down our country. Many of the key players on the then recently formed White House Coronavirus Task Force were urging calm. The pathogen was serious, we were told, but there was no need to panic.
Of course panic was exactly what happened, and this was despite the strange timing of Anthony Fauci’s February 28, 2020, article in the New England Journal of Medicine. He explained that it is most likely that this virus will prove to be about as severe as a bad season of flu. And that article was approved for publication several weeks earlier when he was still counseling calm. By the time it came out, he had already shifted to promoting panicked lockdowns.
The shift in tone was informed in part by epidemiological modeling from Imperial College London. “Drs. Fauci and Birx spearheaded the drive for coercive mitigation policies based largely on epidemiological modeling, not empirical data,” writes DeSantis. “In publicly characterizing the shutdown as a short-term measure, Fauci and Birx were, in reality, setting the country on a course of shutdown until eradication—a goal that was not possible to achieve, but would go on well into 2021, to the detriment of millions upon millions of Americans.” Indeed, “These flawed models drove some truly disastrous policy decisions.”
DeSantis further quotes from Deborah Birx’s own book in which she says that the 15 days bit was always a ruse.
A few days later, the president held a press conference with Fauci and Birx and other members of the task force to announce that he was extending the federal shutdown guidelines for thirty days. Congress had just passed, and the president had just signed, the CARES Act, a massive $2.2 trillion spending bill that appropriated money that could finance a lengthy shutdown by providing stimulus payments to individuals, increasing unemployment benefits, and forgiving loans for small businesses that closed. These two factors really changed the dynamic across the country. The initial call for fifteen days was viewed as a temporary measure but, based on a flawed hospitalizations model, the country was pushed into a lengthy period of mitigation. When asked when it would be appropriate to relax mitigation measures, Fauci broadly and irresponsibly said, “When it goes down to essentially no new cases, no deaths.” What started as a precautionary fifteen-day period of social distancing had transformed into a de facto shutdown until eradication. The consequences of this transformation proved to be devastating to America.
At this point in the narrative, the governor backs up in time to discuss what an unprecedented policy response this truly was. It was never recommended, much less deployed in the past. He tells how he revisited pandemic plans from the past and found the 2006 treatise by Donald A. Henderson, which concluded that coercive mitigation strategies would turn “a manageable epidemic” into “catastrophe.”
What is crucial about this section is just how deeply the governor was reading in the real science at the time. He figured out, for example, that it was crucial to discover just how prevalent this virus really was in the population. Here he relied on Jay Bhattacharya’s April 2020 study of seroprevalence in Santa Clara, California.
He further noted Jay’s public stance against lockdowns. Here was when the governor stopped trusting anything coming from Washington and started leaning even on Florida’s county governments to open everything up. The media howled in horror and dubbed him DeathSantis. The same happened on the mask and vaccine mandates, which the governor effectively outlawed in the state, based not only on his desire to protect the people’s freedoms but also the actual science appearing in the journals.
Particularly fascinating here is the author’s discussion of how he came to realize the seasonality of the virus, a point that was nearly completely lost on major media and the CDC. His realization came from the work of Stanford professor Michael Levitt in his empirical discoveries concerning the trajectory of the disease. This confirmed for him that his number one job was to focus on the vulnerable while protecting the freedoms of everyone else.
Here we have a fascinating narrative of a governor who initially was willing to follow federal guidance until he, nearly on his own, came to discover that it was actually full of holes. At this point, he had to go his own way. We can look back and observe that this took him too long and he surely agrees. What’s notable was his willingness to look at data and facts and apply them in light of his responsibilities as governor.
At the very start of the pandemic, I did not appreciate how the so-called public health experts were such a stridently partisan, highly ideological mess. This became clear a couple of months later when the same public health experts who had been sharply critical of Americans for leaving their homes because of COVID-19 suddenly endorsed the mass protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis…. For two months, these so-called experts lambasted anyone for making a cost-benefit analysis when it came to COVID-19 mitigation policies. Then, the moment it suited their political interests, they reversed course by endorsing the protests as passing their cost-benefit analysis over COVID-19 lockdowns. That they specifically rejected protesting for other causes they did not support told me all I needed to know about what partisans these people were.
At this point, he was done and even suspended the bit of guidance he had previously implemented from the CDC.
After several weeks of consuming data and measuring it against policies implemented around the country, I decided that I would not blindly follow Fauci and other elite experts. To this end, I revoked my order suspending elective procedures at hospitals. The predicted April surge in coronavirus patients never materialized, leaving Florida with one of the lowest patient censuses on record. I also abandoned the federal government’s framework of essential versus nonessential businesses. Every job and every business are essential for the people who need employment or who own the business. It is wrong to characterize any job or business as nonessential, and this entire framework needs to be discarded in pandemic preparedness literature.
As for the idea of vaccine passports, which were embraced by New York and many local governments, DeSantis is very tough in this book, explaining his decision to make them completely illegal in his state.
My view was simple: no Floridian should have to choose between a job that they need and a shot they don’t want. It was especially galling to me that Biden and his ilk were prepared to see policemen, firefighters, and nurses lose their jobs over the shots. These are people who were working on the front lines throughout the entire pandemic—many of them had already had COVID—and now Biden wanted to cast them aside because they wouldn’t bend the knee.
The entire chapter is worth a read, particularly his discussion of the Great Barrington Declaration and the difficulties he faced at each stage in fighting off both federal bureaucrats and media hounds. It’s truly difficult to appreciate the full extent of the pressures at the time but the author does a great job recreating the setting at the time. These days, more people know that he was right, especially given the excellent health, educational, and economic data in Florida, and how it stands in sharp contrast to lockdowns states.
A major decision he took was to appoint the brilliant Joseph Ladapo as his surgeon general. It was not just his scientific excellence that attracted the governor. It was also Ladapo’s willingness and ability to stand up to the intense pressure:
Joe Ladapo is a good example of what it takes to succeed in an administration that bucks elite narratives. Key personnel need to view media smears as a form of positive feedback—the operatives for corporate outlets would not bother attacking someone unless that person is effective and is over the target. Not everyone is cut out to take the arrows, but being able to do so is essential to effectively navigating the political battlefield.
The governor concludes:
We can never let this happen in our country again. Congress must conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation of all aspects of the pandemic—the origins of the virus, the conduct of bureaucrats like Dr. Fauci, the damage done by locking kids out of school, the harm caused by shutting down the economy, the failures of so-called public health experts, the role played by pharmaceutical companies, and the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. For once, Congress must put out the unvarnished truth. President Eisenhower was right about the perils of turning policy over to a scientific-technological elite. As the iron curtain of Faucism descended across our continent, the State of Florida stood resolutely in the way. We helped to preserve freedom and to pull the country back from the abyss. Without Florida’s leadership and courage, I fear that Dr. Fauci and his lockdowners would have won. Our country never would have been the same.
Most political biographies are canned, conventional, and obviously manipulative (example A and B). This one is not. It is honest, frank, exciting, accurate, and an overall excellent read, especially on the topics that truly matter to the future.