Monday, January 22, 2024

A pandemic mea culpa from Francis Collins

IT COMES three years too late. But Francis Collins, the former head of the National Institutes of Health, has finally admitted that the COVID-19 lockdowns caused a massive amount of harm — harm to which he and other government public-health experts, such as Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were oblivious because they were obsessed with doing things their way.

The mea culpa came last summer during a conversation hosted by Braver Angels, an organization that promotes dialogue among Americans with sharply different ideologies and political loyalties. Collins, who as NIH director played a central role in shaping Washington's response to COVID-19, was paired with Wilk Wilkinson, a Minnesota trucking manager and podcast host who strongly opposed how government officials addressed the pandemic. The 90-minute exchange, moderated by Boston College professor Martha Bayles, was recorded six months ago but only recently attracted attention when excerpts were posted on social media.

The whole conversation was interesting, but one segment in particular was jaw-dropping. Collins described with remarkable candor just how narrow-minded, how willfully myopic, he and other high-level public health officials had been as they dealt with the crisis.

"As a guy living inside the Beltway, feeling the sense of crisis, trying to decide what to do in some situation room in the White House with people who had data that was incomplete, we weren't really thinking about what that would mean to Wilk and his family in Minnesota a thousand miles away from where the virus was hitting so hard," confessed Collins, who retired from the NIH at the end of 2021. "We weren't really considering the consequences in communities that were not New York City or some other big city."

That was a stunning admission. What he said next was even more scandalous.

"If you're a public health person and you're trying to make a decision, you have this very narrow view of what the right decision is, and that is something that will save a life. Doesn't matter what else happens. So you attach infinite value to stopping the disease and saving a life. You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people's lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never recover from."

"Collateral damage," said Wilkinson.

"Collateral damage," Collins agreed. He and his colleagues were locked in what he now concedes was the "public health mindset" — a monomaniacal approach that blinded them to the injuries they were causing. "A lot of us had that mindset, and that was really unfortunate."

Was it ever.

As early as March 2020, Fauci recommended a nationwide lockdown and called for a "dramatic diminution of the personal interaction" in daily activities. He warned that "life is not going to be the way it used to be in the United States," while insisting that was "best for the American public." Collins said at the time that the only correct approach was "one that most people would find to be too drastic because otherwise it is not drastic enough."

Now, of course, it is far too late to mitigate any of the pain endured by millions of Americans hurt by the government's high-handed edicts and recommendations. Those curbs and controls began with the declaration of a federal emergency and travel ban, which in turn spurred many states to order their own restrictions.

The coast-to-coast lockdown destroyed tens of millions of jobs and at least 200,000 small businesses. It exacerbated numerous social ills, worsened mental illness, and took a deadly toll in missed cancer diagnoses and untreated heart disease. The prolonged school closures inflicted unprecedented damage on children. The social distancing and mask mandates were enforced with a ruthlessness that at times turned despotic. And countless men and women — from ordinary citizens to noted epidemiologists to elected state officials — found themselves demonized, censored, or shunned for challenging those who attached "zero value" to their concerns.

All this damage was caused not by the pandemic but by politicians who abdicated their judgment and left it to public-health experts. Whether out of panic, pigheadedness, or perversity, they declined to balance costs against benefits, a basic function of policymaking. Instead, they insisted they would "follow the science" — as though scientists were endowed with an infallible road map to navigate COVID's complex interplay of disease, economics, education, psychology, and politics in a nation of 330 million people.

The great economist and social historian Thomas Sowell has often observed that "there are no solutions, there are only tradeoffs." That is a fundamental reality in all policymaking. There are pros and cons to everything government does. For officials responding to the pandemic, there can hardly have been a more shocking intellectual failure than the one to which Collins now confesses: attaching "infinite value" to stopping the disease and no value at all to everything else.

The same sort of thinking can be a pitfall in many other areas. Focus on reducing fossil fuel use at any price, for example, and the results will be stunted economic growth and continued misery for many of the world's poorest people. Assign maximum importance to achieving racial diversity in student admissions and the result is affirmative action preferences so lopsided that they violate the Constitution. Allow the prevention of another 9/11 to override every other consideration, and the CIA ends up torturing prisoners in secret "black sites" beyond the reach of law.

From crime to homelessness to addiction to national defense, there are always costs to be weighed against benefits. And if acknowledging tradeoffs is indispensable to the work of government, it is especially so at times of crisis.

Toward the end of the Braver Angels conversation, Collins acknowledged another way in which he and many of his inside-the-Beltway colleagues blundered.

It was folly, he said, to think that Washington knew what was best for the whole nation. "The fact that we could put blanket recommendations across this incredible wide, broad, and diverse country and expect them to be right . . . obviously could not have been correct. And yet that's what was done."

COVID-19 would have been a terrible destroyer in any case. But it was made all the more catastrophic by the failure of politicians and experts who not only were sure they knew best but were unwilling even to consider other views. Americans' respect for public-health experts took a beating during the pandemic, and it is a black mark on Collins's legacy that he was so complacent about the harm the government's policies caused. For belatedly admitting where he went wrong, he certainly deserves credit. Let him continue to speak out, to warn other scientists against falling into the same trap, and he'll deserve a lot more.


UK Covid Inquiry Put on Hold

The Covid Inquiry in the United Kingdom initially looked like it was going to be just “window dressing”. The Inquiry, which began at the end of May in 2023, as an independent public investigation with many of the government ministers wanting trying to stop or dodge questioning. The Inquiry is headed by Baroness Heather Hallett, a former Court of Appeal Judge. The important aspect of the Inquiry is that it exists. In December of last year, alternative viewpoints to Covid and the vaccine were heard along with politicians, specifically testimony from former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson admitted mistakes in his handling of the pandemic but that he did his “level best” at the time. Now, it appears the UK Covid Inquiry is on “hold.”

Public Hearings Postponed

Last week, the UK COVID-19 Inquiry issued a statement formally announcing the Inquiry will be “rescheduled”. The hearings were scheduled to take place in the summer of 2024, but will now happen at a later date to allow organizations time to “prioritize” their materials for the inquiry’s third investigation on the impact of the pandemic.

Baroness Hallet, the chair of the Inquiry, said she knows people are disappointed with the postponement but said more time was needed to prepare for a separate investigation on how the pandemic impacted the British National Health Service (NHS). "I want to ensure our hearings in 2024 are as effective as possible and I recognize the increasing pressure on organizations to respond to requests and provide information to the inquiry," the Baroness said. "I remain committed to not allowing the inquiry hearings to run beyond my original aim of summer 2026," she added.

Different “Phases”

The UK Covid Inquiry has been split up into different phases. The first phase, which started in 2023, was set up to gather evidence in the planning for the pandemic. The findings and recommendations of this phase are due this summer. The second phase is looking at how political decisions were made after the Covid pandemic hit Britain. The second phase started in London in October of 2023, and will travel to the rest of the UK to collect evidence.

Public hearings will start again this September, to look at the impact the pandemic had on the NHS. There is also an investigation into vaccines which will cover the safety of the Covid jabs and the link between the serums and heart ailments. The investigation will cover whether reforms are needed. No timetable has been set for the return of the hearings, but the Inquiry has promised more details in the “coming weeks.”


The political implications of the Inquiry could influence the next election in Britain. First, Simon Case, the current cabinet secretary for the Conservative government, is expected to testify in a special hearing in the spring. Reportedly, Case was critical of British ministers during the pandemic and had said former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was “unable to lead.” Second, the publication of the independent Inquiry could cause election problems for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The findings could reveal how the government was obsessed with Brexit and the pandemic was downplayed.

Already, former ministers have criticized the UK Covid Inquiry. Former Health Minister Lord Bethell complained the investigation was too focused on “office tittle tattle”. Reportedly, Bethell was involved in negotiating “controversial contracts.”

Rivka Gottlieb, a spokesperson for the COVID-19 Bereaved Families, UK said, the Inquiry’s findings “must be released as soon as possible so they can be put into action to protect us from a future pandemic.” Unfortunately for those most in need, such as individuals struggling with injuries or long COVID it will likely be too little too late, in other words, window dressing.




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