The Covid Response Has Broken Our Trust in American Institutions


I am hopeful that we are coming toward the end of the SARS2 coronavirus pandemic. Deaths are not likely to rise dramatically when cases sharply increase, a different pattern than in the initial waves. That “decoupling” between cases and deaths would be to a great extent due to the successful vaccination of those at risk to die, as well as acquired natural immunity. Unfortunately, it is unlikely the recurring hysteria and mismanagement by those in power will end so quickly.

After more than eighteen months of experience, there remains an almost bizarre lack of understanding that the virus will not simply disappear. Instead, on its way to becoming endemic, cases will continue to peak and ebb periodically, as they have done and continue to do in characteristic cycles all over the world and regionally in the United States. We must learn to live with the virus by offering vaccines to the vulnerable, aggressively exploring early treatments, while also accepting some risk, rather than employing failed, harmful restrictions on low-risk people every time the pattern recurs. Instead of recognizing the evidence, the flow of misleading information lacking perspective, policies counter to scientific data, and the absence of transparency continue.

The unscientific obsession with stopping all cases of COVID-19 continues, including the variants that all scientists expected as the virus mutates and becomes less lethal, without acknowledging the low risk for the overwhelming majority and what should be today’s protection of the most vulnerable to death.

Accountability remains absent from government leaders, public health officials, and scientists in failing to admit errors about lockdowns; some even distort their records and portray disastrous death tallies as “successes.” And now we witness an Orwellian attempt by those who advised what was widely implemented — lockdowns — to blame those who opposed lockdowns for the failure of the lockdowns.

The CDC and public health leaders still fail to visibly acknowledge and then educate the public about the natural immunity in recovered COVID patients or to incorporate that biological fact into our nation’s vaccine policies. The public needs to know that data continues to accrue showing natural immunity after SARS2 infection, like other infectious diseases, is probably superior to vaccine-related protection.

Public health officials and government leaders keep using wildly incorrect projections that instill fear and alarm the public, and when they’re wrong, they fail to acknowledge this fact.

Our public health recommendations did not change after scientific data showed previous rules were arbitrary, incorrect, and ineffective. The six-foot guidelines were not revisited despite the evidence. Many schools force children to wear masks, contrary to science and simple logic. Must we prove the earth is round again?

Serious problems with the data, including misleading PCR testing and overcounting of COVID as the cause of many hospitalizations and deaths in the United States, have never been explained to the public and acknowledged, even though it has been documented in the medical literature.

There continue to be delays in clinical trials and approvals of safe, widely available drugs that show potential efficacy in clinical reports, as if vaccination is the only option.

A COVID testing requirement has been imposed in schools and university campuses, grossly violating ethical standards, including the CDC’s own statement only months ago published in late 2020 that “it is both unethical and illegal to test someone who doesn’t want to be tested, including students whose parents or guardians do not want them to be tested.”

The spirit if not the letter of informed consent has been violated with a vaccine clinical trial in young, healthy children who have extremely low risk from the illness and rarely spread it.

The nation still awaits any indication that there will be a full investigation into the origin of the deadly virus, even if it uncovers potential corruption in our nation’s top science agencies and public health leaders. The world is owed full exposure of the truth without delay.

Why do these failures persist in a nominally science-based, freethinking, and ethical society like ours? Is the herd mentality so powerful, is fear such a dominant emotion, that all critical thinking and values disappear? If the US tallies 50,000 deaths from COVID next year, will we accept that with the relaxed attitude we have about the flu, which has that death toll every year? If not, why not? Are we a nation of science or science-deniers? Do we demand accountability and learn from past error? Is this country committed to the free exchange of ideas, so that truth is determined by evidence and debate rather than decree and false declarations of consensus? Do facts still matter? And what is the end-point, an endless series of panic-driven lockdowns or finally a recognition that the virus will become endemic? Are we committed to civil liberties? The answers to these questions are profoundly consequential.

One issue stands above all others—the urgent need to restore trust in our vital institutions. The management of this pandemic has left a stain on many of America’s once noble institutions. Earning trust back will not be easy.

Trust in government

Almost all governors made entirely arbitrary distinctions. Even if one believed in the health benefits of these diktats, they were handed down with shocking disregard for the potential damages and deaths. In addition to seeing convincing data to justify such measures in the future, the citizenry must be convinced that rules apply to everyone. When elected officials are caught enjoying indoor dining with lobbyists, or public health leaders ignore their own restrictions on family gatherings, they undermine the moral legitimacy necessary for voluntary compliance. That puts the rule of law in future emergencies at risk.

Trust in public health leadership

There has been a repeated, erratic discussion and a shameful absence of critical thinking coming from public health officials. On masks, America’s leading voice of public health issued a number of statements over a period of months that were in direct conflict with each other and with the data, and he still fails to recognize the most compelling studies. On testing, the CDC put up a guideline, then changed it, then took it down, then put back something close to the original. There was no science to prompt those changes. The most visible face of public health praised four northeast US states with the highest rate of fatalities for following his guidance, despite their deadly performance. We also saw statements, actions, and a lack of transparency from our top health and medical agencies that undermined trust in vaccines and potential treatments, an extremely important part of saving lives in the next pandemic

Trust in science

The pandemic exposed grave problems with the essential functioning of science, research and debate. Elite research universities, public health agencies, and top scientific journals quickly fell in line with herd thinking about the pandemic. Instead of open and free discourse to seek the scientific truths underlying urgently needed solutions, we have seen silencing, censoring, and slandering of scientists whose interpretations differed from the desired narrative. Motivation must be questioned once one realizes that most scientists and academics are highly dependent on the NIH for funding, the key to publications and career advancement.  Prestigious journals are now openly contaminated with politics.  Academia and the research community, dominated by a single viewpoint, actively engage in intimidation and false declarations of consensus, as well as through abuse of the peer-review system. That intolerance has fostered a climate of fear and inhibited other scientists and health experts from contributing to the discussion, effectively inducing self-censorship. This dangerous trend threatens the free exchange of ideas essential to democracy.

Trust in educational leaders

The priorities of teachers and their unions were exposed as self-centered, driven by fear for the adult teachers, most of whom are at very low risk, at the expense of the health and future of children. The same holds true for our university leadership. Children are not to be used as shields for adults in any civilized society. No longer can we, as parents and concerned citizens, permit coerced injections of experimental drugs and required testing for access to university education. These requirements are not only unscientific, they also violate our nation’s long-established standards for ethical conduct, medical privacy, and autonomy over one’s own body.

Trust in fellow citizens

Policymakers in concert with the elite class inflicted great harm by undermining fundamental trust in our fellow citizens. Elites in the media have made “freedom” a selfish idea and politicized dissent on the efficacy of masks or various potential treatments. Restrictions on liberty were also destructive by inflaming class distinctions with their differential impact: exposing essential workers, sacrificing low-income families and kids, destroying single-parent homes, and eviscerating small businesses, while at the same time large companies were bailed out, elites worked from home with barely an interruption, and the ultra-rich got richer, leveraging their bully pulpit to demonize and cancel those who challenged their preferred policy options. We should know who to trust by now.

In considering all the surprising events that unfolded in this past year, two in particular stand out. I have been shocked at the enormous power of government officials to unilaterally decree a sudden and severe shutdown of society—to simply close businesses and schools by edict, restrict personal movements, mandate behavior, regulate interactions with our family members, and eliminate our most basic freedoms, without any defined end and with little accountability. And I remain stunned at the acceptance by the American people of draconian rules, restrictions, and unprecedented mandates, even those that are arbitrary, destructive, and wholly unscientific. The acquiescence of the citizenry to such extraordinary and ill-conceived restrictions in a nation that was founded on the principles of freedom from an overbearing government, in a country that stands as the world’s beacon for independence and liberty, is nothing less than shocking.

Today, after all that we have endured from this pandemic, we still must ask why so few were willing to speak out when the most disastrous health policies in history were foisted on ordinary people and above all on our children, our country’s most precious resource. Where were the scientists? The economists? The pediatricians and psychologists? The teachers and university leaders? The constitutional lawyers? The human rights advocates? The ethicists?

This crisis has also exposed what we all know has existed for years but have tolerated in this country—the overt bias of the media, the lack of diverse viewpoints on campuses, the absence of neutrality in controlling social media, and now more visibly than ever the intrusion of politics into science. Ultimately, the freedom to seek the truth and openly state it is at risk.

The United States is on the precipice of losing its cherished freedoms, with censorship and cancellation of all those who bring views forward that differ from the “accepted mainstream.” It is not clear if our democracy, with its defining freedoms, will fully recover, even after we survive the pandemic itself. But it is clear that people must step up—meaning speak up, as we are allowed, as we are expected to do in free societies—or it has no chance.

In 1841, Charles Mackay presciently spoke about the herd mentality: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” So how do we proceed at this very moment, in this country, with its heavily damaged psyche? Those of us who want the truth must keep seeking it, and those of us who see the truth must keep speaking it. Because truth matters. 

This essay is adapted from Dr. Atlas’s new book, “A Plague Upon Our House,” published by Bombardier. Scott W. Atlas is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a professor at the Stanford University Medical Center, and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

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