Second grade student studies online in front of the latest HVAC technology at West Hollywood Elementary. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Letters to the Editor: Lockdown Edition

Donald G. McNeil Jr. and Joe Nocera debate D.A. Henderson and America’s response to the pandemic.

By The Free Press

March 20, 2024

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On Saturday, we ran the latest installment of our Prophets series, which pays tribute to thinkers from the past who predicted our current moment. For his entry, Joe Nocera wrote about D.A. Henderson, the epidemiologist credited with eradicating smallpox who warned against shutting down the world to combat a pandemic. 

Joe’s article prompted a response from someone who actually knew Henderson, who died in 2016: Donald G. McNeil Jr., the former New York Times science correspondent and author of a new book on pandemics, The Wisdom of Plagues. Here’s his letter: 

Joe Nocera suggests that D.A. Henderson, were he alive today, would agree with the premises of Joe’s new book, The Big Fail, particularly the idea that lockdowns were the wrong response to the Covid pandemic. 

Unlike Joe (I suspect), I actually knew D.A. Henderson. I interviewed him frequently and I wrote his New York Times obituary—from which Joe quotes. When presented with new facts, D.A. would change his mind. I gave examples of that in the obit. While Joe is correct in saying that Henderson warned that closing down society to stop a pandemic would have unpleasant consequences, that does not mean he would have backed the absurd idea advanced in the Great Barrington Declaration that we should have just let the virus rip through the population (while somehow—they never explained how—magically “protecting the vulnerable”). That was a ridiculous, dangerous idea, and the Great Barrington epidemiologists—and their acolytes, like Scott Atlas, a member of Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force—kept insisting that the end of the pandemic was just around the corner, thanks to their theory that it would stop when 30 percent of the population had been infected. They were wrong. As early as the late summer of 2020, Atlas was insisting that the epidemic was fading away. At the time, about 200,000 Americans were dead; another 900,000 more would die after he made that statement. 

Joe cites Sweden as a model we should have emulated. It’s an article of faith among lockdown skeptics that Sweden did great during the pandemic. It did not. It became famous in the spring of 2020 for taking a laissez-faire approach. Before the year ended, the country—including the king and the epidemiologist who came up with the laissez-faire policy—admitted that it had failed because so many Swedes had died (mostly in nursing homes). Lockdowns and school closures, much like those in the rest of Europe, were imposed. By the time the pandemic was over, Sweden had a far higher Covid death rate than any of its neighbors (about 2,700 deaths per million vs. 1,200 for next-door Norway). It had more deaths per capita than Germany and was on a par with Spain and France. In other words, it did just about average in Western Europe. 

And the U.S. did terribly, with a higher Covid death rate (3,600/million) than any Western European country. In my book The Wisdom of Plagues I, like Joe, argue that we failed terribly in the face of Covid—but because we reacted too slowly, too incompetently, with too much political fragmentation. And that ultimately, the most important reason for our high death rate was vaccine rejection. 

I’ve been denounced as a totalitarian for arguing in favor of a rapid, aggressive, Pentagon-like response to epidemics, for closing borders, restricting travel, ending home quarantine, ending religious exemptions, and imposing rigorous vaccine mandates (and, yes, brief but rigidly enforced shutdowns and mask mandates if testing data suggest that they will keep local hospitals from being overwhelmed—not to please teachers unions). I estimate that our failed response meant we lost almost 550,000 more lives than we should have to Covid. And I think that if we don’t get better at this, we’ll lose more Americans next time.

And I’m pretty sure D.A., were he still alive, would agree with me rather than with Scott Atlas.

—Donald G. McNeil Jr. 

And here’s Joe’s response:

Donald McNeil spent most of his career as an infectious disease reporter for The New York Times, so it’s not a surprise that he advocates for the Covid mitigation measures championed by his public health sources. But that also causes him to share the same blind spots—overlooking important factors that Henderson pointed out in his 2006 paper. 

The first is that a “rapid, aggressive, Pentagon-like response” doesn’t take into account a hugely important factor: human behavior. You simply can’t lock people up in their homes, shut down their businesses, eliminate every venue for human contact and enjoyment, and expect people to put up with it indefinitely. China took exactly that approach, and its citizens ultimately revolted. When the government finally relented and allowed cities like Shanghai to open up again, a lot of people died. 

Second, Henderson understood, as I quoted him in my story: “You have to be practical, and you have to be humble, about what public health can actually do, especially over sustained periods.” The person who recalled that quote for me was Dr. Tara O’Toole, Henderson’s longtime number two. I venture that she knew him even better than McNeil. And much of what McNeil calls for, such as travel restrictions, simply don’t work. We know now that most of the masks people used during the pandemic didn’t stop the virus either. Lockdowns? The evidence is overwhelming that lockdowns did not ultimately save lives. 

Third, McNeil fails to make important distinctions—distinctions that are key to understanding the rationale behind the Great Barrington Declaration. As Martin Kulldorff, one of the authors of that document, told me, “There is an enormous age difference in the risk of mortality—a thousandfold difference between the old and the young.” The elderly were highly vulnerable to the virus, but as you went down the age scale, people were less likely to die from it. And the number of children who died of Covid was miniscule. McNeil doesn’t mention the harm done to children by lengthy school closings, but it was far worse than any harm inflicted on them by the pandemic. On the flip side, of the 1.1 million Americans who died of Covid, some 200,000 were nursing home residents. McNeil scoffs at the idea that society could protect the elderly while letting the rest of society function, but of course we could. We just chose not to.

McNeil’s view that D.A. Henderson would have turned his back on his lifelong beliefs, based on real-world experience, seems pretty unlikely. So much of life requires balancing risks versus rewards. Pandemics are no different. As bad as the virus was, public-health experts made a grievous mistake overselling the risks to the exclusion of all else. That is why they have so little credibility today. That’s what Henderson understood, and McNeil doesn’t.

—Joe Nocera

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