Influential people in public health, government and the media failed to rise to the moment
The Covid-19 pandemic represented a test of elites in the U.S., from public-health experts to the corporate media. The results have been disappointing. Policy makers who bucked the elites and challenged the narrative have been proven right to do so.
To begin with, highly publicized epidemiological models were as consequential as they were wrong. The model produced by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London—which forecast millions of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. without mitigation efforts—sparked panic among public-health elites and served as the pretext for lockdowns throughout the U.S. and Great Britain. The lockdowns failed to stop the virus but did a great deal of societal damage along the way—damage that a more targeted approach, seeking to reduce total harms, would have been able to avoid (and did, in places like Sweden and Florida).
Similarly, models predicting massive shortages of hospital beds helped to precipitate the disastrous policy—enacted by states like New York, New Jersey and Michigan—to send contagious, Covid-positive hospital patients back to nursing homes. States like Florida that rejected the models and adopted policies to protect nursing-home residents had comparatively lower nursing-home mortality rates as a result.
The reliance on faulty models was matched by poor public messaging. Elites sent conflicting messages about the efficacy of cloth masks, the uniformity of risk across age brackets, the danger of outdoor transmission and the practical benefit of taking a Covid vaccine.
Perhaps most damaging to public trust was the public-health campaign urging “15 Days to Slow the Spread.” This short-term mitigation, we were told, was necessary to buy time to prepare hospitals for any patient surges. But that reasonable aim was soon transformed into a lockdown-until-eradication approach that left no end in sight for most Americans. Going from “save the hospitals” to “zero Covid” represents one of the greatest instances in history of moving the goal post.
Lockdowns proved a huge boon to America’s corporate media, which primed its captive audience with fear and partisanship. Everything the corporate press did regarding Covid coverage was inseparable from its yearslong obsession with attacking Donald Trump. Weaponizing Covid in an election year superseded any obligation to present the facts with needed context and perspective.
While it was abundantly clear by May that schools represented low-risk environments for the spread of Covid and that the consequences of prolonged school closures were potentially catastrophic, the corporate media did its best to obscure the data and stoke fear and panic among parents and teachers. After all, the media had to take the position opposite Donald Trump.
Had the media presented the data on schools in a rational fashion with proper context and perspective, it is quite possible that the extended school closures we’ve seen in lockdown states would have been untenable and millions of students would be in markedly better shape academically and socially.
For months we were told to “trust the experts,” but far too often over the past year those who were most influential in our society—in public health, government and media—proved incapable of rising to the moment.
Florida cut against the grain of elite opinion and bucked the media narrative. The result is open schools, comparatively low unemployment and per capita Covid mortality below the national average. We cannot simply undo the harm caused by flawed policies advocated by our elites, but we can resolve that we never let this happen to our country again.
—Mr. DeSantis is the governor of Florida.