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London’s Chinatown district, 2020Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
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The Masked Ball of Cowardice

How fear of admitting error in trusting China’s coronavirus propaganda is driving Western societies into a doom spiral

Michael P. Senger
August 30, 2021
Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
London's Chinatown district, 2020Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

“Lockdowns,” the mass quarantine of both sick and healthy people, have never before been used for disease mitigation in the modern Western world. Previously, the strategy had been systematically ruled out by the pandemic plans of the World Health Organization (WHO) and by health experts of every developed nation. So how did we get here?

Mass lockdowns of entire countries as a technique for fighting disease sprung into the world’s consciousness on the order of Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who fomented a global propaganda offensive targeting Western governments and media. Within weeks, the WHO, an organization that once devoted itself to fighting disease and which has sadly become a tool of Chinese foreign policy, promulgated lockdowns into global policy through a series of press conferences that showed a complete absence of analysis or logic.

The world has been fighting a virus from China with a public health policy from China that transforms the world into China. But if the national security community has noticed this bizarre development, they haven’t said so. Instead, their preoccupation has remained largely unchanged since February 2020. Insiders have confirmed that by spring 2020 the national security community was convinced that SARS-CoV-2 was a supervirus leaked from the Wuhan lab, explaining why many supported lockdowns. Yet the key pieces of information that gave rise to the lab leak theory were the videos of Wuhan residents suddenly falling dead, the contrived tale of heroic whistleblower Li Wenliang, and Xi Jinping’s apparent success locking down Wuhan, the city with the lab in it.

One national security official after another has claimed to know the virus came from the Wuhan lab, even as the underlying intelligence information has changed little. If these officials are as confident as they claim to be, great !It does not change the fact that Covid’s average infection fatality rate (IFR) across all age groups is under 0.24%. It’s long past time to address the more concerning question to which the rest of the public has long since moved on: why governments across the world have copied and continue to copy China’s anti-democratic, totalitarian measures in response to COVID-19.

One by one, governments of the world imported China’s totalitarian lockdown measures. Neil Ferguson, whose series of alarmist, wildly inaccurate models fueled lockdowns around the world, recalled how China’s example had inspired him:

I think people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March … It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought … And then Italy did it. And we realised we could … If China had not done it, the year would have been very different.

In the U.K. Government’s official Coronavirus Action Plan from March 3, 2020, discussing social distancing, school closures, and rapid COVID test and vaccine development, nearly every source the U.K. government cited was from China. All the measures outlined in New Zealand’s official COVID-19 Elimination Strategy document—“physical distancing” “widespread testing” “surveillance”—were adopted from China based on the reported success of the CCP’s Wuhan lockdown. The New Zealand Department of Health deleted this document from their website one day after it received widespread attention on Twitter, after having been posted there for over a year.

In Germany, the federal government commissioned a confidential strategy paper “based on the scientific findings of expert teams from the University of Bonn/University of Nottingham Ningbo China” containing a “catalog of measures” to be implemented by Germany’s CDC, later obtained upon FOIA request by Germany’s independent Corona Committee. The strategy paper outlined, in detail, the steps to implement lockdowns, mass testing, and quarantine facilities, among other draconian measures. The paper specifically suggested “appeals to the public spirit” including two words that would soon become a worldwide propaganda slogan during the COVID-19 crisis: “together apart.”

Of the 210 pages of FOIAed emails that led to the publication of the German strategy paper, 118 pages were blacked out entirely. The emails contain frequent discussion of China, but nearly all of these references are redacted. The stated reason: “May have adverse effects on international relations.”

One after another, world leaders tipped over like dominoes, their national bureaucracies falling in line to cease all social and economic activity for the first time in history. In March 2020, the Dutch government commissioned a cost-benefit analysis concluding that the health damage from lockdown would be six times greater than the benefit. The government then ignored it, claiming “society would not accept” the optics of an elderly person unable to get an ICU bed. The Dutch government knowingly took a course of action that would cause health damage—let alone economic damage—six times worse for the Dutch people, out of a concern for optics.

Based on WHO guidance, citing Chinese journal articles, doctors around the world began putting patients on ventilators en masse, killing thousands before a grassroots campaign stopped the practice. Based on the WHO’s guidance on COVID-19 testing, again citing Chinese journal articles, labs used, and continue to use, PCR cycle thresholds from 37 to 40, and sometimes as high as 45. At these cycle threshold levels, approximately 85% to 90% of cases are false positives, as confirmed by The New York Times.

The WHO’s PCR guidance was paired with new international ICD-10 codes for COVID deaths to make COVID-19 quite possibly the deadliest accounting fraud of all time. According to this coding guidance, if a decedent had either tested positive or been in contact with anyone who had, within several weeks prior to their death, then the death should be classified as a COVID-19 death. The result was a terrifying number of supposed “COVID-19 deaths” that bore little relation to the number of “excess deaths” in a given year, even in states and countries that employed few lockdown measures. This absurd number of “COVID-19 deaths” has been used to rationalize any manner of devastation caused by governments’ response to COVID-19—from bankruptcies and mental health crises to deaths from lockdowns themselves.

What’s transpired since has been a predictable spiral into the abyss, aided and abetted at virtually every stage by a media apparatus that has perpetuated the fraudulent lockdown narrative. The Chinese government has financial stakes in almost every top media outlet and friends in corporations, universities, and governments. Preexisting financial relationships with China led institutions to trust information from China, endorse the CCP’s narrative, and ultimately advocate for the global adoption of the CCP’s policies. Owing to this combination of naivete, groupthink, and outright corruption, scientists and journalists have been incorporating information from China into their work as true, when in fact nearly every bit of information that has come from China with regard to the virus has been a lie.

Articles from March 10, 2020, illustrate how media outlets adopted China’s narrative in unison. “How China Slowed Coronavirus: Lockdowns, Surveillance, Enforcers,” reported The Wall Street Journal. “Those containment efforts do appear to have been successful, with the number of new cases slowing to a trickle in recent weeks,” CNN admired. “Xi asserts victory on first trip to Wuhan since outbreak … China’s epidemic statistics suggest that its efforts have been effective,” trumpeted The Washington Post. “The World Health Organization has praised Beijing’s response … ‘This epidemic can be pushed back,’ Dr. Tedros said, ‘but only with a collective, coordinated and comprehensive approach that engages the entire machinery of government,’” The New York Times repeated.

For journalists, indulging the fiction that China controlled the virus appears to have begun as a little white lie—a little something in exchange for all those goodwill seminars and ad placements. It was silly, of course, but what harm could that do?

The snowball effect of this little white lie, that China had controlled the virus, was soon apparent in journalists’ own writing. One after another, they fell victim to their own collective propaganda. Global media outlets legitimized a ludicrous narrative in which the CCP’s two-month lockdown of Wuhan had eliminated domestic cases from all of China, but not before the virus had spread everywhere outside China, where governments now had no choice but to adopt the CCP’s lockdown policies. Within months, they’d begun to sound like foaming-at-the-mouth communists, their every word dripping with illiberalism as they implored the world to emulate China.

“The U.S. has absolutely no control over the coronavirus. China is on top of the tiniest risks,” The Washington Post gushed. “The verdict is in,” Politico ruled, “China has outperformed, while the once-respected American system has disastrously faltered.” “U.S. Says Virus Can’t Be Controlled. China Aims to Prove It Wrong,” The New York Times admired. “China beat the coronavirus with science and strong public health measures, not just with authoritarianism,” the Conversation lectured. “In a Topsy-Turvy Pandemic World, China Offers Its Version of Freedom,” The New York Times suggested. “China eradicated COVID-19 within months. Why won’t America learn from them?” Salon whined.

It’s hard to think of many things worse than marching the world toward totalitarianism out of embarrassment for failing to prevent the world’s march toward totalitarianism. But sadly, embarrassment and denial appear to be the primary motivations of world leaders today. From the courts to intelligence agencies to the media and politicians, it all amounts to a collective shirking of responsibility for determining whether lockdown policies have been implemented on fraudulent pretenses, and whether those policies actually work.

Everything since “15 days to slow the spread”—from the fear propaganda to the masks to the school closures and vaccine passes—has been a cover-up of the catastrophe that was the original lockdowns and denial of the insanity of trusting scientists and billionaires who treat information from China as real. Millions surely suspect the lockdown fraud but feel some subtle aversion to saying so. They don’t want to seem radical or unwoke, or they think it’s someone else’s job. Many refuse to speak up for fear of the backlash against science, the professional class, and China, which couldn’t be more misguided, because nothing can be worse for science and the professional class long-term than letting this fraud continue. But among those who really do believe China’s COVID-19 narrative, or merely pretend to, all the authoritarian methods that supposedly contributed to China’s “success”—including censoring, canceling, and firing those who disagree—are on the table. The vast majority of professionals simply lack the courage to speak up publicly against a fanatical minority armed with these illiberal powers in their crusade for “Zero COVID.”

The truth is that even as scientists and politicians support lockdown mandates, few really believe in them. This can be said with certainty based on their own actions. It’s hard to find scientists and politicians who haven’t been caught breaking their own COVID rules. But none of them, even heads of state, feel they have the power to speak up against lockdown measures without inconveniencing their careers. And anyway, these policymakers seem to think, these rules must not be a very big deal, given how easily they can break them.

The public was led to believe that lockdowns were grounded in rigorous “science,” and that by following them, they were “following science,” when in fact the only analysis had been “China claimed they eliminated the virus this way, so we can too.” The metrics preferred by media outlets have shifted constantly—from mortality to hospitalizations to “cases”—to rationalize public anxiety. With few exceptions, this failure to “crush” the virus has been attributed, absurdly, to lockdowns’ leniency, rather than to their evidently fraudulent scientific origins.

At the heart of the lockdown madness was the collective fantasy of controlling a common respiratory pathogen—a feat the epidemiology profession had agreed was impossible and self-destructive just months prior. When China’s fraudulent data was left out of the mix, it was abundantly clear that no country was ever able to “control” COVID-19. Instead, the virus appeared to resurge in “waves” despite the use of these socially and economically suicidal measures.

The truth is that the origin of lockdown “science” cannot be factually discussed without the Chinese government looking very bad—something media investors are reluctant to allow. It’s even harder to explain phenomena like the fake videos of residents dropping dead during Wuhan’s lockdown, which went viral all over global websites blocked in China, without implying some degree of foul play by the CCP. So instead, overcompensating for Beijing, media outlets portrayed China as not only a responsible international stakeholder, but an admirable one whose example should be followed.

Unfortunately, for the millions of workers and small business owners whose life’s work has been destroyed; the millions of children who have been robbed of years of education and terrorized into believing they’re vectors for disease; the hundreds of millions in the developing world whose governments can’t feed them with debt; and the parents who don’t want to raise their children in a world where long-cherished rights can be indefinitely tossed aside, none of these explanations and motivations are remotely adequate.

Journalists have flailed about to construct reality in a way that pleases the CCP and their investors while being at least remotely plausible to their middle class readers. To date, this is the best they’ve come up with: A supervirus emerged that was so deadly only Chinese totalitarianism could stop it; it caused spontaneous death in Wuhan (but nowhere else) until Xi’s two-month lockdown of Wuhan eliminated it from all of China (but nowhere else), while a steady stream of “variants” now demands indefinite lockdown measures.

Journalists’ downplaying and suppressing any information that contradicts this science-fiction narrative has left those that trust them confused and scared, faced with a seemingly unbeatable virus with inexplicable characteristics and a crisis that makes no logical sense. “The science” changes constantly, sometimes overnight. First, in March 2021, vaccinated persons were supposed to wear two masks, then in May they didn’t need masks, then in July they suddenly needed masks again. “Science.” In early 2021, as vaccines became widely available, scientists and the media introduced the concept of “variants,” justifying ever more restrictions. The resultant reporting has been not only harmful and misleading, but inherently contradictory and just plain bad.

For instance, throughout the summer of 2020, media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired, and Vanity Fair all claimed that the secret to Japan’s success was widespread masking. Mask use and social distancing only increased, yet the number of COVID-19 cases in Japan multiplied dramatically. By summer 2021, Japan was in a state of emergency and had to cancel spectators for the summer Olympics.

Iceland was declared by media outlets to have “beaten” COVID-19 several times, but despite a 70% vaccination rate, COVID-19 cases in Iceland are currently at an all-time high. Cases are likewise at or near all-time highs in Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and several other Southeast Asian countries that the media has declared a “success” on numerous occasions in order to buttress its failing narrative.

The flip side of the phony lockdown and masking “success” narratives is a widespread government and media-inspired terror of the virus that is wildly out of proportion to the relatively moderate health risks it poses. According to the most widely cited study on COVID-19’s IFR by age, the average IFR for those under 40 years old is around 0.01%. But in surveys conducted regularly by the University of Southern California, on average, Americans under 40 have consistently estimated their chance of dying if they contract the virus to be around 10%, a 1,000-fold overestimation.

Likewise, in October 2020, the WHO’s peer-reviewed bulletin showed COVID-19’s overall IFR across all age groups to be about 0.23%. John Ioannidis, the world’s most-cited physician, believes the IFR to be lower and published his own peer-reviewed study showing the overall IFR to be about 0.15%. But in a poll conducted by the Menzies Research Centre, by June 2021 Australians on average estimated their chance of dying if they contracted the virus to be 38%, an overestimation of more than 160-fold.

For the public to be so egregiously misinformed about their actual risk from COVID-19 renders democratic accountability for lockdown measures impossible. Even more so because, as a study by Cardiff University demonstrated, the primary factor by which citizens judge the threat of COVID-19 is their own government’s decision to employ drastic lockdown measures. “We found that people judge the severity of the COVID-19 threat based on the fact the government imposed a lockdown—in other words, they thought, ‘it must be bad if government’s taking such drastic measures.’ We also found that the more they judged the risk in this way, the more they supported lockdown.” The policies thus create a feedback loop in which the measures themselves sow the fear that makes citizens to believe their risk of dying from COVID-19 is hundreds of times greater than it really is, which in turn causes them to support more lockdown measures.

Not that journalists and scientists are alone in this regard. Far from it. Every step of the way, the international synchronization of lockdown mandates has given a cosmopolitan veneer to policies that are inherently unscientific, unprecedented, ineffective, totalitarian, brutal, and dumb. The components of the lockdown fraud are so glaringly obvious, and its mechanics and methods so overtly Orwellian, it’s hard not to conclude that illiberalism became something of a global fad in 2020. Nowhere has this illiberal fad manifested itself more visibly than in the high courts.

The United States Supreme Court and its followers have used Jacobson v. Massachusetts, a 1905 case in which a man was fined $5 (about $150 today) for refusing a smallpox vaccine, as the precedent justifying all the draconian measures to which Americans have been subject over the past 18 months. A single paragraph written by Chief Justice John Roberts in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Gavin Newsom is essentially all the Supreme Court has written about COVID-19 mandates:

The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts the ‘safety and the health of the people’ to the politically accountable officials of the States ‘to guard and protect.’ Citing Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905).

Roberts’ opinion is problematic in several respects. First, Jacobson has been overruled many times, not least because it was subsequently used to justify eugenics; its resurrection has been compared to “resurrecting Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, or Korematsu”—Supreme Court cases referred to as “anticanon” owing to not only their lack of intellectual rigor but to the unimaginable human tragedies they precipitated. Rather than applying strict or rational basis scrutiny, the Supreme Court appears to have exerted precisely zero effort to determine if COVID mandates actually advance their purported goal of reducing viral transmission. Roberts waves off this responsibility with one sentence: “The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter.”

Roberts asserts that “medical and scientific” actions of “politically accountable officials” should not be second-guessed by an “unelected federal judiciary”—apparently forgetting that not only are health officials unelected, but “second guessing” the actions of officials is the sole purpose of judicial review. Courts are meant to uphold rights in spite of the whims of officials, precisely because political accountability is a lengthy and imperfect process. 

Third, whereas the fine at issue in Jacobson was $5, COVID lockdown policies have cost the United States upward of $16 trillion. But with that one paragraph in South Bay, Roberts set a superprecedent, signaling that U.S. courts should essentially never interfere in deciding what orders are constitutional during a “pandemic.” The Supreme Court and its international counterparts simply declined to review virtually any challenges to COVID-19 mandates, effectively suspending all legal accountability as the lockdowns unfolded. One of the greatest suspensions of civil liberties in American history was occurring, and the U.S. Supreme Court simply abdicated its duty out of deference to wolves cloaked in the sheepskin of science.

Whether out of diffidence, indifference, complacency, laziness, or simply the same spell of groupthink that bewitched much of the population, the Supreme Court and its international counterparts appear to believe it is not their job to determine whether the pretense of COVID-19 restrictions as “science” is fraudulent. Perhaps these courts don’t think lockdown policies are a very big deal, or that if there were anything untoward about them, intelligence agencies would say so. Unfortunately, intelligence agencies appear to think it’s not their job, either.

Having absorbed disinformation into policy, the formidable machinery of Western institutions has, perversely, helped promulgate a totalitarian hygiene regime around the world, and turned against those standing up for western values that politicians appear too spineless to defend. Police brutality is on the rise as law-enforcement personnel face protesters rightfully angry at the ongoing suspension of human rights through policies rationalized only by the exaggerated fears the policies themselves create, and which therefore have no endpoint. Whether COVID cases go up, down, or sideways, the solution offered by lockdown scientists and public health officials—the WHO being only the worst offender—is always the same: Be more like China. Every policy they’ve imported has been as deeply illiberal as it is ineffective, and many are disturbingly willing to suggest permanent changes to our civilization rather than admit error.

As the experiments of Stanley Milgram proved, people can be convinced to commit atrocities when ordered to do so by scientific authorities. From journalists and judges to politicians and common professionals, the public has granted health officials one exception after another to their most fundamental rights, and they’ve been misled every step of the way. Whether out of gullibility, face-saving incompetence, or something worse, they’ve brought the world to a frightening place.

For political watchers, it’s been baffling to watch leaders muddle through the most inexplicable geopolitical debacle since the Thirty Years’ War. It is equally terrifying to know that a policy catastrophe of this scale is possible in the 21st century. But judging by his regime’s activities and the story of how all this began, at least one world leader was well aware of this potential.

For Xi Jinping, lockdown was never about a virus. It was about sending a message: that stripped of all disguise, the illusion of virtue, competence, and commitment to human rights among the Western political class is nothing more than conformity with easily subvertible norms and institutions passed down by prior generations. As lockdown policies grind on into their 18th month, it’s increasingly difficult to disagree with him.

Michael P. Senger is an attorney based in San Francisco and author of the book Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World.