A teacher prepares a conference call with a colleague in an empty classroom

Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Navigate to News section

The COVID Wars

Will America revert to lockdowns and panic again? Watch the debate taking place now.

Jay Bhattacharya
Martin Kulldorff
November 14, 2023
A teacher prepares a conference call with a colleague in an empty classroom

Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Now that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the COVID-19 pandemic over, officials are already preparing for the next one, with international negotiations underway to write a treaty that will compel nations to follow WHO directions in the pandemics to come. The treaty, still under negotiation, would push countries to adopt an “all of government” and “all of society” approach, which would make lockdowns much easier to implement going forward.

In the United States, despite damning revelations about the damage done by these policies and the brazen dishonesty of government officials, politicians still seem to be basing their approach to pandemic management on how they think it will play with voters. The problem is that without an honest accounting of these errors, akin to how authorities examine a plane crash for lessons learned to avoid future crashes, the lessons of this pandemic will be written by the leaders who designed those poor policies. That means that lockdowns, school closures, masks, vaccine mandates, censorship, and panic—are still very much in play as part of the official template for future pandemics.

As participants in this debate, we see six prevalent COVID positions extant: Adherents of Zero-Covid, Associates of the Regime, All-in Antagonists, Apostles of Evidence-Based Science, Advocates of Nuremberg 2.0, and the Civilians in the Lockdown War.

Adherents of Zero-COVID

The original architect of this idea was the Chinese government, which in 2020 imposed a zero-COVID goal. That was ultimately impossible. The vaccines do not prevent the spread of COVID-19; masks provide little or no protection; and lockdowns and social distancing can somewhat postpone but not prevent the spread—because of the necessity of daily tasks and our innate need for human contact. Add to that the fact that COVID circulates in nonhuman reservoirs, including dogs, cats, bats, and deer. So, COVID-19 will remain with us forever as a new fifth endemic and common coronavirus.

The Chinese stuck to their goal through 2022, turning vast cities like Shanghai into quarantine camps. Their efforts to achieve the impossible failed predictably and catastrophically, with estimates of nearly 2 million COVID deaths after the Chinese authorities abandoned their zero-COVID strategy and let the virus spread unchecked.

In the West, however, adherents of this zero-COVID cult remain, pining for the days when this policy was still imaginable. That almost everyone has now had COVID has not stemmed their ardor. They blame others for not locking down hard enough, and they now fear long-COVID the same way they previously feared COVID (at least the 99.8% of them that survived). They think long COVID will be a mass disabling event, an ever-looming threat just around the corner. Though the symptoms and syndromes of long-COVID are often hard to define, they are convinced that repeated COVID infections dramatically increase the risk of becoming debilitated. This is not to say that there are not people who genuinely suffer for a long time after recovering from COVID. For instance, COVID patients who ended up in the ICU often have a very long recovery time. But this patient population is a small fraction of the overall population.

In the U.S., the most prominent members of this group have included public intellectuals like Yaneer Bar-Yam and Biden administration officials like Andy Slavitt, who argued as late as October 2020 that the U.S. could eradicate COVID with sufficient effort, despite the fact that COVID meets none of the epidemiological criteria for an eradicable disease. In the U.K., an even larger group of prominent scientists and mathematicians calling themselves “Independent SAGE” argued for zero-COVID well into the pandemic. Devi Sridhar, an author and advocate closely linked to Chelsea Clinton, called for zero-COVID into 2021 in multiple appearances on the BBC and elsewhere. Dominic Cummings (who was then U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s close adviser) lamented that his preferred strategy of sharp and early lockdowns was not implemented early enough in March 2020 and then September 2020.

While this group was previously obsessed with Sweden, warning of the catastrophe awaiting a country adopting such irresponsible policies, they are now oblivious to Sweden’s existence. Maybe they think everyone died there, so the country no longer exists? That Sweden had among the lowest levels of excess mortality during the pandemic does not dissuade the zero-COVID adherents from their faith. And Sweden has not suffered the collateral public health, educational, and economic lockdown damages.

When forced to address Sweden’s success, they talk about vaccinations or the country’s strong social safety net and health care system. This leads us to wonder why these people keep pushing for lockdowns instead of joining those of us advocating for better health care and focused protection for the vulnerable?

Instead, zero-COVID adherents continue to demand that society be reorganized to assuage their anxieties about the spread of the virus. They want people to mask up, restaurants to check for proof of vaccination, and schools to close if a student falls ill. They also want to continue working from home. They are upset that most people no longer fear COVID and have moved on with their lives.

They believe that lockdown policies would have succeeded if we had just locked down harder, and some in the cult believe that lockdown opponents should be held to account as being responsible for millions of COVID deaths as a matter of justice.

They hold particular animus for the tens of thousands of scientists and health professionals who signed the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). In the mind of zero-COVID Adherents, GBD scientists fooled the world into lifting the lockdowns.

They are even more upset with their former allies. Since 2022, due to mounting pressure from the public who knew about Sweden and Florida, the school closures, lockdowns, masks, vaccine mandates, and other pandemic measures have been rolled back. For the Adherents of Zero-Covid, this change of course is an unforgivable betrayal.

Associates of the Regime

This group consists of the pandemic leaders—the motley crew of epidemiologists, virologists, public health officials, bureaucrats, “global leaders” and journalists—who concocted and promoted the pandemic strategy of school closures, lockdowns and mandates. They started with “two weeks to slow the spread” and then got stuck there.

Who are they? In the United States, the group includes luminaries like Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, and Bill Gates, who all head major scientific funding agencies. They leveraged their funding power to keep countless scientists in line for fear of losing research funding.

It has now become clear to many of them that their policies failed to protect the population from COVID, while causing catastrophic collateral harm to millions of people—especially children, the elderly, and the working and middle classes. Associates of the Regime now fear that public recognition of their failures will mar their reputation. To protect it, some have gone silent, focusing on other topics. Others gaslight the public, pretending they were against school closures or that nobody was mandated to take the COVID vaccine.

The lockdown policies were an extraordinary departure from long-standing principles of public health. The old pandemic plans, followed during previous respiratory pandemics, emphasized focused protection of vulnerable people, the rapid development of treatments and vaccines, and minimization of the disruption of daily life. Since these luminaries knew the old pandemic plans—and indeed, many advocated for them before 2020—they can provide no good reason for their departure from sanity.

To craft their COVID policy, the Associates of the Regime relied on “The Science” (TM) rather than evidence-based science. “The Science” (TM) ignored natural immunity after infection, which we have known about since the Athenian plague in 430 BCE, and for COVID since the spring of 2020. They used that to justify lockdowns, such as the Lancet Memorandum, signed by the future (now former) director of the Centers for Disease Control, Rochelle Walensky. At a time of vaccine shortages, they mandated vaccination for those who already had superior immunity, firing nurses and others who did not comply.

They bastardized the precautionary principle, maintaining that since we do not know everything there is to know about the harms of COVID, almost any action was warranted—no matter how damaging and predictable the collateral harms.

Another theoretical justification was the Swiss cheese model. This “model” maintained that public health need not demonstrate that any particular intervention worked since combining multiple unproven interventions together might protect against COVID. It is now evident to all that this theory also failed to protect the population from COVID since nearly everyone has had the virus at least once.

The Associates’ strategy is now to suppress the truth for as long as possible, waiting for the public to forget and forgive. The public health officials, politicians, and journalists who cannot admit the failure of their lockdowns and who helped destroy the basic principles of evidence-based science want to ensure that no honest assessment is ever made. These leaders want the world to move on without any appraisal whatsoever. And if that is not possible, they want to make sure that any official post-pandemic review be colored a shade of white, a bright and clear whitewash.

The All-in Antagonists

This group understands how they were lied to when told that school closures, lockdowns, masks, and vaccines would prevent the spread of COVID. Understandably, they no longer trust the Associates of the Regime. A few hardcore members think that everything is a lie, that there never was a pandemic, that the COVID virus does not exist, or that the “plandemic” was deliberately planned for the purpose of a political or economic agenda. Others believe the opposite of what the Associates of the Regime are preaching, even when the scientific evidence is too weak to conclude one way or the other.

The members of this group are generally not prominent or well-known to the public, but are often prominent in certain social media circles. Perhaps the best-known member proponent of this view is biologist Judy Mikovits, who circulated a viral video titled “Plandemic” in the early days of the pandemic and is still advocating for the idea. Whenever either of us post our ideas on social media settings, we will attract people (though not Mikovits) criticizing us for the assumption that there was a pandemic at all, rather than iatrogenic harm at scale caused by government action on lockdowns and COVID vaccines.

The Associates of the Regime love to focus their attacks on these people. In May 2020, The Washington Post published a long article criticizing Mikovits as a “coronavirus conspiracy” theorist. In September 2022, Full Fact—a credential fact-checking organization—devoted a column to debunking a “Scrabble picture” of Facebook claiming COVID does not exist. By criticizing the All-in Antagonists’ scientific flaws or mistakes, the Associates can deflect attention from their own unscientific conclusions and ironically bring the ideas that the All-in Antagonists hold to broader public attention.

The Apostles of Evidence-Based Science

This group insisted that pandemic measures should have followed basic and long-standing principles of public health. Public health is not just about a single disease, but all aspects of health, and collateral public health damage from lockdowns must also be part of the equation. The lockdowns damaged population health by forcing people to forgo basic preventive health measures for years and further immiserating countless people worldwide who were already struggling before the pandemic. There is a long tail of collateral damage still to be grasped. At best, the lockdowns postponed COVID cases, prolonging the pandemic and making it more difficult for high-risk older people to protect themselves.

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is the principle that medicine and public health interventions should be based on high-quality scientific studies. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are preferred because they avoid biases between intervention and control groups by assigning treatment by a coin flip. Well-conducted observational epidemiological studies can also provide solid evidence when RCTs are unavailable. Apostles of EBM say that doctors and public health officials should base their recommendations on such high-quality studies rather than, say, mannequin studies or mathematical models with unverifiable assumptions.

Two other principles that Apostles of EBM embrace are open scientific discourse without censoring, slander, or ad hominem attacks and the ancient idea of “do no harm.” If there isn’t good evidence in favor of an intervention that may cause harm, public health and medicine should eschew it. It’s not enough to say that we should mask children and close schools because a dangerous virus is afoot. Rather, we should require good evidence that interventions will lead to more good than harm.

The Apostles of Evidence-Based Science call for an honest assessment of the pandemic response and fundamental scientific and public health policy reforms, returning to the basic ethical principles that pre-pandemic public health embraced. They are calling for restoring evidence-based medicine to a pride of place in public health.

We count ourselves as members of this group. Along with other scientists including physician and data scientist Ram Duriseti, epidemiologist Tracy Beth Hoeg, physician and scientist Marty Makary, NIH microbiologist Margery Smelkinson, immunologist and Indiana University professor Steve Templeton, and zoonotic disease researcher Leslie Bienen, we’ve written a blueprint for the agenda for an honest COVID-19 postmortem commission, which we hope someday will take place. This freely available, 80-page document by the “Norfolk Group” contains over 100 questions that any COVID commission should answer.

After every plane crash, government regulators conduct a postmortem evaluation to assess the cause and implement reforms accordingly. The pandemic response was more disastrous than all airplane crashes combined and deserves an equally thorough investigation.

Advocates of Nuremberg 2.0

Members of this group share the dismay about the unscientific and damaging public health policies and censorship imposed during the pandemic. They demand more than just a simple accounting of the errors and reforms to public health. They want scientists, government officials and pharmaceutical companies who misled the public to be punished. Some seek dismissals or fines. Considering the enormous collateral damage caused by lockdowns, mandates, and other policies promulgated by the Associates of the Regime, some seek public trials with jail sentences for the collective actions that led to unnecessary excess deaths worldwide.

Many members of this group are motivated by the harms they or their family members suffered. Some lost their loved ones to cancer diagnosed too late or untreated heart attacks because public health officials—in a bid to keep hospital beds empty—dissuaded people with serious medical conditions from seeking medical care in the early days of the pandemic. Some were prohibited by hospitals from visiting sick family members or saying goodbye to their dying loved ones. Others lost a parent because some governors sent discharged COVID-infected hospital patients into nursing homes, actively spreading the disease to the most vulnerable. Yet others lost a son or daughter to depression or a drug overdose caused by the isolation of lockdown.

Some are motivated by the adverse reactions caused by vaccines they were mandated to take to keep their jobs or go to school. Others believe that mass immunization using COVID vaccines has caused the deaths of countless people. While it was prudent to advise older high-risk people to take the vaccine, widespread mandates were based on false claims that vaccination would yield long-lasting immunity against transmission and infection, that a prior COVID infection did not provide protective immunity, that all ages were at high risk of death and that there were no serious adverse vaccine reactions.

Many of these people who lost family members, jobs, or life opportunities view the failure of public health authorities as sufficiently egregious to warrant severe penalties. They want an honest assessment of pandemic policies like the Apostles of Evidence-Based Science, but they believe that without some punishment, governments will promulgate similar policies in future emergencies.

While we understand this logic, there are also drawbacks. When the authorities investigate an airplane crash, the goal is not to punish those involved but to find out what went wrong and to ensure it never happens again. That requires honest testimony from everyone involved, which is harder to accomplish if severe penalties are at stake. The same argument can be made concerning the pandemic. If there is a Nuremberg 2.0, there will be enormous resistance against any honest commissions or inquiry, and we will never get a complete answer to how and why pandemic management went so wrong, which will prevent the needed reforms from happening.

Civilians in the Lockdown War

This is perhaps the largest group. Following the mandates imposed by the Associates of the Regime, they suffered through lockdowns and put their and their children’s lives on hold. They skipped their parents’ funerals and Thanksgiving dinners as they watched a massive public funeral for George Floyd and Gov. Newsom breaking bread with cronies at French Laundry.
Their mom-and-pop stores collapsed into bankruptcy, even as Amazon and Walmart flourished. They lost their jobs while pandemic policies minted a new pharmaceutical billionaire every week.

They stayed home for weeks on end in their small apartments as politicians partied. Many skipped medical treatments and screening exams during the “two weeks” that lasted years, and as a result, are now diagnosed with late-stage cancers that should have been diagnosed far sooner. They watched their children sit alone at home, staring at a Zoom screen, falling further and further behind in their studies. They watched too many young people becoming depressed or even suicidal.

Members of this group, very understandably, want to move on with their lives now that public health officials have finally permitted them to do so. They hope that a pandemic and lockdowns never happen again.

The COVID War to Come

Three and a half years on, we know what worked and what didn’t work to manage the COVID pandemic. If lockdowns, school closures, mask mandates, social distancing, contact tracing, and all the rest were necessary to prevent mass death, the extraordinary Swedish outcomes would be impossible to explain. Sweden has among the lowest rates of excess mortality since the start of the pandemic in Europe. A more measured approach, focused on protecting the vulnerable and without major disruption to the rest of the population, produced better health and mortality outcomes where it was implemented and would have been better for the whole world.

But facts are only a partial determinant of peoples’ thinking, and often not the most important one. That is the case here. Throughout the pandemic, the Associates of the Regime held the upper hand in determining COVID policy nearly everywhere. And they have the upper hand now in writing the history of the pandemic. They are using this power to paper over their egregious failures, for instance, by pretending to have always been against school closures or by pretending that our children’s learning losses were due to the pandemic rather than unnecessary school closures.

For a long time, we hoped governments would organize honest and dispassionate assessments of the COVID-19 response. Instead, we have whitewashes of pandemic failure where Associates of the Regime evaluate themselves or no honest effort at an assessment at all. Those who devised the lockdowns are instead promoting and showering each other with awards for the disaster they imposed upon the world.

Neither the Adherents of Zero-COVID cult nor the Advocates of Nuremberg 2.0 are likely to get their way and send their boogiemen to jail. The Associates of the Regime will not punish themselves or risk attention by punishing those who were right about the pandemic. Most Civilians in the Lockdown War do not have the appetite for such punitive action. So, we see two possible futures determined by political winds rather than science.

The Apostles of Evidence-Based Science must convince the Civilians in the Lockdown War to pressure politicians to launch a truth-finding COVID-19 commission so the parties responsible for the biggest public health failure in history can be held to account. We will know they have succeeded when lockdowns are permanently removed from pandemic plans. If they fail, however, we can expect to see more of the same—Associates of the Regime responsible for this disaster will continue to be promoted and honored with awards.

If the latter happens, lockdowns and mandates will be enshrined in official plans for future respiratory virus pandemics. It is the Civilians of the Lockdown War who will decide between these two paths, and it is they who will pay the costs with their lives and fortunes in future pandemics.

Jay Bhattacharya is a professor of health policy at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he researches epidemiology and health economics. He is a founding fellow of the Academy for Science and Freedom, a Hillsdale College initiative. He podcasts at the Illusion of Consensus.

Martin Kulldorff is an epidemiologist, a biostatistician, and a former professor at Harvard Medical School. He is a founding fellow of the Academy for Science and Freedom, a Hillsdale College Initiative.