Performative Pandemic Panic

Officials’ cynical manipulation of the public damaged their own credibility as well as the world at large.


It's bad enough when government officials impose draconian policies out of sincere, if misguided, intentions to protect the public from harm. It's worse when those draconian policies are imposed for performative reasons, in order to elicit a reaction and frighten people. But, over a year after the beginning of the pandemic, it looks like much of the damaging and divisive policy we suffered was just that: not efforts to preserve health, but instead schemes to prod the population into compliance.

"Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, wrote in February 2020 in one of thousands of emails obtained by BuzzFeed News. "The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep[ing] out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a very low risk location."

Fauci voiced his skepticism towards masks to Sylvia Burwell, apparently the same one who served as President Barack Obama's second-term secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. But, despite his doubts, he spent the following months pushing mask-wearing to the public, even touting double-masking as recently as February 2021, a year after he advised Burwell against the practice. During the intervening months, masks became yet another point of conflict between police and the public during a year of protests against law enforcement misbehavior.

"One man took his mask off to answer his phone. Another walked alone on a quiet street with a bare face. The third kept his mask nearby outside a Lincoln Road restaurant while he examined its menu," the Miami Herald reported last August of people slapped with fines by cops for leaving faces uncovered.

Face masks became yet another political flashpoint in a politically polarized country.

"Wearing a mask is for smug liberals," Politico noted in May 2020. "Refusing to is for reckless Republicans."

Now, even with widespread vaccination, mask-wearing remains politically divisive. Some Team Blue partisans retain the coverings just to demonstrate that they aren't Republicans even after Fauci admitted that the chance of vaccinated people getting infected is extremely low, making masks unnecessary.

The situation may have been even worse in the U.K., where public officials deliberately tried to scare the hell out of the public in order to make people more malleable.

"Scientists on a committee that encouraged the use of fear to control people's behaviour during the Covid pandemic have admitted its work was 'unethical' and 'totalitarian'," The Telegraph reported last month about the tactics adopted by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B). "SPI-B warned in March last year that ministers needed to increase 'the perceived level of personal threat' from Covid-19 because 'a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened'."

The story drew on A State of Fear by Laura Dodsworth, a recently published book that charges the British government with weaponizing fear in its pandemic response in order to manipulate the public into accepting lockdowns and other coercive policies.

Manipulative negativity played a powerful role in the U.S., too, with Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warning of "impending doom" in March, even as millions of Americans flocked to get vaccinated and return to normal life. President Joe Biden simultaneously threatened renewed lockdowns as he warned of new infections in a population steadily gaining protection against anything of the sort. That gloom seeped into and dominated media coverage, which bombarded the public with panic porn even when there was encouraging news to report.

"Ninety one percent of stories by U.S. major media outlets are negative in tone versus fifty four percent for non-U.S. major sources and sixty five percent for scientific journals," found Dartmouth economics professor Bruce Sacredote and two co-authors in "Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad News?" Published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. "The negativity of the U.S. major media is notable even in areas with positive scientific developments including school re-openings and vaccine trials. Media negativity is unresponsive to changing trends in new COVID-19 cases or the political leanings of the audience."

Unsurprisingly, when officials and the media tell people that the sky is falling, a fair number will take them seriously—at least until they discover that they've been misled. When asked what percentage of COVID-19 patients require hospitalization, "Less than one in five U.S. adults (18%) give a correct answer of between 1 and 5%," the Brookings Institution's Jonathan Rothwell and Franklin Templeton's Sonal Desai reported of polling data. "Many adults (35%) say that at least half of infected people need hospitalization. If that were true, the millions of resulting patients would have overwhelmed hospitals throughout the pandemic."

Along the way, the potential risks of the virus became yet another partisan issue. While the need for hospitalization is hyped across the political spectrum, in general "Republicans consistently underestimate risks, while Democrats consistently overestimate them," Rothwell and Desai add.

Maybe it's only fair that Americans are politically partisan in their response to politicians attempting to manipulate them.

Americans are not only further divided by the performative policies of cynical officials, they're made poorer by them. Lockdowns imposed by officials who often ignored their own rules crippled businesses, economists point out. And the government "stimulus" spending sold as a replacement for normal economic activity threatens to hobble Americans for years to come.

Perhaps the only saving grace is that, with contradictory and manipulative dictates to the public, officialdom shed its credibility in wholesale lots. Public figures tailored policies and messages with seemingly less regard for the evidence than for herding the population into desired behavior. It's unlikely they'll command sufficient good will to pull such stunts again anytime soon.