Team Lockdown and Shrub Science

The Untold Story of the Birth of Social Distancing

The idea has been around for centuries. But it took a high school science fair, George W. Bush, history lessons and some determined researchers to overcome skepticism and make it federal policy.

By Eric Lipton and Jennifer Steinhauer
April 22, 2020

The concept of social distancing is now intimately familiar to almost everyone. But as it first made its way through the federal bureaucracy in 2006 and 2007, it was viewed as impractical, unnecessary and politically infeasible.

“There were two words between ‘shut’ and ‘up’” initially, said Dr. Howard Markel, who directs the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine and who played a role in shaping the policy as a member of the Pentagon research team. “It was really ugly.”

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My first response when I heard about the national policy of locking down public life was, "Are you shitting me? This can't work." We were all disoriented at the time, and I certainly did not fancy myself a scientist, a doctor or even minimally knowledgeable about the medical dimensions of this impending pandemic. So, I reluctantly went along with the regulations. I was lucky enough to be able to work from home, and I put a mask on whenever I left my home. Seven months later I am still going along with it -- and still thinking that this shit was crazy.

It turns out that some people who really did know something about public health had the same reaction I did to this idea.

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One particularly vociferous critic was Dr. D.A. Henderson, who had been the leader of the international effort to eradicate smallpox and had been named by Mr. Bush to help oversee the nation’s biodefense efforts after the 2001 terrorist attacks. /snip/ The measures embraced by Drs. Mecher and Hatchett would “result in significant disruption of the social functioning of communities and result in possibly serious economic problems,” Dr. Henderson wrote in his own academic paper responding to their ideas.

The answer, he insisted, was to tough it out: Let the pandemic spread, treat people who get sick and work quickly to develop a vaccine to prevent it from coming back.

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I lost a friend in real life when I just asked the question, "Is the cure worse than the disease?"

The New York Times article goes on to say that the Bush Administration eventually decided in favor of the new and totally untried strategy -- and the decision was "little noticed" outside specialists in the field.

This means that the current strategy for fighting the virus was the result of a political process that resolved a disagreement between experts. It was not a decision made by "science." The lead voice in support of this strategy is quoted at the end of the article with this bit of perspective:

Dr. Markel called it “very gratifying to see our work used to help save lives.” But, he added, “it is also horrifying. We always knew this would be applied in worst-case scenarios,” he said. “Even when you are working on dystopian concepts, you always hope it will never be used.”

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Team Lockdown is comprised of all the reporters, bloggers and internet voices who vehemently criticize anyone who expresses any level of doubt whatsoever about the Social Distancing policy. On this board I have asked the question about what Dr. Merkel understood to be the horrifying reality that his policy was dystopian and must only be used in a worst-case scenario. Nobody tried to answer the basic question.

In support of the the Lockdown, we have heard a 7 month long procession of numbers. Numbers of deaths, numbers of cases, numbers of new cases, numbers of hospitalizations, numbers relating the rate of change of each of those numbers. All that quantification sounds all science-y, but it really does not explain anything about the prime question posed by Dr. Markel: Is this a worst case scenario?

It no longer matters. Social distancing has done its worst already. We might as well keep all the restrictions in place forever or until the virus is "contained" -- whatever that is supposed to mean. Nevertheless, I am extremely angry at Team Lockdown for its fundamental dishonesty in getting us to this pass. And at some point, if civilization survives this dystopian nightmare, we will need a Truth Commission to sort out how all this insanity played out.

The article points out something I missed at the time, while really wondering how it happened that corporate America started the lockdown before any government took action. I can relate to the idea that somebody SHOULD take action when political "leaders" like Trump are preventing necessary action. If they were right, the various private parties described in the article who forced implementation of the strategy should be considered heroes. If they were right.

Team Lockdown tirelessly suppresses any discussion of that primary question -- was the guy who fought smallpox, Dr. Henderson, right in the first place that this kind of "cure" was too disruptive to be a practicable strategy? And were these guys who might be heroes right in their assessment that dystopia was less damaging than the virus?

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The primary tactic for diverting any discussion of the First Premise of the lockdown is the False Dichotomy. Do you support Science or do you support the Prince of Idiots and his followers? This is a venerable tactic that the Status Quo uses to prevent consideration of facts that contradict the Prevailing Narrative. It has worked very well for decades.

The first time I noticed the technique was during the Reagan Years. I saw Jean Kirkpatrick on TV, responding to a question about intervention in Nicaragua, "So it appears that you prefer the Sandinistas to Freedom Fighters." This prevents consideration of the idea that it is none of our freaking business who runs Nicaragua. This gag comes back into play decade after decade. Do you prefer a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein, Sadat or Khadaffi? I could not care less who runs other countries, but my point of view is banished from public debate by this clever technique of binary framing.

So to preempt the usual routine of explaining the "science" of the virus and all the spikes and surges, rather than giving a straight answer to the question of what would have happen if we did not use the Bush Technique -- let me make these concessions in the debate:

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1. The virus is not a hoax. It is a very serious health threat.

2. I do not care about "freedom" with respect to resisting the virus. By analogy to war and natural catastrophes like earthquakes and wildfires, we all have to surrender our personal preferences in order to preserve lives.

3. I do not care about the mask. I wear one whenever I leave my residence. It is only a minor inconvenience.

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My objection to Team Lockdown is the obstinate refusal to make a case for their policy, instead falsely claiming that they are defending science. No they are not. They are defending a political decision made in 2007 by George W. Bush. It might be a good political decision, based on the actual experience of our citizenry. That looks like a very dubious proposition seven months into this experiment in social discipline. But it could still ultimately be vindicated -- depending on how much damage the lockdown ultimately causes. If we wind up with an economic "recovery," that allows a return to stability, the policy will have worked.

If the Depression is as disruptive as I think it will be, then Team Lockdown will have committed mass murder.

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Lookout's picture

https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/medical/who-official-urges-world-leader...

Chris has a great clip of the WHO bus U-turn
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbGG79WGmu4&t=1m
Watch 1 min to see the U-turn. Pretty funny.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

@Lookout A WHO official or WHO the organization? The URL says WHO official. They are two very different things with very different weights when considering the veracity of a claim or position. I see a dissenting voice and nothing else.

On the contrary I have two internist friends, one an infectious disease specialist who worked for the CDC on AIDS and Hepatitus C way beck when AIDs was new on the world stage. Both are saying, have been saying since the early days of Covid, to use PPE and stay away from other people. Both supported much stronger and better enforced distancing and actual lockdowns not the BS done in most of the states. On balance is the author with the latest of several essays in the same vein, this WHO official, and and probably about 70 years of research and clinical work in internal medicine and ID. Add in the terrible failures of strict lockdowns and distancing in countries like China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and others. Oh wait, not failures, I'm told. Quite the opposite. Of course, these countries also put effective contact tracing and quarantine protocols in place too.

The US did none of this effectively or universally. We see the result. Which example should we follow when medicine and science has nothing else to address a novel virus with a bad attitude?

I'm all for dissenting voices, the author's included, but what I get from the essay is the claim that this is a blunt force response that has high costs to people's lives. Gotcha. We know that now and knew, or should have known, it going in to the pandemic response widely followed around the world. The alternative was much of the same collateral damage, primarily economic, from social distancing, shutdown, and lockdown plus an unknowably much larger butcher's bill. To me, the choice is people get to live to rebuild or more of them are sacrificed so that some of us might avoid some of the economic damage. The math is simple. When we're alive we can rebuild our lives and when we're dead we don't exist. We can't do squat all. How much economic damage does a dead man suffer? How will he/she contribute to rebuilding his/her family's lives?

Now if we want to discuss what a valid purpose of government. Is it to relieve as much stress as possible from the most vulnerable during the crisis? Should those of us with more than adequate resources for ourselves help pay for the relief? I'm all in to the having that discussion and to contributing. To me these arguments about whether letting the virus burn through humanity or to try to save lives is best only serves to avoid and prevent discussions about how society could better respond to those of us in need. And, yes, when this thing becomes less of an imminent threat we need to look very closely at how we could have done better next time. Otherwise we've all suffered so we'll suffer from the same ignorance again.

Did I adequately address the content in the essay?

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"But I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now..."

Lookout's picture

@vtcc73

use PPE and stay away from other people. Both supported much stronger and better enforced distancing and actual lockdowns not the BS done in most of the states.

It is really simple, we need a constant message saying...
Wear a mask in public places, stay outside if possible with other people, indoor places should be well ventilated, stay several feet away from people outside your household, wash your hands after every exposure. These simple preventative measures IF ADOPTED would definitely slow the spread. But in the states we have to argue about it.

The other issue to me is the lack of pushing Vit D and Zn to thwart the spread.

Well hope all is well in your corner. Good news for Bolivia, perhaps you'll feel echos?

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Pluto's Republic's picture

...into a historical reference that was about Public lockdowns?

And then proceed to conflate them?

Team Lockdown is comprised of all the reporters, bloggers and internet voices who vehemently criticize anyone who expresses any level of doubt whatsoever about the Social Distancing policy.

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Do you know that Social Distancing and a Public Lockdown are two very different things?

Are you under the impression that there has been a Public Lockdown in the US for seven months?

In support of the the Lockdown, we have heard a 7 month long procession of numbers. Numbers of deaths, numbers of cases, numbers of new cases, numbers of hospitalizations, numbers relating the rate of change of each of those numbers. All that quantification sounds all science-y, but it really does not explain anything about the prime question posed by Dr. Merkel: Is this a worst case scenario?

It no longer matters. Social distancing has done its worst already. We might as well keep all the restrictions in place forever or until the virus is "contained" -- whatever that is supposed to mean.

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Are you talking about the brief Public Lockdown that occurred in the US?

Or are you talking about the practice of Social Distancing without a Lockdown?

Sane nations of the world did not Lockdown their people unless they also paid them a Basic Income in order to protect both the people and the economy. That happened.

Are you talking about something that an insane nation did? An insane nation that imposed a degrading perversion of a Lockdown, with no financial protections for the people or the economy?

Did the Bush-era experts you quote propose a Lockdown Protocol for insane nations?

What is your question that no one here has answered?

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@Pluto's Republic
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Question: How do we know that the crisis is over?

Question: How many projected deaths or illnesses does it take to justify any restrictions on personal behavior?

I accept your point that the USA did the lockdown dance in a haphazard way. What do think that we should get out of that? Vote Biden? Vote Green? The theory was perfect, but we just didn't follow it? Or do you concede any problem at all with the theory of fighting the virus by asking the general citizenry to avoid each other?

I accept your objection to conflating "lockdown" with "social distancing." If you say that you opposed what in California was called the Stay At Home Order -- I do not even necessarily agree with you, because my two questions remain unanswered.

In general Team Lockdown exists to change the subject.

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I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

Pluto's Republic's picture

@fire with fire

...but I think too differently to fit on any team.

Question: How do we know that the crisis is over?

Honestly, I do not personally know anyone who thinks the crisis is over.

Question: How many projected deaths or illnesses does it take to justify any restrictions on personal behavior?

In a hospital setting, the answer is "one."

In the realm of politics, the answer may differ.

In most Asian nations, and in New Zealand, the answer is also "one." Isolation or quarantine restrictions and contact tracking both backward and forward are used to get to less than one. Isolation does not work without the full contact tracking. Neither work without Basic Income.

In poor nations, the answer is "whatever."

"One" and "whatever" are the only two possible answers.

The issue is involuntary contagion, not death or illness.

People who are infected will likely have shorter lives and will likely need intense medical care for the rest of their lives.

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@fire with fire seems to me the author is attempting to have an objective conversation but everyone else ,it seems, wants to just show all the others how much they know.

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enhydra lutris's picture

around, but minimizing the spread of contagion by separation and quarantine has been around for ages. I'm not going to spend weeks researching all the cases where statistical evidence on the crowding of persons together has been deemed to facilitate the spread of contagious diseases, nor even dig out the data on Typhoid Mary. Data is there if you wish to look for it. I personally would not engage in a lot of lovemaking with somebody who had Covid-19, Norovirus, or even ordinary flu, but a chacon son gout.

Whatever. It is not remotely the same as "lockdown", when used in pretty much any sense, including the very, very loose usage where we are free to wander about and do pretty much whatever we wish except hang out in crowded bars and restaurants.

It is interesting that you picked as your expert spokesperson a guy who fought smallpox, a disease conquered by a vaccine. He didn't deal with these issues, just saw to it that the vaccine got distributed and used. Smallpox was conquered by vaccination. Even he seems to have some secret misgivings about the "go get infected and hope you live and recover most of your original health" approach, but he doesn't say so openly. Instead he says:

Let the pandemic spread, treat people who get sick and work quickly to develop a vaccine to prevent it from coming back.

Funny that. We haven't been able to treat anywhere near all those who get sick, even if we wanted to, which we don't. We haven't had the capacity, the manpower, the equipment or the medications, and didn't even have the requisite knowledge at the beginning. And, of course, we wouldn't have even if we could've, not without the dough re mi up front, or verified coverage. A vaccine? The silver bullet that killed smallpox for him. Not here yet. Soon? Who knows. Possible? Who knows. For me, I'd rather have social distancing than an agonizing death, but, again, a chacun son gout.

be well and have a good one.

Edit - fixed my phony French

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Pluto's Republic's picture

@enhydra lutris

...that it has been a huge mistake to pour resources into a vaccine rather than into prevention and treatments. Treatment proposals go begging. There is a wealth of prophylactic measures lacking research.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@Pluto's Republic
several - the military and corporate welfare.

...that it has been a huge mistake to pour resources into a vaccine rather than into prevention and treatments. Treatment proposals go begging. There is a wealth of prophylactic measures lacking research.

We could do both, or even research vaccines, treatment options, and provide treatment to the sick using current best practices simultaneously, with ease, by just halving the military budget and eliminating the corporate welfare, hell, we could probably house the homeless too.

It is a farce that people have to argue how to allocte a relatively minute medical research budget while we piss away vast fortunes on murdering foreigners and building a pretend readiness tomurder them all at once.

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Involuntary infection occurs every day with an infinity of different infections. I have had probably 75 respiratory infections in my life. I have had infected cuts on toes and fingers. So you say if I lived in New Zealand they would shut down all public life to make sure my puss-filled toenail does not infect anybody else. I'd move.

My diary argues that science does not make a political argument. Science is a method to find things out, and it has no policy preference at all. Politicians make decisions based on their understanding of what scientists tell them.

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Regarding your assertion that Asian countries and New Zealand have a zero tolerance for anyone dying without bringing down "blanket restrictions." Ok, you can move there if you think that is a good idea. I think that idea is coo-coo bananas, to use a science-y kind of term.

I think that is beyond absurd to put out "blanket restrictions" to keep every single person in the nation from catching Covid. But you at least provided an answer, the first one I have read on this board to suggest what level of lethality should trigger shutting down human interaction.

I confess I am baffled by your reference to a "sane" country. Let me assure you that I firmly believe the USA is bat-shit crazy. It is one of the more interesting speculative questions of the day as to whether Alfred E Newman -- I mean Dubya Bush -- realized that America was insane when he signed off on this.

Honestly, I do not personally know anyone who thinks the crisis is over.

Are you my old English teacher from the 8th grade? Calling me out for using the wrong tense? Uh, let me correct my error of diction and make it clear that I do not think the crisis is over. I am trying on this board to get one or more of the members here who talk confidently about the science of this affair to tell me what the goal is. Is it ZERO cases, as in New Zealand?

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In two posts so far, you have not responded to the point of the essay -- the social cost of what we agree was an insane fight against the virus looks already to be dramatically higher than the cost of letting the virus pass through society -- as Dr. Henderson suggested as the least bad option.

Your response is extremely illuminating. Thanks for discussing this with me.

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I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

Pluto's Republic's picture

@fire with fire

I am not referring to any other disease or infection.

Calm down.

Covid-19 is not really a respiratory disease, and should not be confused with one. The body's immune reaction to the virus can present respiratory symptoms. Sometimes those symptoms can kill people. Meanwhile, the virus SARS-CoV-2 is directly attacking the heart, the brain, the bone marrow, the liver, kidney, pancreas, the immune system, the stomach, and the intestines. It triggers latent cancers, tuberculosis, pneumonia, encephalitis, hepatitis, diabetes, Parkinson's Disease, and Alzheimer's disease, among others. It leaves permanent physical and neurological damage in its wake.

I am not aware of any grammar mistake that you made. I never correct anyone's grammar.

I think it is possible to discuss social costs as long as one is aware of the medical costs to the individual and to society. This is an awareness that you did not have. This information has been gently withheld from the public. Although, now you know.

To be fair, I am not clear on what the specific social costs are.

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janis b's picture

partly because of my dual experience of living in New Zealand while having immediate and loved family in America. One of my first questions at the beginning of NZ’s lockdown, was - “you mean family here can’t have comforting time with a dying parent, child or sibling because it’s too much of a threat?”. On the other side of the world because of lockdown my mom slowly died, largely for lack of engagement in the things that gave her pleasure and a sense of vitality.

Being both individually and universally minded, I tried to balance the arguments for and against ‘opposing' positions. I kept coming back to thoughts of trust and responsibility ... like maybe we wouldn’t be in this dilemma if people were given the resources, the power, and the support they deserve, so that they can trust in themselves while holding a perspective of the ‘greater good’. These contrasting but related experiences are oddly conflicting, yet also reinforcing. I do appreciate this opportunity to be challenged with making sense of life as it is now in this ever-changing climate. I just hope that we all find some solace along the way.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@janis b

I kept coming back to thoughts of trust and responsibility ... like maybe we wouldn’t be in this dilemma if people were given the resources, the power, and the support they deserve, so that they can trust in themselves while holding a perspective of the ‘greater good’.

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

janis b's picture

@enhydra lutris

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