Sanjeev Sabhlok's blog

Thoughts on economics and liberty

George Bush’s exaggerated concerns led to lockdown thinking in USA

Got hold of this piece from here.

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

WASHINGTON — Fourteen years ago, two federal government doctors, Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, met with a colleague at a burger joint in suburban Washington for a final review of a proposal they knew would be treated like a piñata: telling Americans to stay home from work and school the next time the country was hit by a deadly pandemic.

When they presented their plan not long after, it was met with skepticism and a degree of ridicule by senior officials, who like others in the United States had grown accustomed to relying on the pharmaceutical industry, with its ever-growing array of new treatments, to confront evolving health challenges.

Drs. Hatchett and Mecher were proposing instead that Americans in some places might have to turn back to an approach, self-isolation, first widely employed in the Middle Ages.

How that idea — born out of a request by President George W. Bush to ensure the nation was better prepared for the next contagious disease outbreak — became the heart of the national playbook for responding to a pandemic is one of the untold stories of the coronavirus crisis.

It required the key proponents — Dr. Mecher, a Department of Veterans Affairs physician, and Dr. Hatchett, an oncologist turned White House adviser — to overcome intense initial opposition.

It brought their work together with that of a Defense Department team assigned to a similar task.

And it had some unexpected detours, including a deep dive into the history of the 1918 Spanish flu and an important discovery kicked off by a high school research project pursued by the daughter of a scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.

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.”

Dr. Mecher was there when Dr. Hatchett presented government public health experts the plan that the two of them and Dr. Lisa M. Koonin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reviewed over burgers and beer.

“People could not believe that the strategy would be effective or even feasible,” Dr. Mecher recalled.

But within the Bush administration, they were encouraged to keep at it and follow the science. And ultimately, their arguments proved persuasive.

In February 2007, the C.D.C. made their approach — bureaucratically called Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions, or NPIs — official U.S. policy.

President George W. Bush had grown concerned about preparedness for a pandemic after the anthrax attacks and a bird flu outbreak. He called for action in 2005 in a speech at the National Institutes of Health.

The effort began in the summer of 2005 when Mr. Bush, already concerned with bioterrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, read a forthcoming book, “The Great Influenza,” by John M. Barry, about the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.

Mr. Bush’s concern was elevated by a string of new outbreaks caused by infectious diseases transferring from birds and other animals to humans, including an avian flu outbreak that year in Vietnam. Because there was no vaccine for these new threats, they could spread rapidly.

“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” Mr. Bush said in a speech at the National Institutes of Health. “If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

To develop ideas, the Bush administration enlisted Dr. Hatchett, who had served as a White House biodefense policy adviser, and Dr. Mecher, who was a Veterans Affairs medical officer in Georgia overseeing care in the Southeast.

“‘Someone from the White House is on the phone,’” Dr. Mecher, then 49, recalled his secretary telling him in the fall of 2005, her voice expressing some disbelief.

A blunt-speaking, Chicago-born intensive care physician, Dr. Mecher had almost no pandemic policy expertise. Instead, he was recruited because they needed someone who understood how a hospital actually worked, said Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, who was a special assistant to Mr. Bush for biodefense.

Dr. Koonin, who worked on preparedness planning at the C.D.C., also played a key role.

“Strategic, out-of-the-box thinkers,” is how Dr. Venkayya, who now oversees vaccine production at Takeda, a Japan-based pharmaceutical company, described what he was looking for.

The Social Network

Early on, researchers recognized that schools were a perfect environment for spreading disease. Here, National Guard members disinfecting at the Jewish Community Center of Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Given the increased danger from new strains of influenza and the reality that existing antiviral drugs like Tamiflu did not work against all contagious diseases, Drs. Hatchett and Mecher and their team began exploring other ways to combat a large-scale contagion.

It was about that time that Dr. Mecher heard from Robert J. Glass, a senior scientist at Sandia in New Mexico who specialized in building advanced models to explain how complex systems work — and what can cause catastrophic failures.

Dr. Glass’s daughter Laura, then 14, had done a class project in which she built a model of social networks at her Albuquerque high school, and when Dr. Glass looked at it, he was intrigued.

Students are so closely tied together — in social networks and on school buses and in classrooms — that they were a near-perfect vehicle for a contagious disease to spread.

Dr. Glass piggybacked on his daughter’s work to explore with her what effect breaking up these networks would have on knocking down the disease.

The outcome of their research was startling. By closing the schools in a hypothetical town of 10,000 people, only 500 people got sick. If they remained open, half of the population would be infected.

“My God, we could use the same results she has and work from there,” Dr. Glass recalled thinking. He took their preliminary data and built on it by running it through the supercomputers at Sandia, more typically used to engineer nuclear weapons. (His daughter’s project was entered in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2006.)

Dr. Carter Mecher, front center, and the team that helped develop social distancing guidelines.

Dr. Mecher received the results at his office in Washington and was amazed.

If cities closed their public schools, the data suggested, the spread of a disease would be significantly slowed, making this move perhaps the most important of all of the social distancing options they were considering.

“Targeted social distancing strategies can be designed to effectively mitigate the local progression of pandemic influenza without the use of vaccine or antiviral drugs,” concluded a study that Dr. Glass published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal. Laura, then a high school junior, got a credit.

Drs. Hatchett and Mecher and their team soon found themselves measuring the width of the standard school bus seat and the average classroom size in the United States, calculating how closely spaced students are and agreeing that any plan would have to feature closing schools.

At the same time, they were circling in on another fundamental challenge: If a government was going to rely on the blunt instrument of social distancing to prevent widespread death, how early would it have to act?

A Lesson From the Past

St. Louis in 1918 during the Spanish flu outbreak. Researchers found valuable lessons in the city’s response.

Dr. Markel had spent his career studying contagious disease outbreaks. Recently, he had been working on a related assignment from the Pentagon, which had a narrower but equally urgent concern: the vulnerability of U.S. military personnel to a viral health threat.

Asia was hit in 2005 by a bird flu that crossed over to humans and spread to locations where the United States had forces stationed, including the Philippines. That led Dr. Markel to propose — after consulting a dictionary and thesaurus — what he called “protective sequestration,” like keeping military personnel in mass isolation on docked ships.

The bird flu, while often fatal, did not continue to cross over in large numbers to humans, and the steps he was proposing turned out to be unnecessary. But the work led him to think about the need for a large-scale isolation plan for the United States.

Dr. Markel had published a book, “When Germs Travel,” in 2004 that examined six major epidemics since 1900 and how they had traveled across the United States. He decided to work with Dr. Martin S. Cetron, the director of the C.D.C.’s quarantine division, to look more closely at the lessons of the Spanish flu of 1918.

The research started with St. Louis, which had moved relatively quickly to head off the spread of the flu, and Philadelphia, which waited much longer and suffered far more.

Officials in Philadelphia did not want to let the flu disrupt daily life, so they went ahead in September 1918 with a long planned parade that drew hundreds of thousands of spectators to promote war bonds.

In St. Louis, by contrast, the city health commissioner quickly moved to close schools, churches, theaters, saloons, sporting events and other public gathering spots.

Dr. Markel and his team set out to confirm just how important a role timing had played in reducing deaths. They gathered census records and thousands of other documents detailing the date of the first infection, the first death, the first social distancing policies and how long they were left in place in 43 American cities.

Separately, Dr. Mecher and his team looked at the experience of 17 cities, using newspaper clips and other sources.

Both teams came to the same conclusion and published papers on their findings within months of each other in 2007. Early, aggressive action to limit social interaction using multiple measures like closing schools or shutting down public gatherings was vital to limiting the death toll, they found.

“It’s like treating heart-attack patients,” Dr. Mecher said. “Timing matters.”

A High-Stakes Showdown

Dr. D.A. Henderson, who had been a leader of the international effort to eradicate smallpox, was initially critical of the social distancing plan.

After decades of advances by the nation’s pharmaceutical companies — finding treatments or vaccines for major illnesses, including H.I.V. and smallpox — Americans by the early 21st century had a built-in expectation that no matter what the ailment, there must be some kind of available fix. Locking your family inside your home seemed backward, and encouraging people not to go to work economically disastrous.

The idea of forcibly limiting public assembly or movement had also long been seen as legally and ethically questionable.

So the considerable skepticism among local officials, public health experts and policymakers in Washington was not surprising.

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.

Dr. Henderson was convinced that it made no sense to force schools to close or public gatherings to stop. Teenagers would escape their homes to hang out at the mall. School lunch programs would close, and impoverished children would not have enough to eat. Hospital staffs would have a hard time going to work if their children were at home.

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.

Caught in the middle, C.D.C. leaders decided to conduct more research and survey community leaders around the country.

The administration ultimately sided with the proponents of social distancing and shutdowns — though their victory was little noticed outside of public health circles. Their policy would become the basis for government planning and would be used extensively in simulations used to prepare for pandemics, and in a limited way in 2009 during an outbreak of the influenza called H1N1.

Then the coronavirus came, and the plan was put to work across the country for the first time.

Dr. Mecher was a key voice on the “Red Dawn” email chain of public health experts in raising early warnings this year about the coronavirus outbreak and Mr. Trump’s reluctance to embrace shutdowns and social distancing. The shutdown this year is much bigger than Dr. Mecher and others imagined would be necessary or practical. Testing has been limited and some states issued social distancing orders even before confirming the coronavirus was spreading within their borders.

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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There was absolutely no covid “pandemic” in Sweden – FINAL PROOF.

Every few days I check whether Swedish Statistical agency has updated their mortality rate data till 2022. Today I find that they have done so (they do that in end-March every year).

This 2-year average chart is very important since it gets rid of the try tinder effect of 2019 mild flu in Sweden. We see clearly from it that there has been NO CHANGE IN THE DOWNWARD SLOPE OF THE MORTALITY RATE CURVE FOR THE PAST 20 YEARS. NO PANDEMIC.


I’ve made this chart, uploaded here. A lower resolution image below. Pl. share.

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Fascism and communism/socialism are woven from the same thread

I’ve explained this many times earlier, e.g.

Hitler’s socialist views were exactly like Nehru’s or AAP’s Prashant Bhushan’s

Further proof that Hitler was socialist.

More on Hitler’s socialist (collectivist) worldview

Why did Hitler hate communism? Because he was a GREATER communist than the communists.

Mussolini made as clear as humanly possible:


Further, Peter Hitchens has been waging a war against those who falsely classify fasicsm as an ideology of the “right”, e.g.




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Up-to-date list of cost-benefit analyses of the 2020 lockdowns

This is a placeholder post that I’ll keep updating. I’ve taken data from here, and added a few. If any CBA is missing, please let me know at I intend to include in the public health review book that I’m writing.

1.1.1         Douglas Allen’s September 2021 CBA for Canada, and review of over 100 CBAs

On 29 September 2021, Douglas Allen, Professor of Economics at Simon Fraser University, published a review of 100 cost-benefit analyses of the COVID lockdowns – most of which he found to have significant shortcomings. He then prepared his own analysis of lockdowns in Canada, and found that the costs of lockdowns exceeded their benefits by a factor of 141:

An examination of over 100 Covid-19 studies reveals that many relied on false assumptions that over-estimated the benefits and under-estimated the costs of lockdown. The most recent research has shown that lockdowns have had, at best, a marginal effect on the number of Covid-19 deaths. Generally speaking, the ineffectiveness stemmed from individual changes in behavior: either non-compliance or behavior that mimicked lockdowns. The limited effectiveness of lockdowns explains why, after more than one year, the unconditional cumulative Covid-19 deaths per million is not negatively correlated with the stringency of lockdown across countries. Using a method proposed by Professor Bryan Caplan along with estimates of lockdown benefits based on the econometric evidence, I calculate a number of cost/benefit ratios of lockdowns in terms of life-years saved. Using a mid-point estimate for costs and benefits, the reasonable estimate for Canada is a cost/benefit ratio of 141. It is possible that lockdown will go down as one of the greatest peacetime policy failures in modern history.[2]

1.1.2         Martin Lally’s CBA for New Zealand

In New Zealand, Professors Michael Baker[3] and Nick Wilson of Otago University recommended lockdown on 19 March 2020 thus: “New Zealand should consider a short pulse (a few weeks) of intense social distancing, including bringing forward the school holidays and temporary closures of most businesses, social meeting places and public transport.”[4] They added that “[t]he strongest evidence that containment works comes from the remarkable success of China in reversing a large outbreak” (ibid).

Subsequently, Martin Lally[5] conducted a CBA of New Zealand’s lockdowns and concluded that “the nation-wide lockdown strategy was not warranted.” He explains that he takes the “approach of assessing the savings in quality adjusted life years and comparing them to a standard benchmark figure” to ensure “that all quality adjusted life years saved by various health interventions are treated equally, which accords with the ethical principle of equity across people.” He finds that “a Cost per Quality Adjusted Life Year saved by locking down in March 2020” is “at least 13 times the generally employed threshold figure of $62,000 for health interventions in New Zealand.” If one uses Lally’s mid-range estimate for the value of a healthy life year, rather than the high-end estimate he uses in his paper, the costs of lockdowns in New Zealand were around 25 times any benefits.[6]

In other words, Lally finds that the cost to society of saving quality-adjusted COVID lives via lockdowns, even assuming that these lives did actually get saved by lockdowns, is far higher than that of other life-saving public health policies that could have been adopted instead.

1.1.3         Selected other papers

Many other studies have been produced that in some fashion weigh the likely harms and benefits of COVID lockdown policies. A selected few are outlined below for illustrative purposes.

  • Ministry of Economic Affairs, Netherlands – a cost-benefit analysis in March/April of 2020. Details at:
  • On 5 May 2020, Peter Castleden and Nick Hudson of PANDA published a draft cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns in South Africa.[7] A 10 May 2020 version[8] estimates that lockdowns benefits may involve preventing up to 445,901 years of lost life, while lockdowns could cost at least 14 million years of lost life. Comparing the highest benefit from lockdowns with expected harms, the CBA estimated that costs exceed benefits by at least 30 times.[9]
  • In May 2020, the Copenhagen Consensus Center reported the outcomes of its cost-benefit analysis of moderate social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ghana. The analysis recognised many costs of restrictions, including the loss of life and livelihoods they would entail of people far younger than the average COVID victim, and the broad conclusion was that “a policy of moderate movement and livelihood restrictions will leave Ghana much worse off.”[10]
  • The UK Department of Health and Social Care, Office for National Statistics, Government Actuary’s Department and Home Office on 15 July 2020 published a report using the currency of Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) and stating that “when morbidity is taken into account, the estimates for the health impacts from a lockdown and lockdown induced recession are greater in terms of QALYs than the direct COVID-19 deaths.”[11]
  • A July 2020 paper by Chaudhry et al. in EClinical Medicine found that government actions such as border closures, full lockdowns, and a high rate of COVID-19 testing have not been found to be associated with statistically significant reductions in the number of COVID critical cases or overall mortality.[12]
  • On 18 September 2020 a paper was released by Ben W. Mol and Jonathan Karnon[13] comparing Sweden to Denmark. In the authors’ words, “[c]omparisons of public health interventions for COVID-19 should take into account life years saved and not only lost lives. Strict lockdown costs more than US$130,000 per life year saved. As our all our assumptions were in favour of strict lockdown, a flexible social distancing policy in response to COVID-19 is defendable.”
  • On 21 October 2020 an expert in infectious disease and critical care, Dr. Ari Joffe of the Stollery Children’s Hospital and the University of Alberta, was reported to have found that the cost of lockdowns in Canada was at least 10 times higher than the benefit in terms of population health and well-being. His analysis, which accounts for numerous variables such as economic recession, social isolation and impacts on life expectancy, education, and other health-care priorities – both in Canada and worldwide – was published in February 2021.[14]
  • Prof John Gibson of New Zealand of the University of Waikato produced the following three papers in 2020:
  • “Hard, not early: Putting the New Zealand Covid-19 response in context”, New Zealand Economic Papers.[15]
  • “Government mandated lockdowns do not reduce Covid-19 deaths: Implications for evaluating the stringent New Zealand response”, New Zealand Economic Papers.[16]
  • “Direct and indirect effects of Covid-19 on life expectancy and poverty in Indonesia”, Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies.[17]

In a video summarising these papers,[18] Dr Gibson estimated that 10,000 times as many years of life will likely be lost by lockdowns in Indonesia relative to the life-years lost due to COVID deaths: “the indirect effects on life expectancy, which operate through lower future income, exceed the direct effects of Covid-19-related deaths by at least five orders of magnitude.” This figure is high because of the expectation that 20 to 25 million people are going to enter poverty due to the COVID lockdowns. In comparison, at minute 25 in his video, Prof. Gibson suggests that with a 7% expected lower GDP due to lockdowns, New Zealanders would have a 1.2 percent lower life expectancy, equivalent to one year of lost life. That is more than 12 times larger than the direct harm to human wellbeing via expected COVID deaths, even if New Zealand had followed “relaxed” policies like Sweden.

  • On 1 March 2021 Dr Sebastian Rushworth, a medical doctor in Sweden, opined that “the number of years of life lost to lockdown is many times greater than the number of years of life lost to covid-19.”[19]
  • On 22 March 2021, an op-ed by John Tierney in the New York Post claimed that lockdowns killed people on net.[20] In his words:

More than two dozen studies have challenged the effectiveness of lockdowns, showing that closing businesses and schools does little or nothing to reduce infections and deaths from the virus.

If a corporation behaved this way, continuing knowingly to sell an unproven drug or medical treatment with fatal side effects, its executives would be facing lawsuits, bankruptcy and criminal charges. But the lockdown proponents are recklessly staying the course, still insisting that lockdowns work.

The burden of proof rests with those imposing such a dangerous policy, and they haven’t met it. There is still no proof that lockdowns save any lives — let alone enough to compensate for the lives they end.

Other CBAs have been produced by Andy Ryan in Ireland[21] and Christian Krekel, Richard Layard, and others[22] in the UK.

The list above does not include some CBAs, such as that penned by Richard Holden and Bruce Preston in The Conversation,[23] which make elementary errors in their approach and therefore would not survive robust scientific review or an independent peer review.

[1] Frijters, Paul (2021). “WELLBYs, cost-benefit analyses and the Easterlin Discount” in Vienna Yearbook of Population Research (Vol.19), pp. 1-26.

[2] Allen, Douglas W. (2021). “Covid-19 Lockdown Cost/Benefits: A Critical Assessment of the Literature” in International Journal of the Economics of Business, 21 September 2021,

[3] This person bears no relation to my eponymous co-author on The Great Covid Panic.

[4] University of Otago (2020). Why New Zealand needs to continue decisive action to contain coronavirus, 20 March 2020,

[5] Lally, Martin (2021). “The Costs and Benefits of Covid-19 Lockdowns in New Zealand” in medRxiv, 27 July 2021,


[7] Cowen, Tyler (2020). “Should South Africa lock down?” in Marginal Revolution blog, 7 May 2020,

[8] Pandemics – Data and Analytics (PANDA) (2020). “Quantifying Years of Lost Life in South Africa Due to COVID-19,” 11 May 2020,

[9] Business Live (2020). “EXCLUSIVE: Lockdown disaster dwarfs Covid-19, say SA actuaries,” 5 May 2020,

[10] Copenhagen Consensus Centre (2020). A rapid cost-benefit analysis of moderate social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ghana, 20 May 2020,

[11] Department of Health and Social Care, Office for National Statistics, Government Actuary’s Department and Home Office (2020). Direct and Indirect Impacts of COVID-19 on Excess Deaths and Morbidity: Executive Summary, 15 July 2020,

[12] A country-level analysis measuring the impact of government actions, country preparedness and socioeconomic factors on COVID-19 mortality and related health outcomes:

[13] Ben W. Mol, Jonathan Karnon (2020). “Strict lockdown versus flexible social distance strategy for COVID-19 disease: a cost-effectiveness analysis” in medRxiv,

[14] Staples, David (2020). “Lockdowns will cause 10 times more harm to human health than COVID-19 itself, says infectious disease expert” in Edmonton Journal, 21 October 2020,; Joffe, Ari R. (2021). “COVID-19: Rethinking the Lockdown Groupthink” in Frontiers in Public Health, 26 February 2021,

[15] Gibson, John (2020). “Hard, not early: putting the New Zealand Covid-19 response in context” in New Zealand Economic Papers,

[16] Gibson, John (2020). “Government mandated lockdowns do not reduce Covid-19 deaths: implications for evaluating the stringent New Zealand response” in New Zealand Economic Papers,

[17] Gibson, John (2020). “Direct and Indirect Effects of Covid-19 On Life Expectancy and Poverty in Indonesia” in Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies,


[19] Rushworth, Sebastian (2021). “Lockdowns have killed millions,” 1 March 2021,

[20] Tierney, John (2021). “The data shows lockdowns end more lives than they save” in New York Post, 22 March 2021,

[21] Ryan, A. (2021). “A Cost–Benefit Analysis of the COVID-19 Lockdown in Ireland,” 10.2139/ssrn.3872861, 16 June 2021,

[22] Frijters, P., Clark, A. E., Krekel, C., & Layard, R. (2020). “A happy choice: wellbeing as the goal of government” in Behavioural Public Policy, 4(2), 126-165. 10.1017/bpp.2019.39,

[23] Frijters, Paul (2020). “The corona cost-benefit analyses of Richard Holden, Bruce Preston and Neil Bailey: ooops!” in Club Troppo, 18 May 2020,

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