How Experts Sacrificed Lives
We can all agree that the U.S.’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was mismanaged in more ways than one. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that public health officials knowingly sacrificed lives. In three significant instances over the course of the pandemic, authorities made decisions that they knew would lead to thousands of deaths.
The Sacrifice for “Vaccine Equity”
Rewind to November 2020, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were deciding who would be first in line to receive the vaccine. It is widely known that the elderly bear the highest risk of dying or suffering serious symptoms if they contract COVID. And yet, the CDC voted unanimously to recommend vaccinating essential workers before the elderly.
According to CDC official Kathleen Dooling, this approach would be more “equitable” because it would reduce the proportional disparities in COVID deaths between racial and ethnic groups, glossing over the fact that, by the CDC’s own estimates, it would cause a greater absolute number of deaths (including among minorities) by placing the young ahead of the old. To achieve what they considered more-equal statistics (racial minorities are underrepresented among the elderly), they were willing to allow more people to die.
After backlash, the CDC changed its guidance to a system in which people over 74 plus frontline workers could get the vaccine first, followed by people over 64 and all essential workers. While this system was an improvement, it still prioritized some young people over some old people. Vaccine distribution was ultimately done at the state level, but eighteen states chose to follow the CDC guidance. It’s impossible to say exactly how many deaths resulted from this decision, but the CDC’s own model for its original plan estimated that it would increase deaths by 0.5 to 6.5%.
Cuomo’s Nursing-Home Scandal
New York governor Andrew Cuomo just resigned over a sexual harassment scandal, but last March, he made decisions that cost thousands of lives as the first wave raged through New York City.
It was already clear that nursing homes were particularly vulnerable to COVID outbreaks. But under pressure from a hospital industry desperate for more beds, he ordered nursing homes to admit COVID-positive patients. The governments of a few other states issued similar orders. The Associated Press found that over 4500 COVID patients were sent to nursing homes in New York, which only exposed more at-risk individuals to contract the virus.
Cuomo also tried to cover up his catastrophic guidance. The New York Times reported, “State health officials could see from the data that a significant number of nursing home residents had died after being transferred to hospitals. Some of them thought those deaths should be included in the overall tally. But when Mr. Cuomo’s most senior aides saw the report, they rewrote it to eliminate the higher count.”
The China-W.H.O. Cover-Up
The Chinese government suppressed information about the virus, ejecting American reporters and pushing international health authorities to downplay its seriousness in the early days of the pandemic.
In January 2020, the World Health Organization tweeted that there had been “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” However, China already knew the virus had been spreading, possibly for months. According to the New York Times, under “intense lobbying“ from China, the WHO did not label the virus a pandemic until two months later.
According to a study by the University of Southampton, cases could have been reduced by 95% if China had intervened three weeks earlier. Who knows how the rest of the world could have prepared for the disease if we had known how serious it was from the start?
These blatant moral failures by authorities—state, national, and international—should make us question how much power they should have—even in an emergency. There’s an idea that the people who are supposed to represent us will necessarily act in our interest, that the people in power or the people with expertise will be fundamentally benevolent, that, as President Joe Biden said“We the people are the government […] not some force in a distant capital.” We should learn that that assumption is wrong. Without constraints, accountability, and well-aligned incentives, they can easily act in ways that are entirely unrelated to what’s best for us.