So, what happened?
This is my “big picture” essay on the main themes and influences that caused the coronavirus pandemic and associated policy responses, which were the biggest global disruption since World War II, and it’s not a pretty picture
How did the entire planet get caught up in a global pandemic in which the actual harm to people seems to have come primarily from poor policy choices — in particular, lockdowns and rushed vaccines — rather than the virus itself?
This topic will be the focus of many books for years to come, but this essay attempts to distill the key themes and influences that led to this global fiasco — and hopefully help to prevent it from ever happening again.
In very short summary, what happened was 1) Big Pharma and Bill Gates pushing for many years for vaccines as a one-size-fits-all approach to emerging infectious diseases and waiting for “the next pandemic” to try out their approach; 2) longstanding “gain of function” research on vaccines likely led to a lab leak (in Wuhan) of an engineered virus, which when this was realized in late January 2020 led to a massive policy over-reaction; 3) the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping pushing for new and more powerful tools of social control and promoting lockdowns and other draconian measures as part of their “fangkong” social control policies; and 4) last but definitely not least, a growing dismay about the likelihood of Trump winning a second term in the White House that led many powerful actors in the US and around the world to emphasize the perceived harm from the virus in order to damage Trump and other “anti-science” candidates politically, which worked, but at a massive cost to human welfare.
Let’s look at each of these in turn. At the end of this essay I’ll offer some lessons learned.
It’s important to state upfront my background and biases. I’ve been a policy lawyer for over 20 years now, mostly focused on green energy policy, but also on foreign policy and in the last few years public health policy. I’ve been a lifelong liberal but I’ve been dismayed at how quickly my fellow liberals have given in to pressure and fear, censorship and obviously unconstitutional mandates.
My hope is that a better understanding of what happened may help us avoid future mass hysterias and policy overreach.
1. Big Pharma and Bill Gates
Big Pharma (this is a term for the large pharmaceutical companies around the world, mostly based in the US and Europe, which are in many ways competing with each other but also share common cause on many public policy and economic issues), Bill Gates, and many epidemiologists and public health leaders, have been pushing hard, in various ways, for a couple of decades now to have a “real pandemic.”
This includes SARS, which killed a total of less than 800 people globally, MERS, which killed 888 people, swine flu, which is thought to have killed about 18,000 people globally, very significantly less than normal seasonal flu, and avian flu, which killed only a few dozen people.
It’s important to keep in mind that in all of these tallies of deaths they are generally “deaths with …” rather than any finding of causal linkage, which would be correctly designated as “deaths from ...” Unfortunately, both popular media and public health officials conflate these two very different categories often as just “deaths from…”
All of these epidemics and pandemics fizzled without causing much harm — when compared to normal seasonal flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and other respiratory ailments, which kill millions worldwide, mostly elderly, each year — but these earlier small pandemics were accompanied by massive media attention and efforts by many powerful actors to use these scares to argue for huge amounts of funding for public health protections, vaccine development, and other therapeutics in preparation for “the next big one.”
Each actor has had different motivations for emphasizing epidemics and potential pandemics. For example, Big Pharma, as we’d expect given their raison d’etre of making profits for shareholders (Pfizer, just one company, is on track to achieve $100 billion in sales from its Covid vaccines and Paxlovid therapeutic in 2022 alone, one of the highest earnings of any company in history), have been pushing to boost market opportunities for therapeutics and vaccines, whereas philanthropists (or “philanthrocapitalists” as some have suggested?) like Bill Gates seem to be motivated more by either public approval in terms of “here’s the next big one” and offering solutions, or perhaps out of genuine concern for public health — but under his own technocratic and blinkered terms.
We can’t under-estimate the impact of Bill Gates and his billions of dollars in global funding of public health over the last two decades. He has used his money and influence to become a powerful force for vaccines as a kind of “one-size-fits-all” therapeutic. The New York Times wrote about the “Bill chill” in 2021, in an article titled “Bill Gates, the Virus and the Quest to Vaccinate the World,” which refers to the power this single man has in terms of bending debates and policies because of his funding power and the fear of getting cross-wise against him. The article states:
[Gates’] foundation has spent more than $16 billion on vaccine programs, a quarter of that going to Gavi, and given $2.25 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Both organizations are based in Geneva, where the W.H.O. has its headquarters.
With a $100 million initial pledge, Mr. Gates helped create the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations [CEPI], in Oslo, to invest in drugs and experimental vaccines. ([CEPI] and Gavi are leading the coronavirus vaccine effort with the W.H.O.) …
Some public health officials disagreed with Mr. Gates’s priorities, arguing that he should have directed more money to health systems. Others worried about a private individual wielding so much influence. But few people publicly criticized his foundation, fearful of losing its support. That self-censorship was so widespread it acquired a nickname: “the Bill Chill.”
Gates was indeed the main force behind the creation of both the Global Vaccine Initiative (GAVI) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiative (CEPI), along with the help of the World Health Organization, Big Pharma, and a number of nation-states.
Bill Gates has also been, at times, the biggest funder of the WHO, and generally the second biggest funder after only Germany and the US (which alternate as the biggest funder depending on the time frame examined). How does one person become a major funder of the world’s foremost international public health institution? That’s a topic for an entire book but for now let’s just sit with this strange fact and reflect upon its consequences. (A great article from Politico in September 2022 details discussions with more than 40 public health officials and experts around the world warning of far too much influence from Gates and his backers, as well as far too little oversight. As an example, one interviewee, Kate Elder with Doctors Without Borders, said: “What makes Bill Gates qualified to be giving advice and advising the U.S. government on where they should be putting the tremendous resources?”)
CEPI (founded in 2017) and GAVI (founded in 2000) were, along with Gates himself and his powerful foundation, pushing hard for vaccines as a default approach to any new epidemic or pandemic, waiting for their opportunity. Gates is now famous for his highly-viewed (over 44 million views as of Nov. 2022) TED talk warning about a lack of preparedness for the next pandemic, which was in his view inevitable.
Their opportunity arrived in late 2019, with news out of China about a new and dangerous respiratory virus, and by the time of the first meeting with CEPI and WHO in late January 2020 the only action item that CEPI and WHO announced in public meeting minutes was development of a vaccine. It’s important to keep in mind that there had never been a coronavirus vaccine before. And the average vaccine development time then was about 13 years. It seems strange, then, for the sole focus of these groups to be on developing a new vaccine for this novel coronavirus threat.
Gates and his various organizations and pools of funding were tremendously influential in shaping the global pandemic response from early February 2020 forward, as a September 2022 article in Politico detailed, drawing upon dozens of interviews from public officials in Europe and the US.
The NYT article mentioned above quotes Gates as follows:
On Feb. 14, [2020, Gates] and leaders at his foundation, fearing a global threat, gathered to plan a response. From that point on, Mr. Gates recalled, “we’re on Code Red.”
The lion’s share of that influence came down to good old money — particularly during the pandemic. The Politico story includes the following infographic demonstrating that Gates gave more to the WHO in 2020 and 2021 than even Germany did, by far the largest national funder:
The Politico story also details how the four private sector entities they focus on (The Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and GAVI and CEPI) gave collectively over $10 billion in the global fight against COVID, with the large majority of that going to vaccines. Moreover, the large majority of that $10 billion came ultimately from the Gates Foundation (and thus Gates himself, as well as other donors such as Warren Buffett), because Gates was the biggest funder of most of these organizations.
In sum, Gates and his co-thinkers wielded huge power before and during the pandemic in shaping the global response to the virus. They have for years been highly transparent in their pursuit of new vaccines as a one-size-fits-all approach to infectious diseases. And it also seems quite clear that this zeal and massive influence tipped the scales heavily toward the “code red” approach that Gates himself called for — and with the focus on vaccines as the heart of that code red approach.
2. Gain of function research
For any global event of this magnitude — we can’t forget that the pandemic was the single biggest global event since World War II and possibly even larger because of its pervasive effect around the world — there will necessarily be many players and many factors behind it. We can’t blame everything on Gates and his co-thinkers. We’ll examine next the history of gain of function research and its likely role in creating the novel coronavirus behind the pandemic.
The U.S., under the longstanding guidance of Anthony Fauci and his team were funding gain of function (GOF) research, including through EcoHealth Alliance at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), but were very slow to admit this. Despite public inquiries in Congress (Senator Rand Paul went after Fauci vigorously on this but received only blanket denials from Fauci), it took until August of 2021 for Fauci and the NIH to admit what most people had suspected all along: the US had indeed, through NIH/NIAID (the agency led by Fauci) been funding GOF research at Wuhan for years. Vanity Fair reported:
“EcoHealth Alliance, a New York City–based nonprofit that partners with far-flung laboratories to research and prevent the outbreak of emerging diseases, did indeed enhance a bat coronavirus to become potentially more infectious to humans, which the NIH letter described as an “unexpected result” of the research it funded that was carried out in partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
There has been a long-standing bioweapons GOF establishment in the US, and the China and US collaboration at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is now widely known. This complex of agencies and researchers is arguably part of both the public health and national security systems (as for why the US has collaborated with China on this risky science is a tale for another essay).
Debate is ongoing regarding whether a lab leak was what led to the pandemic, regardless of whether the leak was intentional or accidental, but the weight of evidence seems to be on the affirmative side. A Senate Minority interim report on COVID origins, “An Analysis of the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” from the Senate Republicans, concluded that it was more likely than not that COVID was the result of a lab leak.
Additional supporting evidence is provided by an excellent report from ProPublica and Vanity Fair in a November 2022 article.
This issue is highly politicized now because of its importance to elections and assignment of blame over purported pandemic deaths, so it’s important to keep the source of conclusions and analysis in mind in assessing their validity. I am personally still agnostic about COVID’s origins, but find myself leaning steadily more toward the lab leak hypothesis the more I learn about it. The fact that lab leaks are in fact quite common, including a number of now known leaks of the SARS-1 virus many years before SARS-CoV2 was identified in late 2019, as described in this article at the UK Guardian newspaper that comments on the ProPublica and Vanity Fair analysis, has made it quite plausible for me and many other observers to believe that COVID was likely a lab leak.
However, it appears that Fauci didn’t realize that SARS-COV2 was the probably the product of their funding and a subsequent lab leak, through either an intentional or unintentional leak, until late January 2020. This was revealed by internal emails released after a FOIA request. Kristian Andersen, an American virologist who frequently communicated with Fauci in early 2020, stated in one of the emails, from Jan. 31, 2020:
“One has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered… [I and my team of virologists] all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”
Fauci, who had previously been relatively relaxed about the new virus since its announcement in December 2019, in early February changed his tone remarkably and sounded the alarms and “cover your ass” (CYA is the official acronym…) machinery. For example, Fauci stated very clearly on Jan. 31 his views that no epidemic in history had been driven by asymptomatic infections:
“Even if there is some asymptomatic transmission, in the entire history of respiratory viruses of any kind, asymptomatic transmission has never been the cause of outbreaks. The cause of epidemic outbreaks is a person with symptoms. Even if there is the rare case that an asymptomatic person is contagious, epidemics are not driven by those carriers.”
Shortly after, however, Fauci and the rest of the US and European public health officials began calling for widespread testing of asymptomatics — knowing full well that such testing results in a vast majority of false positives because of low background prevalence of the disease, even with relatively accurate tests, as I’ve detailed in a number of essays and papers, including this essay that BMJ published in mid-2021 (Dr. Blaine Williams and Dr. Daniel Howard are co-authors of that essay with me).
Subsequently to the internal discussions about possible lab leak, the US and WHO, pushed hard also by the National Security Council (I know this from a number of one-on-one conversations with Geoffrey Engel, the lead at the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists for developing the COVID “case definition”) and other branches of the defense establishment monitoring threats posed by China (led at the time by deputy national security advisor Matthew Pottinger, a China specialist and fluent Mandarin speaker), as well as Deborah Birx, the new and very hawkish White House COVID response coordinator who was brought in by Pottinger, quickly put in place, in February through April of 2020, all of the massively overreaching policies (over-inclusive case definitions and Covid death definitions, flawed and rushed Covid tests, asymptomatic testing that has long been known to lead to massively high rates of false positives, lockdowns, rapid vaccine development policies, etc) that led to the large majority of the harm we’ve seen around the world in terms of deaths that have been erroneously (in most cases) attributed to Covid.
Attribution of harm is another vigorous ongoing debate and I won’t delve much into it in this piece. I will simply cite a couple of recent peer-reviewed articles regarding the huge toll of lockdowns in taking young peoples’ lives, and the growing awareness that the vaccines themselves may well be responsible for a large fraction of the deaths that are being attributed to COVID.
3. Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party
This global debacle was born not only of American mistakes and over-reach. Concurrently with American efforts the Chinese Communist Party has been, under Xi in particular, expanding their extreme social control fangkong policies. Fangkong is a paradigm that sees political dissent, separatism and independence as a kind of mental virus, and the solution is seen as a kind of medicalization of wrong ideology, in which public health tools and policies are used to stifle dissent. This is done in order to maintain the extreme power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and now one man’s extreme power. Xi in late October 2022 secured an almost unprecedented third term as China’s leader, breaking strongly with the two-term limit that previous leaders since Mao have abided by.
Xi and the CCP have turned China into a police-state with 1.4 billion prisoners. This population is under constant surveillance, COVID testing, actual and potential lockdowns, travel restrictions, and a pervasive “social credit” system that is part and parcel of the broader fangkong system.
The CCP has been working with western nations and others to export not only the technology used in fangkong but also the ideological systems of oppression, including public health policy as a back door for doing so (see Michael Senger’s book, Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World, for the details), with great success (see also Chin and Lin’s book, The Surveillance State for a scary history of China’s surveillance and control state, and its active export of these technologies to dictators around the world)
I am now convinced that techno-dictatorship is the single biggest threat to our lives and the planet. China and Xi’s CCP are the clear and present leaders in this trend toward techno-dictatorship. The New York Times article just linked to details how China is literally seeking to preemptively stop people from committing crimes — “predictive policing” is the term — in an eerie similarity to the sci-fi classic Minority Report, but with AI as the “oracle” rather than human precogs as in the movie. The article includes this spine-chilling quote:
‘Li Wei, a researcher at China’s national police university, said in a 2016 speech. “For those who receive one or more types of labels, we infer their identities and behavior, and then carry out targeted pre-emptive security measures.”’
And that was back in 2016 — before the pandemic and a vertiginous ramp-up in AI control systems and monitoring.
Not only is Xi instating hyper-authoritarian policies and tech systems in his own country, he is actively exporting these tools of control around the world as part of the new “China model” of national governance, using every tool at his disposal to achieve this goal.
Would-be dictators in every corner of the globe are licking their lips in anticipation of the control systems that China is pioneering and exporting. Over 80 countries had imported some kind of China’s surveillance tools already before the pandemic, according to a Brookings Institution report from early 2020. And, yes, those salivating includes a lot of people in public health who have amply revealed a deep disdain for public opinion and personal autonomy in the last two years. Since the pandemic the number of countries looking to adopt some part of China’s system of authoritarian oppression has surely grown substantially.
While no direct evidence linking the massive Hong Kong democracy protests to the pandemic and lockdowns has yet emerged, I feel such a linkage is likely to come out before long. The timing of the pandemic and China’s zealous rollout of lockdowns as the preferred solution seemed a lot too convenient for Xi and the CCP. It’s important to understand just how significant the Hong Kong protests were at the time — akin to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that China’s leadership saw as a potential existential threat to the CCP. At their peak in December 2019 almost half of Hong Kong’s population was protesting on highways and public places. The following month, after the coronavirus was announced, these protests dwindled to zero and it was illegal to protest anymore.
Soon after, in 2021, Xi and the CCP extended central control over Hong Kong, explicitly violating the agreement with the British that Hong Kong would abe allowed 50 years of “one country two systems” after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China. One country two systems lasted only 24 years.
It’s also relevant to reflect on China’s history of authoritarian control, rebellions, and ruthless suppression of dissent and possible rebellions such as the White Lotus Rebellion in the 4th Century AD. China’s rulers have a long history of parasitic control over the populace. Most of China’s population today seems willing to accept the CCP’s and Xi’s iron fist because China’s fortunes have been on the rise, with impressive GDP growth for over 30 years and a new and stronger voice on the world stage.
But at some point, even China’s highly compliant population will reach a breaking point and even a highly advanced and AI-led brutal system of social control may well crumble before the power of the people.
In sum, China and Xi were clearly pushing for a zealous system of lockdowns as a default response to infectious disease, in a similar way that Gates and his co-thinkers were pushing for vaccines as a default response to infectious disease. The end result is that these very powerful oarsmen were rowing in the same direction and were able to turn the entire planet toward an overly aggressive pandemic response that resulted in far more harm than the virus itself.
4. The Trump election
Last, but definitely not least, the Democratic Party and others in the US and around the world who were opposed to Trump — a massive and broad collection of entities because he had aroused so much alarm in so many people — quickly realized in early 2020 that the pandemic was a great opportunity to get Trump out.
For the record I loathed Trump and was very happy indeed to see him go. I am a lifelong liberal (I call myself a “Left libertarian,” a la Chomsky, if asked to identify my views more specifically, and I have voted Democrat for the last 20 years, though in 2022 I’ve shifted to independent because of my dismay over Democratic Party policies).
Seeing this opportunity in the pandemic, Democrats, aided strongly by Big Media and Big Pharma and other corporate and non-corporate allies (again, this was a very large constituency) began to consistently hype the pandemic’s threats. (We have to acknowledge that this would very likely have been the same if a Democrat rather than a Republican was in office in 2020 since it’s a time-honored tactic to try and blame disasters and botched responses on those in office.)
As Exhibit A in the case for Big Media being complicit in hyping the pandemic, as far as I can tell Big Media never once attempted to convey how the pandemic numbers were defined and how anomalous the case and death definitions were. Some smaller regional media outlets attempted to highlight the ridiculous nature of, for example, how a “Covid death” was defined to include people who died of a motorcycle accident or a gunshot wound, but who had tested positive for Covid and were thus included as a “Covid death.”
But I never once saw a large mainstream news outlet try to explain the definitions of a “case,” a “hospitalization” or a “Covid death,” all of which were, for almost the first time in history, based on only a positive Covid test and without any need for symptoms or a causal connection between the illness and the hospitalization or death at issue.
The 2021 presidential election did much to polarize people into “COVID maximalist” and “COVID minimalist” camps, with mostly Democrats in the former and Republicans in the latter. This dichotomy left a lot of people who didn’t fit this mold without a home, and left families and friendships ruptured almost everywhere.
If this political element hadn’t been part of the pandemic discussion, and if Trump himself hadn’t been president when it began, I suspect that the policy discussions and later events would have unfolded quite differently.
As it was, pandemic maximalists dug in their heels with even more fervor the more people called out that their emperor wore no clothes (so many aspects of the pandemic didn’t make sense even early on that I wrote an essay in April 2020 entitled “Is COVID the Left’s 9/11?”) the more the maximalists dug in their heels. And the more testing, particularly asymptomatic testing, that happened the more false positives were identified as “cases,” “hospitalizations” and “COVID deaths” because of the insanely over-inclusive case and deaths definitions that required only a positive test result.
Once President Biden won office he and his team and supporters were forced to continue the maximalist charade, which they will very likely forever refuse to acknowledge was a charade, because they had to justify their past positions with even more zeal. And now here we are in 2022 with the pandemic and policy responses still at the front of many voters’ minds as they go to the polls in early November.
Many rowers all pulling in the same direction led to the biggest global disruption since World War II
Tying these threads together: many very powerful oarsmen were all rowing in the same direction sufficient to create the biggest global disruption of the last century. And here we are now dealing with millions of deaths from vaccines and lockdowns that the people behind what happened are madly trying to blame on the virus (which is actually not much deadlier than a seasonal flu, with the linked peer-reviewed paper finding a global pre-vaccination Infection Fatality Rate of only 0.03% for people aged 0–59 years, and 0.07% for people 0.07% for 60–69 years) in what promises to be a vain effort to maintain “the narrative” co-created by these loosely-knit-together brothers in arms around the world.
While these events leading up to the pandemic and during the pandemic are now more clear, and hopefully will come out in congressional investigations once the Republicans control Congress, it’s equally clear that the threat posed by China’s rise and export of fangkong tools of oppression are perhaps the most serious threat to human freedom ever presented, because it’s super powered and AI-based.
This is a very delicate moment in history and if we’re not careful the cancer of ultimate top down control systems (AI-powered “social cybernetics”) is going to settle down on all of us as quietly as a morning dew.
Understanding how the pandemic and its policy over-reaches happened is a key step in avoiding this Orwellian AI-controlled future.