The authors of The Price of Panic contend that a key factor was the argument that said that those who dutifully follow the emergency measures are acting in their neighbors’ best interests. While most people want to be good neighbors (or at least want others to be good neighbors to them), this argument did not take into account the extraordinary harm that the emergency measures would themselves inflict upon our neighbors. This includes: economic devastation, massive unemployment, wasted goods, social isolation, psychological demoralization, deaths of despair, barriers to obtaining other kinds of medical care, medical authoritarianism, disrupted education, missed worship services, escalating pornography use and substance abuse, weight gain and fewer exercise options, lost lifetime experiences (graduations, weddings, funerals, etc.), political malfeasance, and an overall atmosphere of panic and judgmentalism.
A Review of The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe, by Douglas Axe, William M. Briggs, and Jay W. Richards, (Regnery, 2020)
I would like to suggest that we dub 2020 the Year of Living Safely. After all, one of the year’s most repeated phrases has been “out of an abundance of caution.” Of course, most people like to feel safe, but problems arise when safety becomes the preeminent thing in life. This is illustrated in a short story that was written over one hundred years ago by E.M. Forster, entitled “The Machine Stops.” It tells of a dystopian world in which people live in isolated, subterranean, technologically connected homes that they almost never leave due to dangers that they might encounter on the earth’s surface. The moral of the story is that an obsession with safety can become so stifling that life becomes a feeble imitation of what it is supposed to be. Philosopher and auto mechanic Matthew Crawford makes a similar point when he writes, “Safety is obviously very important. But it is also a principle that, absent countervailing considerations, admits no limit to its expanding dominion. It tends to swallow everything before it.”
The public policy response to the coronavirus stands as a perfect example of this. In their new book, The Price of Panic, Douglas Axe, William Briggs, and Jay Richards provide a careful analysis of how this has happened. They point out that one of the factors that played a critical role was the reliance on computer models that attempted to predict the virus’s impact and how it could be mitigated. Axe, Briggs, and Richards spend considerable time looking at the problems with these models, especially the highly influential Imperial College model, which two software engineers would later describe as “totally unreliable” and perhaps “the most devastating software mistake of all time, in terms of economic costs and lives lost.” 
Initially, people were told that a mass shutdown of society was needed in order to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. As it turns out, even that concern was based on models that were severely flawed in multiple ways. [16-17] And after it became clear that the nation’s hospitals were not being overrun with cases, the justification for continuing the unprecedented mitigation efforts shifted. While the initial reasoning was that the number of cases had to be spread out over time, the new reasoning said that we could take measures that would significantly reduce the total number of cases. Prior to that point, it was assumed that there is no way to halt the spread of a virus once it has become a pandemic.  As we will see below, there is no good reason to conclude that the novel and extraordinary measures taken to minimize the spread of the coronavirus have achieved that goal.
Another matter to ponder is whether the mitigation measures have been proportionate to the threat posed by this virus. According to the CDC, these are the chances of surviving the coronavirus if you are infected by it:
- Ages 0 to 19 = 99.997%
- Ages 20 to 49 = 99.98%
- Ages 50 to 69 = 99.5%
- Ages 70 and older = 94.6%
As for those who do end up dying from the virus, 94% have at least one other significant health condition that makes them more vulnerable. These figures make it clear that the coronavirus is nothing at all like the bubonic plague.  This lends credence to the basic thesis of The Price of Panic, which is that the panicked response to this virus is a pandemic of far more damaging proportions than the disease itself.
The authors of this book are not alone in questioning the strategy that is being employed to combat this outbreak. In October 2020, epidemiologists from Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford universities penned a statement that they called the Great Barrington Declaration. Within two weeks, the declaration had been signed by over 10,000 medical and public health scientists, over 30,000 medical practitioners, and over 500,000 members of the general public. The declaration argues that, based on what we now know about the coronavirus and about infectious disease outbreaks in general, the best public policy response is a plan of focused protection of the most vulnerable while allowing those for whom the disease does not pose a significant threat to go about life as normal. While this is reflective of the prevailing wisdom on pandemic response prior to 2020, one of the declaration’s authors laments the vitriolic response by lockdown proponents who seem “intent on shutting down debate rather than promoting reasoned discussion.” The fact that so many seem to have no interest in having such a discussion demonstrates that the media’s incessant fear-mongering has made people willing to submit indefinitely to safety measures that have radically disrupted ordinary life.
It is noteworthy that the policy response to the coronavirus has been very different than the responses to previous disease outbreaks in America. In the Spanish Flu pandemic, which was far more deadly than the coronavirus, mitigation efforts were local and organic, and there is no record of President Woodrow Wilson even mentioning the crisis in a public speech.  As for the flu pandemics of 1957-58 and 1968-1969, life went on pretty much as usual, even though the CDC rates both of those outbreaks as more severe than COVID-19, both in transmissibility and clinical severity. [104-105] Evidently, leaders and officials in those previous eras thought that, since there is little that can be done to contain a highly contagious respiratory illness once it has spread throughout a population, the best thing to do is maintain a sense of calm while focusing on providing medical care to the afflicted.
What a contrast with 2020, where the prevailing assumption has been that the best way to handle this outbreak is to foster and perpetuate a heightened sense of fear in order to garner support for the unprecedented measures that are being taken in response to the virus. As remarkable as this may sound, the New York Times ran an article earlier this year that explained how this shift in approach can be traced to a 2006 high school science project. The student’s scientist father worked with her to expand her project into a paper entitled “Targeted Social Distancing Designs for Pandemic Influenza,” which they published in a CDC journal. The paper’s abstract asserts that the application of their model to the 1957-1958 Asian flu outbreak showed that “closing schools and keeping children and teenagers at home reduced the attack rate by >90%.”  In spite of the confident tone of that assertion, it is important to remember that this paper was based on a simulation, not on something that actually happened. As Axe, Briggs, and Richards note, models of this nature “only say what we tell them to say… Modelers want specific results, and so they build their models to spit out those results.” 
The paper was sent to Dr. D.A. Henderson, who was, according to the New York Times, “the leader of the international effort to eradicate smallpox and had been named by [President] Bush to help oversee the nation’s biodefense efforts after the 2001 terrorist attacks.” Henderson responded by rejecting the approach advocated in the paper, contending that it would result in “significant disruption of the social functioning of communities” and “possibly serious economic problems.” What was his advice for dealing with such crises? “We should ‘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.’” 
Not to be deterred, the CDC continued to push the novel plan outlined in the paper. First, they conducted a survey of the general population, which revealed that this approach would produce significant economic and social problems for people. Then the CDC surveyed “representatives from the organized stakeholder public,” who “ultimately sided with the proponents of social distancing and shutdowns.” Stop and think about all of this for a moment. Here is the assessment offered by Axe, Briggs, and Richards: “a survey steered by people with a vested interest in political control led the government to set aside Henderson’s tried-and-true scientific expertise and experience” and commit “itself and its citizens to an unprecedented experiment.” 
The experiment continues, in spite of mounting evidence indicating that the measures being taken are not helpful in combatting the virus. They are certainly not beneficial enough to be worth all of the misery and loss that they have caused.  Of course, proponents of the lockdowns can simply assert that things would have been far worse without them. But that is mere conjecture. The facts points in a different direction. For one thing, in places that had lockdowns, the infection rate began to fall before the lockdown was imposed. [112-122] For another, the transition from a steep increase in cases to a flatter curve looks the same when comparing lockdown states with no-lockdown states. [116-119] For another, the states with the most severe lockdowns had higher death rates than states with no lockdowns.  For another, countries that did not have lockdowns had low death rates [126, 175-183] and are now at a better place in the pandemic than nations that employed the lockdown strategy.
While The Price of Panic focuses especially on the lockdown strategy, other aspects of the response to the virus have also been called into question. Regarding widespread testing, contact tracing, and isolation, the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration contend that these things “do not work for widely spread diseases such as annual influenza, pre-vaccine measles, COVID-19, or, by definition, against any pandemic.” As for the wearing of face coverings by the general public, the scientific consensus prior to COVID-19 (and even in the early stages of the outbreak) is summed up in a WHO study that said that “there is no evidence that this is effective in reducing transmission.”  While the scientific consensus has now shifted in the other direction, this move is lacking in scientific support and is contradicted by real world data. In fact, here is what one scientist has to say about masking in an article in which he carefully explains what happens when a general population wears masks all the time:
“It boggles my mind when there is some notion that by wearing a face covering you are actually doing a ‘service’ to your neighbor and therefore everyone has to protect everyone by this. Actually, the opposite is true. You are now becoming an additional potential source of environmental contamination. You are now becoming a transmission risk; not only are you increasing your own risk but you are also increasing the risk to others.”
Although the novel response to this coronavirus is repeatedly defended as being based on “science,” there are plenty of scientists who still hold to the traditional thinking about pandemic response. Moreover, there is no evidence that the new approach is better. A computer model is not evidence. It is a prediction, and it can be manipulated to say what the person using it wants it to say. Given the political environment in 2020, it is easy to understand why some are contending that the virus response has been shaped in large part by those seeking to use it to achieve certain political ends. This suspicion is heightened by Big Tech’s ongoing censorship of dissenting views.
Certainly, it is prudent for those who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus to take special precautions in an effort to avoid infection. But it is striking that so many people who are in generally good health have gone along with the societal wide imposition of life-altering virus containment efforts in response to this disease. How did this happen? The authors of The Price of Panic contend that a key factor was the argument that said that those who dutifully follow the emergency measures are acting in their neighbors’ best interests.  While most people want to be good neighbors (or at least want others to be good neighbors to them), this argument did not take into account the extraordinary harm that the emergency measures would themselves inflict upon our neighbors. This includes: economic devastation, massive unemployment, wasted goods, social isolation, psychological demoralization, deaths of despair, barriers to obtaining other kinds of medical care, medical authoritarianism, disrupted education, missed worship services, escalating pornography use and substance abuse, weight gain and fewer exercise options, lost lifetime experiences (graduations, weddings, funerals, etc.), political malfeasance, and an overall atmosphere of panic and judgmentalism. After considering these and other costs, Axe, Briggs, and Richards exclaim, “No doubt there are more costs, but this chapter is already too depressing. We hope we’ve proved our point: the cost of the nationwide panic and lockdowns was immense, and far beyond any benefit we could have hoped to achieve. It’s certainly beyond any benefit we did achieve.”  One wonders how things might have turned out if there had been an honest attempt to consider the long term effects of the emergency measures, weighing costs against benefits.
It is natural for people to crave safety in the face of a pandemic. But Christians know that the only place of perfect safety is in the shelter of the Most High, in the shadow of the Almighty. (see Ps. 91:1) As J. Gresham Machen once wrote, “The world is full of dread, mysterious powers; they touch us already in a thousand woes. But from all of them we are safe.” This does not mean that we will never be harmed by sickness, poverty, oppression, violence, or the many other evils that can beset us in this life. While Christ has delivered us from eternal suffering, we are not exempt from temporal suffering. We experience the same kinds of affliction that our unbelieving neighbors experience. The difference is that we know that our God so rules over our afflictions that they are used for our ultimate good. (see Rom. 8:28) And although our lives in this world will one day be brought to an end, not even death will be able to separate us from the love that God has for us in Christ Jesus. (see Rom. 8:38-39) Because this is true, while we do need to be prudent in the face of risks, we should not let our concerns about safety rise to the level of an obsession. As the authors of The Price of Panic demonstrate, the panic induced by our society’s expert/media coalition has made people susceptible to unprecedented efforts in social control. The fact that this is being defended as necessary for our own safety should be all the more concerning. After all, as C.S. Lewis once warned,
“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Here’s hoping that more people will take this to heart as we continue to live in this strange new reality that I have come to refer to as The Corona Zone.
Editor’s note: Here is another book on this topic: Coronavirus and the Leadership of the Christian Church: A Sacred Trust Broken, by Ernest Springer, Joel Yeager, and Daniel O’Roark.
 Matthew B. Crawford, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, (New York: William Morrow, 2020), 33.
 J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 117.
 For a biblical-theological study of death, see my book Death: The Last Enemy (Independently published, 2020.)
 C.S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 292.