The confinement of the healthy

COVID-19 represents the first time in the history of pandemics that we confined healthy populations. While the ancients did not understand the mechanisms of infectious disease—they knew nothing of viruses and bacteria—they nevertheless figured out many ways to mitigate the spread of contagion during epidemics. These time-tested measures ranged from quarantining symptomatic patients to enlisting those with natural immunity, who had recovered from the illness, to care for the sick.

From the lepers in the Old Testament to the plague of Justinian in Ancient Rome to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, lockdowns were never part of conventional public health measures. The concept of lockdowns arose in part from a public health apparatus that had become militarized over the previous two decades. We now routinely hear of “countermeasures,” but doctors and nurses never use that word, which is a term of spycraft and soldiering. 

In 1968, while an estimated one to four million people died in the H3N2 influenza pandemic, businesses and schools stayed open and large events were never cancelled. Until 2020 we had not previously locked down entire populations, because that strategy does not work. In 2020 we had zero empirical evidence that lockdowns would save lives, only flawed mathematical models whose predications were not just slightly off, but wildly exaggerated by orders of magnitude.

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