Phil Magness is an economic historian and Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He’s also a classical liberal and a lockdown sceptic. During the pandemic, he’s written articles about masks, lockdowns, pandemic modelling and the Great Barrington Declaration. I interviewed him via email.
On 28th January, you gave a talk at Hillsdale College titled ‘The Failures of Pandemic Central Planning’. You’ve since written a full-length paper with the same title. Could you briefly summarise your argument?
I argue that the political response to the Covid pandemic is best understood as an exercise in failed central planning. In a sense, it closely parallels the mindset behind mid-20th century economic planning. It’s the mindset that says complex human interactions may be tweaked, corrected, and managed by expert scientists with sophisticated models of the same society-wide systems. If a problem emerges, simply follow the model’s directions and pull the correct policy levers and all will be fixed – or so they claim.
With Covid, most of the world’s governments adopted an aggressive policy response built upon then-untested modelling that advised when and where to impose the ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ (NPIs) we’ve all come to know – things like social distancing requirements, school closures, event cancellations, and lockdowns. If an outbreak crosses a threshold, then lock everything down and the outbreak can be managed.
The problem, as we’ve seen time and time again, is that the models guiding the NPI approach were wrong – often catastrophically so. I focus on the Imperial College-London (ICL) model of Neil Ferguson, which had an outsized influence on the adoption of lockdowns and other NPIs. I show that, as of its one year anniversary, ICL’s main model overstated mortality projections in 189 out of 189 countries. It also severely exaggerated the effectiveness of NPIs, and even failed to account for the acute vulnerability of nursing home and old age care facilities.
Combined together, Imperial gave us a roadmap for centralized NPI planning that turned out to be fundamentally unsuited for the Covid pandemic. And yet once we were locked into that policy trajectory, politics intervened and made it nearly impossible to change course, despite mounting evidence that the NPIs were failing to deliver as promised.
You work for the American Institute for Economic Research, which hosted the conference that led to the Great Barrington Declaration – a public statement advocating focused protection. Could you tell us what happened at that conference?
In early October 2020, AIER hosted a small academic conference for the purpose of calling scientific attention to the costs of lockdowns. Up until that point, the media and political figures such as Anthony Fauci had been working to create a false impression of strong scientific consensus behind the lockdown measures – even as they were failing to perform as promised (recall “two weeks to flatten the curve”). This new consensus was an outright falsehood. As recently as 2019, the WHO, leading epidemiology research institutions such as Johns-Hopkins University, and even Fauci himself had gone on record stating that lockdowns would not work in a respiratory pandemic, and should be ruled out as a policy response.
The conference would call attention to the largely ignored harms of lockdowns, while proposing alternative approaches that were in keeping with the pre-2020 public health science. We hosted three eminently qualified scientists from top research institutions, who presented the case against lockdowns in a filmed discussion panel. This was followed by interviews with journalists who specialize in pandemic coverage. On the last day of the conference, the three scientists then drafted a general statement of principles that (1) summarized the case against lockdowns and (2) called for an alternative “focused protection” strategy. They dubbed this the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), and released it publicly the next morning.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the Declaration went viral. The scientists’ statement had tapped into growing scholarly dissent from the lockdown approach, which had thus far dominated the Covid-19 response, and quickly amassed tens of thousands of signatures from other scientists and medical practitioners.