I firmly believe that COVID was really bad in many places in the spring of 2020. I also believe that even if politicians took no measures to contain the virus, there’s no way life could have been normal at that time.
This is a surprisingly controversial belief. Today, some people claim that COVID’s first wave wasn’t bad at all. They say that had we only identified “the vulnerable” and hermetically sealed them in a bubble, the rest of us could have continued life normally. However, we were prevented from doing so by overly-cautious politicians with their “brutal Government lockdown propaganda” and “fear-based messaging”.
This sort of revisionist history takes two forms. The first of these is outright denial. In a previous essay, I discussed an article by Dr. Jessica Hockett, an educational psychologist, titled “More Questions About Spring 2020 Covid in New York City Hospitals“, which was posted at the anti-vaccine site, The Brownstone Institute. From the comfort of her living room, Dr. Hockett examined hospital data and absurdly concluded that tens of thousands of healthcare workers hallucinated New York’s spring 2020 COVID wave. My discussion of Dr. Hockett’s article concluded:
Asking for “evidence” that New York City got hit hard by COVID makes as much sense as asking for “evidence” that New York City exists in the first place. George Orwell understood this all very well: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
(A more detailed rebuttal by Drs. Eric Burnett and Jonathan Laxton was posted here yesterday).
Another of my articles discussed a more subtle, pernicious aspect of COVID denial, namely that schools could have easily remained open the entire pandemic. Those who make this argument might not outright deny that places like New York City were hit hard by COVID, but they nonetheless pretend that schools could have stayed open with minimal consequences for teachers, students, and their families. As an adult doctor, not an education expert, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the wisdom or folly of school closures, and so my article on this subject concluded:
Maybe closing schools was an obvious and colossal mistake. However, those who make this claim should honestly grapple with what would have happened had nothing been done rather than indulge an absurd, revisionist fantasy that everything would have been fine and dandy.
A new entry into the rapidly-growing canon of COVID revisionist history comes courtesy of Dr. Karol Sikora, who is described thusly on Wikipedia:
Karol Sikora is a British physician specialising in oncology, who has been described as a leading world authority on cancer. He was a founder and medical director of Rutherford Health, a company that provided proton therapy services, and is Director of Medical Oncology at the Bahamas Cancer Centre. He is currently Professor of Medicine at the University of Buckingham, and a partner in and dean of Buckingham’s medical school.
While Dr. Sikora sounds like an impressive figure, not everyone is so enamored. After Dr. Sikora signed the Great Barrington Declaration, which claimed the mass infection of unvaccinated youth would lead to herd immunity in under 6 months, Dr. Rupert Beale, a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said:
There’s a lot of other people who have also signed it and guess what, it’s the usual suspects. It’s Karol Sikora who knows nothing about this whatsoever but who is endlessly self-promoting.
Dr. Sikora’s provocative, angry essay was titled “The Lockdown Cancer Wave Has Only Just Begun: Advocates for harsh Covid measures are finally waking up to their actions“. It was published at UnHerd, which previously published doctors’ absurd, pro-virus claims that it is “healthy and natural” for children to get sick with COVID. Dr. Sikora’s essay said:
The underreported story of the entire pandemic is excess deaths — not from Covid, but from other health conditions which were so brutally pushed to one side. There have been huge rises in the number of people dying from causes unrelated to the virus, accelerating throughout the year and showing no signs of slowing down.
To begin with, it was driven by diabetes, cardiac issues and a handful of other concerns — but recently the number of people dying from cancer is starting to increase considerably above what is expected. Will this continue? Nobody can say for sure, but I suspect it will for many years to come.
When I outlined the scale of the cancer crisis previously on Twitter, various voices took great pleasure in pointing out that cancer deaths weren’t rising — I don’t hear from them anymore. Indeed, many of the more vocal lockdown commentators are actively drawing attention to the problem now.
Cancer is slow, but it’s relentless. An undiagnosed tumour won’t cause severe complications in days or weeks. But if it’s left untreated for a year or two then the odds of survival drop precipitously. I fear that those lockdown delays are now starting to bite.
NHS Digital states that in 2020 there were 288,753 new cancer diagnoses — that is 38,421 fewer than in 2019. Full statistics for 2021 aren’t available yet, but it’s fair to assume that it would be a similar number again. A recent report estimated that across Europe the number was a gargantuan one million fewer diagnoses — it really is scandalous. Yet no public outcry, no emergency press conferences, no outrageous scaremongering tactics. Why is that?
Proponents of harder and longer lockdowns will go to great lengths to deny the impact that lockdown and associated fear-based messaging had on these numbers. There is a concerted effort to whitewash the health consequences of relentless restrictions, but that stain is not easy to remove.
Those of us with clearer memories will recall the one overriding instruction we were all given — ‘stay home’. And that’s exactly what millions of seriously ill people did, regardless of the state of their own health. Just look at the excess death figures in private homes right from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — sky-high every single week. Tens of thousands of people stayed and died at home. That’s a sorry fact…
Lockdown policies were a choice. Intense fear-based messaging was a choice; essentially locking people in their homes was a choice; failing to give attention to anything that wasn’t Covid was a choice.
It wasn’t our lockdown or absolutely nothing. There was a better, more balanced way. This isn’t hindsight: plenty of us said so at the time, in the face of appalling personal attacks and abuse.
Cancer services in Britain are in a truly horrific place and I sincerely appreciate that the causes are complex, ranging from brutal Government lockdown propaganda to a severely stretched workforce. However, attempts to rewrite pandemic history must be resisted — lockdowns and associated choices had an unforgivable impact on cancer patients with an immeasurable amount of suffering as a result. I fear it has only just begun.
This all sounds really bad, and absolutely no one says lockdowns were harmless. I lived through one of the strictest ones in the US, though I recognized that I was privileged. I was not a small business owner or a single parent with small children who suddenly had no daycare. Moreover, no one says that delayed care for diseases other than COVID was harmless. Many important things had to be postponed. However, it’s important to seriously consider the counterfactual, something Dr. Sikora chose not to do. What actually would have happened if politicians had allowed hospitals to remain open for cancer screening in the spring of 2020?
I can answer that question for New York City. Exactly zero people would have been screened for cancer at the start of the pandemic.
Before I explain my answer, let me state a clear point of agreement with Dr. Sikora – attempts to rewrite pandemic history must be resisted. So let’s revisit some history from the spring of 2020. One article said, “‘We Ran Out of Space’: Bodies Pile Up as N.Y. Struggles to Bury Its Dead: The Coronavirus Crisis is Overwhelming New York’s System for Burying the Dead” and another declared “‘Somebody’s Got To Do It’: Forklift Driver Moves Bodies of Coronavirus Victims“. Yet another read, “Rikers Island Inmates Offered $6 Per Hour to Dig Mass Graves as COVID-19 Deaths Rise” and “New York City Deploys 45 Mobile Morgues as Virus Strains Funeral Homes.” Dr. Sikora was right that deaths spiked not just in hospitals, but in homes as well. According to the New York City Fire Department, “In the first five days of April, 1,125 people were pronounced dead in their homes or on the street in New York City, more than eight times the deaths recorded during the same period in 2019”. While not all of these were COVID victims, many certainly were. Dr. Sikora chose not to tell this to his readers.
Of course, none of this was a secret. New Yorkers, and indeed the whole world, read these headlines and saw the gruesome images. We heard sirens wailing constantly throughout the day and night. Many of us knew people who died or were severely ill with COVID. Over 800 residents of New York City were dying daily during the peak and over 43,000 have died so far. Few New Yorkers were under the illusion that SARS-CoV-2 was a mild or easily-avoided virus, and “those of us with clearer memories” will never forget it.
Despite what Dr. Sikora claims, it wasn’t just “brutal Government lockdown propaganda” that kept people at home at the pandemic’s start. It was reality. And though New York City was hit hard and early, our experience didn’t turn out to be some extreme anomaly, sadly. Similar headlines of mass death appeared throughout the world at various points in the pandemic. New York City wasn’t the only place where cancer screenings had to be halted. Even today, pediatric hospitals are shutting down elective procedures due to overwhelming number of sick children, not because governments are forcing them to. Of course, some people blame lockdowns for children getting sick with flu and RSV too. Lockdowns, it seems, will be blamed for every malady that befalls humanity for the foreseeable future.
So, what actually would have happened if politicians had allowed hospitals to remain open for cancer screening throughout the pandemic? How many New Yorkers, both old enough to be eligible for cancer screening and health-conscious enough to care about it, would have thought in April 2020 “I can’t delay my colonoscopy by a few months!!!“? We’ll never know for sure, but I doubt this is a large number of people we’re talking about here.
Did you social distance at the start of the pandemic? If you did, was your only reason because the government mandated it? Were you just following the law? Would you have gone to dinner parties or crowded karaoke bars had they been open? Probably not. Data supports the unsurprising notion that people changed their behavior independent of government measures at the start of the pandemic. As Noah Louis-Ferdinand wrote:
Mobility data—combining Google’s archive of location histories and GPS data from millions of cell phones—suggests not much. An analysis from June of 2020 immediately looking back shows that mobility decreased massively before the lockdowns even started. There was no sharp decline once they set in, mobility increased throughout the lockdown, and it did not increase sharply once they were lifted. Similar graphs show a sharp mobility decline (albeit less steep) in Stockholm, Sweden right around the same time. Sweden never locked down.
However, even if we indulge the fantasy that large numbers of older New Yorkers would have been eager to stay on track with their cancer screenings in the spring of 2020, who would have been available to treat these patients? The COVID tsunami was an all-hand-on-deck moment. Pediatricians cared for seniors and gynecologists cared for men. Medical students graduated early to help out. Healthcare workers arrived from all over the country. “It was like a medical war zone”, said one traveling nurse. A doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens said:
If you watch a war movie to see people shooting from all over, that’s what this almost felt like. One thing after the next after next, you can’t even catch up with what has to happen.
Many healthcare workers got really sick with COVID themselves. Some died. Others, overcome with grief and powerlessness, took their own lives. Steeped in self-pity regarding the “appalling personal attacks and abuse” he faced being part of a successful campaign to have millions of unvaccinated children contract COVID, Dr. Sikora seems to be blissfully unaware of any of this.
He should read about it. He may be surprised to learn that when COVID overwhelmed our city, there were no spare anesthesiologist to sedate people for colonoscopies. Surgeons and the entire operating room staff weren’t available to treat patients with suspicious mammograms. No one was available for anything except COVID. Hospitals were forced to cancel everything that wasn’t completely emergent. They didn’t do this just because politicians mandated it. They did this because they were overflowing with sick, dying COVID patients. There was quite literally no space for anyone else. Hospitals didn’t cancel lucrative tests and procedures because they suddenly stopped caring about money. They had no choice. I doubt any hospital in the country was able to maintain business as usual throughout the entire pandemic, regardless of their government’s policy.
The news from the UK was no better. Their refusal to vaccinate children led to headlines such as: “Girl, 15, died ‘astonishingly quickly’ on day she was due to receive her Covid vaccine” and “Children Drive Britain’s Longest-Running Covid Surge” from October 2021, before the Omicron variant arrived.
This virus was to blame for all of this. It was capable of shutting down cities around the world.
Despite this, Dr. Sikora convinced many of his readers that routine hospital care would have run smoothly if only politicians had not interfered with their “brutal Government lockdown propaganda” and “fear-based messaging”. Maybe he’s right. Maybe older New Yorkers would have breezily strolled past refrigerated trucks overflowing with corpses of their friends and relatives and into crowded waiting rooms so their mammogram wouldn’t be delayed by a few months. Maybe hospitals would have pulled healthcare workers off overflowing COVID units to perform routine cancer screenings, if only had politicians only allowed it. However I am again forced to conclude that those who make such claims should honestly grapple with what would have happened had nothing been done, rather than indulge an absurd, revisionist fantasy that everything would have been fine and dandy.
After all, attempts to rewrite pandemic history must be resisted, right?