Why so many died from COVID

When judging the response of the US government –at all levels– to the COVID-19 pandemic, I find it hard to view it as anything less than a failure. The US has 81 more deaths per million people than the EU does– that’s over 25% more! Our inability to keep the virus from spreading makes us look more like weak dictatorships, like the Putin regime in Russia, than our liberal democratic allies in Europe and Canada.

But why did the US do such an awful job? Simple. The government was inept. While it was fashionable to mock libertarians early on (“There are no libertarians in a pandemic”), the government response has led to at least tens of thousands of people dying needlessly. While private Americans had been adjusting to the risk of COVID in the weeks leading up to the national shutdown, the government effectively worked to help the virus. 

The oldest example of government obstruction came with testing. While the FDA quickly approved a CDC test that did not work, they consistently provided maximum resistance to companies developing working alternative tests. When physicians at the University of Washington used an unapproved COVID test to identify an outbreak in the Seattle area, the FDA ordered them to stop. When another physician at the University of Washington emailed the FDA testing authorization forms that he spent “almost a hundred hours” filing out, they responded by saying he had to physically mail them in along with a digital file in physical form to a second location. 

The federal government increased testing regulations in January. One requirement the FDA had was to test a potential COVID test against SARS and MERS, yet the CDC wouldn’t supply samples of the viruses. The CDC even issued guidelines limiting who could be tested! It wasn’t until mid-March– nearly two months after the first confirmed US case– that the onerous testing regulations were done away with.  

Let’s move on to something a little more egregious. The federal government– from the start of the pandemic– discouraged mask wearing. Unlike with early testing failures, this wasn’t an ineffective bureaucracy being ineffective. According to Dr. Fauci, this was an intentional lie. The justification was noble enough– they were worried about the supply for healthcare workers. But they should have just been honest about the shortage. Their lie and eventual backtracking lead to distrust in public health experts and ammunition for mask deniers. 

Worse yet, their lie was even a bad idea for healthcare workers. The best way to protect the medical mask supply was to keep the infection from spreading. If Americans didn’t get sick, then they wouldn’t flood into hospitals and emergency mask supplies wouldn’t be under such stress. Masks might be the single most effective way of stopping the virus from spreading. They impede massive amounts of microscopic organisms from spreading and models show that masks alone could be enough to bring the pandemic under control. I can only wonder how many lives would have been saved if instead of discouraging masks our public health experts encouraged them. 

Oh, but it’s not over. Not only did the government make detecting the virus harder. Not only did they make stopping the spread harder. Some state governments actively helped spread the virus in vulnerable populations. Governor Cuomo required nursing homes to accept people who had tested positive for COVID-19– an airborne virus which is particularly deadly for people in nursing homes– nor could they test prospective residence. 6,000 nursing home residents– 6% of the nursing home population– died of COVID in New York State alone. Both New Jersey and California had similar policies. In New Jersey, over half the COVID deaths were those in long term care facilities. About half the COVID deaths in California are tied to long term care facilities. 

And it’s not just the big things the government screwed up. They managed to ruin small things too. Both the FDA and ATF prohibited the use of ethanol in place of isopropyl alcohol during a rubbing alcohol shortage even though both are equally effective! And the FDA also prohibited Fitbits and Apple Watches from being able to tell you your blood oxygen level even as COVID was known to lower people’s oxygen level without them noticing until it was too late. 

None of this is even touching long term structural flaws in the healthcare system created by government regulation like hospital bed limits, limits on how many doctors a medical school can graduate, occupational licensing, or general lack of preparedness across multiple administrations. Or useless government regulations that had to be repealed to make lockdowns go smoother. We didn’t even talk about President Trump promoting pseudoscientific cures like hydroxychloroquine or the lack of centralized quarantine early in the pandemic. These government failures– like all government failures– are swept under the rug. 

Exit quote: “There is no necessary presumption that simply because markets are imperfect, political processes will work better. On the contrary, as public-choice theory reminds us, there are very good reasons for doubting the capacity of political processes to achieve Pareto optimality. The normatively relevant comparison is between two imperfect Institutions.” – Economist James Buchanan

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