Political Editors / December 23, 2021

In Brief: Inside the Omicron Fear Factory

Public health chiefs and the media are working overtime to gin up hysteria.

We’re not far from the two-year mark for the coronavirus pandemic. But there are many powerful Americans who just won’t let us return to normal. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute says enough is enough.

In March 2020, a profile of the typical Covid victim emerged from Italy. The average decedent was eighty years old, with approximately three comorbidities such as heart disease, obesity or diabetes. The young had little to worry about; the survival rate for the vast majority of the population was well over 99 percent.

That portrait never significantly changed. The early assessments of Covid out of Italy have remained valid through today. And so it will prove with the Omicron variant.

The data out of South Africa, after five weeks of Omicron spread, suggest that Omicron should be a cause for celebration, not fear. Its symptoms are mild to non-existent in the majority of the infected, especially the vaccinated; hospitalization rates are over nine times lower than for previous Covid strains; deaths are negligible. That assessment will only be confirmed as the US and other western countries gather their own data on Omicron.

Yet the public health establishment and the media are working overtime to gin up Omicron hysteria. The official response to the Omicron variant provides a case study in the deliberate manufacture of fear.

Mac Donald lays out six strategies used by the authoritarians to expand their power:

  1. Create a group norm of fear

The media want you to believe that everyone around you is scared out of his mind, and thus you should be, too. Man-on-the-street interviews quote Nervous Nellies exclusively.

  1. Buttress group fear with expert opinion

The only public health experts whom the media quote are those determined to put the most dire spin on Omicron. They stress worst-case hypothetical scenarios and dismiss actual good-case evidence. At best, they may grudgingly admit that Omicron symptoms are disproportionately mild, but rush to assert that there are still many as-yet unrealized grounds for worry.

  1. Manufacture epistemological uncertainty and insist on that uncertainty as long as possible

“The media intone repeatedly that much remains uncertain about Omicron, including how likely it is to cause severe disease. But we already have a good picture of that likelihood from the South Africa experience: very unlikely.”

  1. Bury both good news and dissenters from the bad news

The South African data should lead any coverage of Omicron, yet it has barely been reported. Though only 27 percent of the country is fully vaccinated, less than two percent of new cases are requiring hospitalization. And that number is undoubtedly too high, since many reported Covid hospitalizations were admitted for reasons other than Covid. In countries such as the US with much higher rates of vaccination, the breakthrough infections from Omicron will be even milder. Omicron will be an ideal vehicle for achieving herd immunity, conferring protection without tears on the vast majority of the infected.

  1. Omit relevant context

We hear constantly that 1,300 people are dying a day from Covid. By comparison, about 2,000 people die each day from cancer, and 1,600 from heart disease. Their deaths get no coverage. Covid was the leading cause of death in the US only in January 2021, even among those eighty-five and older. Since then, it has ranked as the third most frequent cause of death both in the overall population and in the elderly.

  1. Flog the case count

If the media is obsessing about case count, it means that Covid deaths have been a terrible disappointment. Covid death rates have plunged over the last year and are barely budging in the post-Omicron era. But case counts are a particularly deceptive measure of pandemic severity, when so many of the new cases are mild to asymptomatic.

The bottom line, she says, is that “we have turned the equivalent of the common cold into a potent weapon against the resumption of civil society.”

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