The Hammer and the Dance: A Retrospective

The mysteriously viral Medium essay that inspired lockdowns in multiple countries has not aged well.

The West never planned to lock down in the event of a pandemic. The preferred strategy was always supposed to be mitigation – that is to say, limited, regionally enacted closures and telecommuting recommendations to slow the rate of infection and spare hospitals some of the burden. So when the World Health Organisation declared the Hubei lockdown a success, and recommended the same approach to other countries, there was push-back. The United Kingdom had developed their own pandemic plans, on the basis of sophisticated models, which called for not doing very much. Johnson’s government announced they would insist on this strategy, and around the same time, Angela Merkel remarked that she expected 70% of Germans to be infected – a nod at the same basic approach.

The “science” had always been on the side of not locking down. This was a formidable problem for the early advocates of mass containment, and it is where Neil Ferguson and his Imperial College pandemic modelling team proved useful. They threw together a modelling study claiming that millions would die if Hubei-style lockdowns weren’t imposed, and Johnson’s government folded. In Germany, medical bureaucrats decided they wanted a lockdown too, but like many countries, we found ourselves in the awkward position of not having a native tradition of pandemic modelling to produce the made-to-order scientistic justifications. Nevertheless, our Interior Ministry threw together a team of medical bureaucrats and mid-level scientists to produce an anonymous pseudoscientific “strategy paper” that could be used behind the scenes to persuade politicians and journalists that lockdowns were the only way. The scientists responsible for this fraudulent paper purported to “model” what would happen in different scenarios. They christened their optimal scenario – the one with the harshest measures and the fewest deaths – the “Hammer and Dance.”

They had the name from “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance”, a viral essay penned by Bay-Area thinkfluencer Tomas Pueyo and posted to Medium on 19 March. Within just days, this piece came to the attention of bureaucrats and politicians in multiple countries, ultimately guiding lockdown policies across the West.

Pueyo had just come to prominence nine days earlier, with another widely shared Medium essay entitled “Coronavirus: Why We Must Act Now.” This item merely rehashed the reasoning of the WHO report endorsing lockdowns in more simplified terms that a broad public would readily understand. “The Hammer and the Dance” was, in turn, a popularisation and mild adjustment of the Imperial College study. Models are country-specific, for they depend on the healthcare and economic resources available in their respective jurisdictions. Pueyo’s role was not only to simplify, but also to withdraw the Imperial College model from the context of the United Kingdom and transform it into a general political appeal that would speak to medical bureaucrats everywhere.

It’s unsurprising, looking back at Pueyo’s work today, to see that he was completely wrong about almost everything that matters. What is perhaps more bizarre, is the extent to which his zombie theses continue to dictate containment and also vaccination policy almost everywhere, despite their near-total falsification.

Take, for example, his belief that infection waves will continue to rise, either until they have infected every last susceptible person on earth, or until your government orders the virus to stop:

This is obviously untrue. Infections rise and fall according to overwhelmingly obvious seasonal and regional patterns. These effects are far more significant than any government policy, from lockdowns to universal vaccination, could ever hope to be. What is more, we are not all in contact with each other, and we live in overlapping social circles. When the virus finds a pocket of interconnected, susceptible people, a wave gathers strength, but soon the virus starts stepping on itself, as it bumps into more and more people who are already sick. Then the wave collapses and the virus is reduced to low levels of infection until it can find another seam of interconnected, susceptible people. This is how all viruses work, and it is why we have the ICU and hospital capacities that we do – because scenarios where every last person is infected over the course of a single month literally never happen, they are impossible.

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