In spite of my face-palming avatar, I’m not a Fauci groupie. I’ve featured his bad takes before, and my thinking is much like Scott Alexander’s in terms of evaluating Fauci’s better-than-nothing but sometimes counterproductive messaging.
Fauci also triggers a peculiar sort of Tourette-syndrome-slash-Mandela-Effect among Covid minimizers, and that’s my subject here.
Often, when minimizers are called out on some terrible early prediction, they’ll respond with some variation of “ah, well, nevertheless, closer than Fauci,” usually implying that Fauci endorsed the idea that 2.2 million Americans would die.
But like 1990s genie movie staring Sinbad, it just didn’t happen.
In fact, Fauci never cited the 2.2 million number as realistic—the Imperial College itself did not!
In the first place, the “2.2 million” prediction is bogus. A report by scientists from Imperial College in London got international attention for predicting that 2.2 million Americans and 500,000 Britons could die if the coronavirus spread unchecked. After the U.S. and U.K. closed businesses and recommended social distancing, lead author Neil Ferguson clarified that he expected around 20,000 to die in the U.K.
This wasn’t a contradiction, although it was widely misreported as such in right-wing media at the time. As National Review correctly reported, the Imperial College study modeled various scenarios, both with and without mitigation. The headline 2.2 million number is what would occur in the world where no mitigation at all occurred—not even voluntary, private mitigation.
But American’s did mitigate. Before a single “lockdown” order issued, commuting and travel fell through the floor as people voluntarily acted to avoid spreading any virus. For reference, the first state “lockdown” order was California’s on March 19 followed by New York on March 22, but movement nationwide collapsed before the restrictions were imposed:
Fauci knew this, and so knew that the “millions dead” scenarios were not likely to happen. This isn’t speculation either. He said so directly. On ABC’s ThisWeek, he was asked about a different model that predicted up to 1.7 million deaths, and said the worst-case scenario would unlikely occur “because of what we’re doing right now.”
Fauci’s first prediction didn’t occur until March 29, 2020. While emphasizing that models may not be accurate, he aid that 100K-200K would potentially die given the current policy and trajectory.
Minimizers at the time thought even this number was high. It was based on the IHME model for deaths on August 4. Actual number dead on that date? 157K.
To be fair to the minimizers, the IHME model was terrible, and Fauci did offer a lot of bad later predictions based on the model, which incorrectly assumed the pandemic would rapidly fade away. But these errors were in the reverse direction, and minimizers don’t bring them up as often:
So why do so many people misremember this?
For a long time, I thought most people ascribing this prediction to Fauci were intentionally gaslighting their audience. You can find hilarious contrasts like this, where people mocked Fauci’s actual prediction at the time he made it, but later without shame accuse him of making the imaginary 2.2 million prediction.
The thing is, it’s a very widely believed myth, and people cite quite confidently.
I think that most Covid minimizers sincerely believe it—it’s a kind of Mandela Effect. A shared false memory.
How did this false memory become so entrenched? I think there are two reasons.
First, while there were lots of estimates of the number of people the virus could kill, the Imperial College number was the largest from a reputable outfit, so minimizers focused on it from the day it was publicized. They did so even though their characterization of it as a “2.2 million death prediction” was always nonsense. Headlines are dominated by bottom lines, not mitigation notes. The report became even more infamous when its principle advocate, Prof. Neil Ferguson, was revealed to have flouted UK restrictions in order to maintain his affair with a married woman.
Second, President Trump and his surrogates frequently mentioned the 2.2 million figure as if it were a kind of benchmark that shows how well the administration did. Mike Pence specifically attributed the number to Fauci at the Vice Presidential debate: “When Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Birx, and our medical experts came to us in the second week of March, they said, if the president didn’t take the unprecedented step of shutting down roughly half of the American economy, that we could lose 2.2 million Americans. That’s the reality.”
The statement may be true: we don’t know what Fauci might have privately said was the worst case scenario. (At minimum, the timing is fudged; the 2.2 million figure wasn’t posted until March 16.) It wasn’t a prediction of what would happen. Trump popularized the 2.2 million benchmark not because it was the best estimate or likely to occur, but because his record looks the best against it.
Imagining Fauci panic-mongering on a number (not really) promoted by an adulterer hypocrite is just too delicious a meme. It nests in the mind. It mixes with all the other strange memories of March 2020 until—voila!—minimizers honestly remember Fauci on TV scaring everyone with the prospect of 2.2 million deaths.