Did People Die from Covid Because of the Power of Populist Politics?

Yves here. Richard Murphy discusses a BMJ paper on why droplet dogma remained (and remains) firmly entrenched despite growing and then overwhelming evidence that it was transmitted by aerosols. And droplet theory advocacy is still pervasive. I was just in a meeting1 where someone put up a slide from the WHO with the first anti-Covid as washing your hands. Gah.

The authors of the BMJ article argue for the power of authority structures and ideology.

By Richard Murphy, part-time Professor of Accounting Practice at Sheffield University Management School, director of the Corporate Accountability Network, member of Finance for the Future LLP, and director of Tax Research LLP. Originally published at Tax Research

In the context of the Covid inquiry, I have had my attention drawn to a paper in the British Medical Journal entitled ‘How covid-19 spreads: narratives, counter narratives, and social dramas‘. The paper is by Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences, Mustafa Ozbilgin, professor of organisational behaviour and David Tomlinson, consultant cardiologist and electrophysiologist.

I won’t summarise the whole paper. Instead, the discussion stood out. In this they summarised their hypotheses when trying to explain why the story that Covid was spread by droplets (meaning that the hand-washing agenda was encouraged) was promoted so hard when it was clear that it was actually aerosol spread – i.e. through the air, meaning that all that hand washing was a near complete waste of time and money.

They put forward three ideas before reaching what, I am sure, is their over-arching conclusion. Those three ideas were that this bias was, firstly, psychological. Early on it was decided that droplet dissemination caused Covid and it was very hard to dislodge that idea once it was embedded in official thinking, at least without embarrassment to those who had promoted it.

Second, there was scientific elitism. There was a lot of science on droplet spread of disease. Those promoting it did not want to hear alternatives. As the authors noted:

The low status of aerosol science in policy circles was perhaps compounded by the relative youth of this scientific field and the inherent technical difficulties of isolating viable virus from the air (resulting in inconsistent findings in air sampling studies, especially when undertaken by non-experts). The science of indoor air quality (for example, how and when to open windows, what kinds of filters to use) might be (wrongly) viewed as unsophisticated compared with much of modern biomedicine.

So, even though Covid was aerosol spread and the answer to its spread was to control the condition of the air that we breathe, that has not happened, even now.

Third,  the bias was practical. Something could be done about droplet spread: there was no preparedness for an aerosol spread virus so nothing could be done. The wrong thing was done instead with a false narrative supporting that wrong action.

Finally, there was the fourth reason that I think trumps all the others without dismissing their significance. I will quote the authors:

Our fourth hypothesis is political. Droplet precautions are, at least to some extent, under the control of individuals and hence resonate with neoliberal discourses about individual freedom, personal responsibility, and restraint of the state (although the “choice” to distance physically, for example, presupposes sufficient space in which to do so). Airborne precautions require a paradigm shift in policy making, with strategic actions from those responsible for public safety; this approach aligns with a more socialist leaning political discourse and requires considerable up-front investment in the built environment whose benefits may take years to accrue. The WHO’s tweet emphasises how to protect yourself rather than what to expect of your employer, your child’s school, or your government. Relatedly, we hypothesise a role for populism, the modus operandi of which is cherry picking evidence that supports the policy drive and validating anti-science sentiment under the guise of bringing power to people. Populism drew on public desires to return to normalcy and further marginalised aerosol science by depicting its recommended measures as obscure, unaffordable, and an enemy of the public interest.

In other words, people died because of populist politics that denied the need for government action to tackle Covid because that did not fit the populist narrative that individual rather than collective action is always superior.

I hope this evidence is heard at the Covid inquiry.


1 Room was well ventilated, with CO2 readings from a low of 496 to a high of mid 800s. Yours truly of course looked like a nutter wearing an N95 and a personal purifier.

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  1. Gumbo

    “populist narrative”? I’d have said neoliberal narrative or libertarian narrative. Do I misunderstand the meaning of “populist”?

    1. Raymond Sim

      I would call it anti-populist.

      I no longer recall his sources, but Lambert has posted about germ theory itself being employed in 19th century sophistry attempting to put the focus on the individual, so it predates most of our current labels.

    2. brian wilder

      they lost me there, too — a strange shuffling of the deck to first blame a credentialed neoliberal establishment and then shift blame to the skepticism of an antiestablishment reaction. I was left to wonder if the Queen of Hearts was even still on the table in this game of three-card Monte.

      I am also a bit strained by the absence of any sense that medical science or epidemiology might entail . . . investigation. Shouldn’t someone investigate cases and try to determine key parameters like mode of transmission, cycle on contagiousness, time to clear the virus from the body and so on, and build an integrated model and with the estimated values as a basis make policy?

      After watching the cruise ship drama play out, I could never figure how anyone could imagine a go home and stay home quarantine was ever going to work well. What public health gurus were in the room when “protect the vulnerable” became “transfer COVID patients from hospitals to nursing homes”? Do you remember back to delays in developing a diagnostic test gave way to denying doctors authority to test patients widely and then long delays in getting the results of tests.

      We may have ended up with a stalemate over aerosol transmission and disappointing vaccines, but we started the pandemic with a remarkably broad range of indicators of incompetency. General incompetency as an explanation may lack specificity but it makes up for that deficiency with an abundance of incidence.

    3. flora

      “Neoliberal narrative” for sure. Funny how every time the neolibs f**k up they instantly blame the “populist” bogeyman for their failures. Yep. Fauci, Birx, CDC, FDA, and the WHO’s narrative was “correct” and would have worked, worked I tell you, if only those darn “populists” hadn’t made such a fuss, done their own research, and questioned the narrative. / riiight.

      (Now the WHO is grabbing for absolute control over every countries’ health response to whatever it declares with its new “treaty” adjustment. oh just great.)

    4. Jail House

      There seems to be some sleight of hand in which “populist” is transmuted by the end to mean something more akin to personal freedom – “individual action” – which is a feature of libertarianism, ideologically, not populism, categorically.

    5. Darius

      The modern meaning given to populism is more akin to demagoguery. Populism was a class and material based movement.

      1. David in Friday Harbor

        Yes, the neoliberal elite have hijacked the term “populism” and redefined it as a synonym for “demagoguery” because they are unable to accept “democracy” as a political model. “Populism” in this context is used as a pejorative term for any elite traitor ginning-up the proles to vote-out the self-anointed aristocracy.

        I suspect that this usage is also more due to the author being British rather than switching-up conclusions.

    6. Dick Swenson

      Setting aside the definition of ‘populism,’ I recommend the Michael Lewis book Premonition as a good source of information when asking “Why did the US do such a rotten job in dealing with Covid?”

  2. Roland

    It would seem that both elitists and populists got the science wrong, and for the same reason: they were all daunted by the implications of aerosol COVID transmission.

    So we just all just keep getting sick. New Normal !

  3. Carla

    Has anyone used Covixyl antiviral nasal spray? Any comments/experiences with it to share? I’ve been using Enovid antiviral nasal spray for a year and a half, but despite faithful use, masking in all indoor public places, not patronizing indoor restaurants, ETC., I still contracted Covid for the first time in August ’23.

    1. Jay Ess

      I have actually used Covixyl. I haven’t gotten COVID, but I’m pretty sure that’s a result of my mask wearing more than anything else (I am also vaccinated, most recently with Novavax). Covixyl has more of a sting to it than Enovid, but it costs less and is shipped more quickly. Because its active ingredient is a preservative, I expect it to have a longer shelf life than Enovid. I plan to use it again at the holidays.

      1. anahuna

        Just my experience:
        I have used, consistently but at various times over the past years, X-clear, povidone iodine spray, and most recently, Covivyxl. I find Covivyxl stings and dries my nose unpleasantly, but I’ve used it for months now.

        I had a moderate case of the wild type way back in end- January 2020. Since then like you, I mask (KN94) in all indoor settings and avoid indoor restaurants, but have continued to do grocery shopping and take subways and buses occasionally.So far, no further infections, but I wonder if that isn’t at least partially to do with the protocol (vitamin C, D3 + K, quercetin with bromelin).
        No vax at all, though I’m in my late 80s, I’m wary of everything but Novivax.

        Since I understand that Covivyxl was tested specifically for use after exposure I’m contemplating a milder spray with Xylitol before heading out and a spritz with Covivyxl afterwards. We’re all stuck doing our own experimenting. It’s fortunate that we can read about others’ on NC

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      How many times a day did you use it the spray?

      2x OK, you need 4x if around people at all.

      Was your mask an N-95?

      I have found that it is hard to maintain mask discipline in a personal circle. That is how kids are disease vectors to families. If you are not a single person, did you expose yourself to significant others/family members?

      1. Carla

        I used Enovid 3 to 6 times a day. KF94 mask. Very seldom around children at all. Got Covid from a family member who is a nurse with whom we had visited outdoors, unmasked. She let me know when she tested positive and I had symptoms two days later, L. two days after that.

        We were both fully vaxxed and boosted. I want Novavax for my next vaccine.

    3. Jason Boxman

      I bought it because it is easy find and has a long shelf life. It definitely burns some, and that tells me it is getting up in my nose deeply, so I appreciate the discomfort. I never leave the house, and wear my P100 whenever I hit the grocery store, so I cannot speak to its effectiveness. The approval study indicated it reduced the length of COVID positive tests in those infected versus an infected control group; I found no studies on whether it actually protected against infection though, which is what I care most about.

    4. playon

      Haven’t used that one, but have used Enovid which was disappointing as it has a shorter shelf life and is costly. (And I now favor boycotting Israeli products.) My wife and I currently use an iodine nasal spray, a Xylitol spray and the-drug-which-cannot-be-named as a prophylactic. Have been more vigilant about the latter since my last infection in July and it seems to be working well to date.

    5. Sneezy

      Covixyl fan piping up. I layer it over a snort and throat spray of P.I. in a saline solution. In combination with isolation, consistent indoor masking, and a certain antiviral, I have so far avoided the plague.

  4. fjallstrom

    I Europe the word “populist” often refers to politicians saying what the people wants to hear rather than what they need to hear. It carries connotations of both “simplified” and “false”. It is used in this sense about how politics is done, not its actual content.

    I think its usage in this article unfortunately sets up for misunderstanding.

    1. Darthbobber

      So used as a synonym for “demagoguery”. And like the latter, it’s always the other guys who are guilty of it

  5. Rob Urie

    In the 2011 pandemic movie Contagion, the question of droplet versus airborne was quickly answered (airborne) and the only vaccine put forward was sterilizing as a nasal spray.

    The point: the ‘scientific’ failures in the US response to Covid were either intentional or the institutional knowledge required to provide basic public health no longer exists.

    Point 2: Mrna vaccines would have been a clever stopgap while a sterilizing vaccine was developed. However, they are cynical beyond description in the absence of such an effort.

    While no one knows the minds of others, the Mrna vaccines provide recurring revenues to pharma companies while a sterilizing vaccine would have eliminated the need for thrice? yearly boosters, and with them the recurring revenues.

    Lastly, the conceit that the rabble (‘populists’) runs public policy in the US is contradicted by clear evidence in the links below.

    Politicians couldn’t care less what we, the people, think. Elections have been made beauty contests by-and-for our rulers through, as Lambert puts it, control of the ballot box.



    1. JonnyJames

      I agree with your summary. Since “the US is an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” (Jimmy Carter)
      the politicians are merely serving the interests of their bribe-masters, while trying to appear that they serve their constituents.

      In our BigMoney, Winner Takes All, Elections Inc. we only have two “choices”: A mendacious, amoral, right-wing, authoritarian OR a mendacious, amoral, right-wing authoritarian. Either way, the interests of oligarchy are served, and lots of money is made from the Elections Inc. to boot!

      “beauty contest” ? It’s more like a freak show.

  6. MD in Berlin

    I found those debates (and protests) here in Germany fascinating, and tried hard to understand what was going on.

    I could identify two strong strands in the opposition to protective measures. One was the freedom to do business, especially smaller businesses and self-employed. And their PMC advocates. Petty-bourgeois rather than populist.

    The second was what I would provisionally call left-leaning libertarianism. Tending to be employed but socially diverse from manual work to university-educated professionals. I have encountered this a lot, also in my own circles, but am still unsure quite what to make of it. Empirically these people were subsequently noticeably over-represented in the opposition to Germany’s involvement in the Ukraine war.

    I belong to none of the camps myself.

  7. John R Moffett

    I would add that in a capitalist system, there is no incentive to spend big on fixing the ventilation systems in all the buildings because no one wants to pay for all that retrofitting. As the authors note, in a more socialist environment, the government could have gone in and put up the money, which of course then would have created lots of jobs and profits for HVAC companies. And in the end, we all would be breathing much better air when in public buildings.

    1. eg

      This. Opposition to acknowledgement of aerosol transmission (once you get past the admittedly high hurdle of medical personnel’s attachment to dogma and authority, not to mention sneering disregard for the engineering profession which was the source of aerosol transmission recognition in the first place) was all about the MONEY. And thanks to neoliberalism there is never money for public health and wellbeing, in part because “there is no such thing as society” — only atomized individuals. Throw in the decades long propaganda success of promoting the fallacious household budget analogy and “don’t tax me, bro!” political campaigns and suddenly you have a recipe for disaster: which is precisely what the US response to Covid was, and remains, by any measure.

    2. ckimball

      Yes! x 100 There was no inclination to spend on an upgrade for the lives of the public’s health that could even trickle down to building codes as to what is now essential.

  8. Watt4Bob

    I’m having a hard time reconciling the visuals of the populists of the Progressive era on the one hand, and the mob swarming the capital back on Jan 6th.

    I can’t shake the idea that the mob was started by Reagan when he helped foster the “…government is the problem.” idea.

    That worked so well to explain to the masses why all those tax cuts to the wealthy, deregulation of everything, union busting, and militarization of police was necessary, that it became the bed-rock plank of right-wing political schtick.

    Add a few decades of Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove, and you can end up with a sort of increasingly unruly parade that someone has to jump in front of.

    Or maybe it’s a tiger that someone inevitably trys to ride.

    My previous opinion would have been that a genuine populist movement begins with grassroots organizing, and is a bottom-up phenomenon.

    OTOH, the mob that swarmed the capital were, IMO, were cultivated over the last few decades by the right-wing political class, which makes me wonder, can a movement that has been crated from the top-down be properly called ‘populist‘?

    My bet is that if there ever is a real populist movement that reaches the point of taking to the street, and we’re probably on the verge of that happening, it will be met by violent opposition by that right-wing mob, the same one, more or less, that swarmed the capital.

    The one we’re being encouraged to call populist.

  9. Susan the other

    “Individual freedom and responsibility” means you get to choose from whichever bad alternatives you have. But worse, it implies the government has no responsibility for your selection except to emphasize the importance of individual choices because everyone in “government” is too busy subsidizing corporations and writing up unilateral trade regulations to do anything for sovereign citizens. Which goes a long way toward explaining why we have such a dangerous surplus of irresponsibility and inequality. It is so amusing that the populists continue to pander this off as “freedom and equality.” Amazing how that works.

  10. JonnyJames

    Reading the comments here: This is why establishing a working definition of terms is required. “populist”, “liberal,”neoliberal”, “authoritarian”, “left”, “right”, “Marxist”, “socialist”, even “capitalist” are some terms that sometimes have different meanings, many of them politically-loaded.

    These terms might be used differently in the US, than in the UK, Europe etc. adding to confusion. Sometimes economic terms like “neoliberal” are used to describe right-wing authoritarian politicians with a D after their names. “Libertarian” is most often used to describe a right-wing libertarian, not a left libertarian, for example.

    The article does have an active link on “neoliberal” that gives the definition, all we need is to clarify a couple of more terms and problem solved.

    1. Tedder

      These terms are well described in both academic and popular literature; however, they are also misdefined and misused by those with a political agenda. As usual, individuals need to study, think, and discriminate, skills that are sadly not taught in our neoliberal education system (emphasis on individualism and transactional materialism as well as consumerism).

  11. Tedder

    As most comments note, the failure of pandemic policies that led to the deaths of millions in the world are essentially failures of neoliberalism. We can simply compare the US and Europe with their neoliberal capitalist governments with socialist countries like Cuba and China. As we all know, socialists handled the pandemic very well and the neoliberals were a bust.
    On another note, I followed all the WHO and CDC recommendations. Not only did I never get Covid, I also did not get even a cold or flu for over three years.

    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      I think it is at least worth asking the question: to what extent are the millions of deaths from Covid essentially failures of neoliberalism . . . as against, to what extent are the millions of deaths from Covid essentially a success of jackpot design engineering?

  12. antidlc

    What were the historical reasons for the resistance to recognizing airborne transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic?
    Jose L. Jimenez, Linsey C. Marr, Katherine Randall, Edward Thomas Ewing, Zeynep Tufekci, Trish Greenhalgh, Raymond Tellier, Julian W. Tang, Yuguo Li, Lidia Morawska, Jonathan Mesiano-Crookston, David Fisman, Orla Hegarty, Stephanie J. Dancer, Philomena M. Bluyssen, Giorgio Buonanno, Marcel G. L. C. Loomans, William P. Bahnfleth, Maosheng Yao, Chandra Sekhar, Pawel Wargocki, Arsen K. Melikov, Kimberly A. Prather


    The question of whether SARS-CoV-2 is mainly transmitted by droplets or aerosols has been highly controversial. We sought to explain this controversy through a historical analysis of transmission research in other diseases. For most of human history, the dominant paradigm was that many diseases were carried by the air, often over long distances and in a phantasmagorical way. This miasmatic paradigm was challenged in the mid to late 19th century with the rise of germ theory, and as diseases such as cholera, puerperal fever, and malaria were found to actually transmit in other ways. Motivated by his views on the importance of contact/droplet infection, and the resistance he encountered from the remaining influence of miasma theory, prominent public health official Charles Chapin in 1910 helped initiate a successful paradigm shift, deeming airborne transmission most unlikely. This new paradigm became dominant. However, the lack of understanding of aerosols led to systematic errors in the interpretation of research evidence on transmission pathways. For the next five decades, airborne transmission was considered of negligible or minor importance for all major respiratory diseases, until a demonstration of airborne transmission of tuberculosis (which had been mistakenly thought to be transmitted by droplets) in 1962. The contact/droplet paradigm remained dominant, and only a few diseases were widely accepted as airborne before COVID-19: those that were clearly transmitted to people not in the same room. The acceleration of interdisciplinary research inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that airborne transmission is a major mode of transmission for this disease, and is likely to be significant for many respiratory infectious diseases.

  13. VietnamVet

    NBC News Headline; “China had almost 2 million excess deaths after the end of ‘zero-Covid’”.

    China’s communist government placed avoiding an economic downturn over the lives of its citizens. Neo-liberalism is global. The coronavirus pandemic was used to make huge profits with mRNA therapies, not to save lives, which would have been the case if they had been used selectively with the elderly to augment known public health interventions. The same with the Ukraine War and now Gazan Genocide; “arms for sale – damn the consequences”. The current system is designed to enrich the wealthy neo-aristocracy at the expense of the unworthy and the environment.

    The NATO Russian conflict in Ukraine is now a war of attrition. Current governments are no longer sovereign having been taken over by corporate-state institutions like the EU which are incapable of winning wars, eradicating viruses, or controlling pollution. Coal Mining is at record levels. Unless there are upheavals that end the wars and restore good government for all of the people, without a nuclear weapons exchange, human occupation of the earth is finished.

    1. flora

      ” Neo-liberalism is global. ”

      Quite possibly the most important and true assessment of our current world wide economic age.

      Thank you.

    2. steppenwolf fetchit

      I wonder to what extent the CPC regime was motivated by a fear of suddenly-exploding riots all over China in deciding to weaken the ultra-lockdown regime.

  14. ChrisPacific

    My takeaway from the whole thing is that we still know very little about the physical and biological mechanisms by which infectious diseases are transmitted, and that medical science for the most part doesn’t really care to know. We really haven’t advanced as far as we think beyond bilious humors, leeches, and miasma theory (which turns out not to have been quite as stupid as everyone thought).

    Yes, there have been other cases where the public doesn’t want to hear the truth and there are a lot of dynamics in play there, but if the scientific community speaks loudly and consistently enough, it does eventually get through. Climate change is exhibit A. None of that happened here. There were individuals and groups trying to get the message across, but the big players (WHO, CDC…) never got on board, and in many cases are still peddling the same old misinformation.

  15. Iseeyoudock

    It’s just about the science being ignored, and the process of scientific inquiry being derailed by political factors.

    Mechanistic thought was entirely abnegated by what I would term a willful ignorance on the part of policymakers at our national institutions in the early phases of the pandemic.

    If you recall, in the initial phases, Fauci stated that “masks don’t matter “. Then abruptly reversed course. After the Diamond Princess cruise ship spread was understood, They knew, then, that masks for the public were probably not effective, but promoted them for the purpose of saving the truly effective hardware for healthcare personnel, and I think, to give the public a false loci of control to stop panic.


    The N-95’s were sequestered, via this policy to prevent public hoarding.

    Then it was one, then two, then possibly three paper masks recommended. Cloth masks promoted, and politicized. Masking as a virtue signal. Masking as a totem of political affinity.

    Then, worse, they highlighted highlighted terribly flawed studies as being their basis for scientific rational for their overtly disingenuous position.

    Meanwhile actual scientists who understood particle science were being ignored or worse, and I can’t tell you how bad this has been for science, ostracized and isolated, for presenting evidence which was counter to the official narrative.





    Please see also Veinshelboim, (retracted) Bourbolini and later Bush and Byzant @ PNAS. Now the Cochran reviews……

    Cloth and paper Masking does not work for aerosol transmission. Period.


    It was an intentional conflation of droplet vs aerosol mechanisms, which in itself, is a somewhat arbitrary distinction, rooted in history, going back to the era of tuberculosis sanitariums.

    They knew this. To wit:




    https://www.pnas.org/action/cookieAbsent (broken link)







    Then they doubled down, again and again. We have all been played.

    The net result has been a public which has lost trust in these institutions and in science itself.

    I lived through this, in a most intimate way, for over two years.


    Now a mental healthcare crisis amongst “healthcare workers “. (Note how they have dispensed with official titles; more definitional and semantic twisting). The Moral injury that was inflicted during this time period on the people that had to take care of this population was severe. 46% want to leave the profession within two years in the latest survey. Does that surprise anyone?

    To say I’m disgusted would be an understatement.

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