If one did not know any better, one would think the lockdown-and-mask era of COVID-19 had come to an end. Sure, some remote pockets of insanity—focused, for entirely explicable reasons, on blue-state and major-city school districts—might continue the fight like Japanese soldiers who had not heard Emperor Hirohito announce surrender. But when even the Chinese Communist Party is abandoning its “Zero COVID” lockdown regime despite the ability of its totalitarian surveillance state to impose it, surely nobody still believes in the power of lockdowns and masks to eliminate COVID-19.
But no. The must-read piece of the often quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Day came from the New Yorker. Proving that it would be most imprudent to grant “pandemic amnesty” to a faction that has not surrendered, reporter Emma Green dove into the world of “ragtag coalition of public-health activists” who “believe that America’s [COVID-19] pandemic restrictions are too lax.” The piece was dotted with details that make clear that, far from a “ragtag coalition” on the hypochondriac fringe, the self-proclaimed “People’s CDC” is an ideologically radical activist group with backing from some of the biggest names in health policy. Making things worse, the People’s CDC is not alone.
People’s, as in “People’s Republic”
People’s CDC has been around for much of 2022. The group released a manifesto in April in the left-wing media outlet The Guardian accusing the Biden administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of being “beholden to corporations” when it loosened certain COVID-19 tracking classifications. It vowed to create a “CDC that prioritizes the health of the people, not the health of big business.” The group’s radicalism manifests in strident rhetoric: Green quotes one “Weather Report,” People’s CDC’s weekly newsletter, as stating, “To name it clearly, the CDC’s policies are eugenic.”
According to Green, the idea behind People’s CDC came from Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a professor of urban policy at the self-consciously left-wing New School. Thompson proposed it to a listserv of left-wing public health practitioners who favored lockdowns and similar restrictions. In addition to her professorship at the New School, Fullilove chairs the board of the University of Orange. Despite its name, the University of Orange is not a traditional, degree-granting postsecondary institution. By its own definition, the University of Orange is “a free school of restoration urbanism” that is “building on a 64-year history of progressive organizing” in Orange, New Jersey, a township just outside Newark. Translated from activist-speak, it is a left-wing-to-radical-left education, arts, and activism group.
Among the University of Orange’s other programming was a just-concluded 10-week course on Karl Marx’s ideological tome Das Kapital titled “Listening to Marx with the Ear of Our Hearts.” The course characterized itself as “an invitation to knowing and understanding a text that has guided social justice movements across the world since it was published in 1867.” To Green, People’s CDC appeared cut from similar cloth, with the New Yorker writer questioning if “‘the people’ in the People’s C.D.C. are those people” and being accused of “Red-baiting” for daring to ask.
Backing the University of Orange to organize the People’s CDC is a $150,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). RWJF was a major supporter of the development and promotion of Obamacare and advocates broader government-directed health policy. More recently, it has substantially funded left-of-center racial advocacy: In 2021, it provided a grant of $5 million to Race Forward, a left-wing activist group that supports race-focused policymaking.
RWJF has advocated protecting the power of left-leaning local governments in conservative-leaning states in the name of “health equity.” This is what I have called the “maddening situation in which conservatives and the anti-woke facing any of three levels of government under control of their enemies must endure whatever the left-progressive movement throws at them while liberals need control only one level both to protect themselves and to inflict their agenda on their conservative ‘neighbors.’”
RWJF’s grant title for its grant to the University of Orange to support People’s CDC contains classic left-of-center framing language: “Supporting the People’s CDC as a strong voice for equitable access to science-based public health information.” RWJF’s description is similarly left-coded: “To advance a model of collective leadership centered on health equity by building the infrastructure necessary to grow the People’s CDC, a coalition of diverse health and community leaders collaborating to provide accurate, actionable information about COVID-19 for public audiences.”
The University of Orange has also received six-figure contributions from the Ford Foundation for a project commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first importation of enslaved Africans into British North America and from the Kresge Foundation’s arts and culture program.
People’s CDC published the “Urgency of Equity” package of extended COVID restrictions for schools. In response to an “Urgency of Normal” campaign, which called for removing mask mandates and ending school closures given the low risk of COVID complications to school children and the high costs of restrictive regimes, People’s CDC called for continuing the restriction regime. Justifying the call for continued disruption, a City University of New York professor associated with People’s CDC said, “[We’re] really thinking about not just the mitigation measures, but also, what does education need to look like moving forward?”
The toolkit received support from groups beyond People’s CDC: the coalitions Marked by COVID, Long COVID Families, and Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity; the HUUB, a Unitarian Universalist-affiliated “urban ministry” for which People’s CDC activist Mindy Thompson Fullilove sits as a board member; the special interest groups Indiana Association of School Nurses and [email protected] Coalition Chicago Chapter; and the United Federation of Teachers-Movement of Rank and File Educators (UFT-MORE), a radical faction of the New York City teachers union,
On a more periodic basis, People’s CDC publishes what Green characterized as “what they see as real information, as opposed to what’s circulated by the actual C.D.C.” According to Green, People’s CDC claims that “the C.D.C.’s data and guidelines have been distorted by powerful forces with vested interests in keeping people at work and keeping anxieties about the pandemic down.”
The group’s apparent short-term goal is to end the public health bureaucracy’s tardy and sluggish allowance for individuals to make their own risk judgments and to bring back the spirit of collectivism that prevailed in the early lockdown period. One People’s CDC activist told Green, “If we do these things [COVID testing, masking, and holding all gatherings outdoors], it’s not a slog. . . . It’s uplifting. It’s a demonstration of care and solidarity and love.”
In her report, Green spoke to several people associated with People’s CDC, and the group itself lists about two dozen “members” on its website. Some have associations with long-standing left-wing advocacy groups. Rita Valenti is a long-standing advocate for government-run health care through Healthcare-NOW. Jeoffry Gordon has been involved with Physicians for a National Health Program, another socialized medicine advocacy group, and Zoey Thill is an activist for a number of left-wing groups including Physicians for a National Health Program and Physicians for Reproductive Health, an abortion advocacy group. Rob Wallace and Ellen Isaacs have written for or are involved with radical-left commentary.
Edgar Rivera Colón, whom Green characterized as the person “who often serves as [People’s CDC’s] meeting facilitator,” is a left-wing activist and professor of “narrative medicine” who sits on the advisory board of the Institute for Christian Socialism. Green quotes Rivera Colón as claiming support for the People’s CDC’s mission from within the government: “We have comrades that are within the C.D.C. who are saying to us, ‘Go ahead with your bad selves.’” This may be unverifiable, but it is concerning to those who still care about individual freedoms.
Other Aligned Groups
The People’s CDC–University of Orange–Urgency of Normal group is not alone in advocating continued restrictions in the name of controlling the uncontrollable. The COVID Action Group is “a global, multidisciplinary network of experts with a mission to advise policymakers and communities about practical strategies to eliminate COVID-19.” Among its “experts and advisors team” members (who include a People’s CDC activist) are statistician Nassim Taleb, physicist and head of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) Yaneer Bar-Yam, former Obama administration staffer and Brookings Institution nonresident fellow Kavita Patel, and controversial alarmist infectious disease commentator Eric Feigl-Ding.
The COVID Action Group is a project of the World Health Network, a group that advocates restrictions on people to prevent infectious disease that are far stricter than most government public health agencies, much like People’s CDC. Its member organizations include a handful of international “ZeroCOVID” advocacy campaigns, Bar-Yam’s NECSI, and National Nurses United, America’s very left-wing (even by labor union standards) nurses’ union.
Governments are unlikely to impose People’s CDC’s restrictive policies on the general public anytime soon. Even liberal politicians who might be inclined to perpetuate the specter of the crisis to prevent it from going to waste fear the potential public backlash, and “Zero COVID” as a slogan (much less a “practical strategy”) probably left the Overton window when Chinese demonstrators risked the gulag to protest the People’s Republic’s policy.
But the persistence and connections of People’s CDC and the World Health Network are a call to continued vigilance against the re-emergence of lockdown mentality. Few who decreed the regime of lockdowns, school closures, mask mandates, and business destruction acknowledge the harm that their decisions wrought. That means those policies remain on the table, with the “comrades” waiting for more auspicious political circumstances to reimpose the “two weeks to slow the spread” that exceeded two years.