Most atlases have been superseded by Google Maps. Let's replace one more.
On the back page of every comic book (you may call them graphic novels) of my youth was a short comic strip. In the first drawing, a muscle-bound beachgoer kicked sand in the face of a milquetoast-ish young man who, for some unexplained reason, had managed to acquire a voluptuous lady admirer. In the next drawings the victim, who probably couldn't see much with sand in his eyes, regretfully watched the voluptuous lady and the muscle-bound gentleman trot off to find happiness somewhere else, leaving Mr. Milquetoast to ponder the failure that was his life.
This was, you may have guessed, an advertisement for a course in muscle-building, in which a bodybuilder named Angelo Siciliano promised to make a man of you and me. If the name does not strike a chord, that's because (1) you are younger than 60 and (2) his professional name was more widely known: Charles Atlas.
At the time I considered Mr. Atlas and his system a fraud, but fraud is a relative term; and all these years later another Atlas, this one named Scott, has come along to out-charlatan the Italian bodybuilder, and this time he's not bilking the naïve out of their money, but the uninformed out of their lives. Just how many Americans will die listening to the nonsense Scott Atlas is peddling remains to be seen, but this neuroradiologist (whose knowledge of infectious diseases and epidemiology seems to be, at best, serendipitous, and at worst, mistaken) presents another existential threat to American lives—just like the president to whom he kowtows.
Atlas is one of the promoters of the Great Barrington Declaration which says, in brief, let everyone except those who are most at risk catch Covid-19 until the country has achieved herd immunity, at which point the virus will have no place to go. By most scientific estimates, following this protocol with masks and social distancing in place would bring America's Covid-19 death toll to 400,000 by March 2021. If followed without masking and distancing, 600,000. Many estimates exceed one million, including some who, last February, had the current numbers pretty much spot on.
Of course any idea predicated on keeping the economy rolling—even if a byproduct is the needless loss of tens of thousands of human lives—falls in line with the president's wishes, and so people like Scott Atlas are lionized while epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists are denigrated and mocked. Simultaneously the president continues to rail against masks and social distancing—the only two strategies that can carry us until we have a vaccine.
Remember back in March when Trump declared war on the coronavirus and referred to himself as a wartime president? Well he's lost the war—surrendered actually—but that doesn't mean there aren't war criminals to prosecute; and Scott Atlas stands right behind the president waiting for judgment. He and Trump share a common nonchalance with the big numbers when it comes to lives lost—we're just shy of 220,000 now and racking up about 60,000 new cases a day. To someone like Scott Atlas, the solution is more cases and more deaths. And the premise of the Great Barrington Declaration—that younger people don't get sick or suffer mild cases—may haunt us for generations to come as each day we learn more about the coronary and pulmonary after-effects that keep springing up among the "cured," and sometimes killing them.
Six months ago in these pages I repeated a prediction I had read about tens of thousands of deaths from Covid-19 by summer. The prediction turns out to have been optimistic. But after I wrote that a former student of mine castigated me for panicking—said the flu killed 70,000 a year, told me to "get a grip." Well, sir, I have my grip now, and 70,000 might have even been our current number had we elected a president with a plan and had he appointed people not named Scott Atlas and Mike Pence to protect us. Now, with winter ahead. all our grips are slipping—I hope we can find the strength to maintain them.
Perhaps Charles Atlas's time has finally arrived.