“They worked to create an illusion of consensus that didn’t exist … by working with the press and big tech to suppress the voices of scientists who disagreed with them.”
In this episode, we sit down with Stanford University professor of medicine Dr. Jay Bhattacharya. He’s a physician, epidemiologist, public health policy expert, and one of the three co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, which argued for focused protection of the most vulnerable, instead of crippling nationwide lockdowns.
Instead of protecting the elderly and immunocompromised—the people who faced exponentially higher rates of dying from COVID-19 than the young and healthy—lockdown policies protected the “laptop class,” the well-to-do, Dr. Bhattacharya said.
Lockdowns would ultimately devastate the poor, in America and around the world. In South Asia alone, lockdown policies killed an estimated 228,000 young children in the first wave of the pandemic, according to a U.N. report.
“This is the single biggest driver of inequality … in my lifetime,” says Dr. Bhattacharya.
Mr. Jekielek: Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Nice to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: It happens to be two years to the day after the “15 days to slow the spread” announcement by Dr. Birx. So why don’t we start here? Your reaction?
Dr. Bhattacharya: I remember it like it was yesterday. Essentially, public health had decided on this absolute extraordinary path, and made absolute extraordinary promises. “If you just sacrifice for the next 15 days, stay at home, we’re not going to get hospitalizations, we’re not going to get the deaths.” All we need to do is listen to what they say. That promise was not true then, and it’s been shown not true for the last two years. It’s destroyed the lives of so many people, and the trust in public health has also been destroyed with it.
Mr. Jekielek: Why? It’s not necessarily obvious. I remember watching this too. It wasn’t necessarily obvious that this was going to turn out so bad. Are you saying at the time you already saw that there was a serious problem?
Dr. Bhattacharya: The premise of two weeks to slow the spread was a set of models. These models are like little “Sim City” simulations where they have agents that interact with each other. If an infected agent interacts with an uninfected agent, they can pass the disease on. It’s just like these complex models that forecast there would be millions and millions of deaths if we didn’t shut down over a course of a month, or two months, a very short period of time. In order to make them work, these models have to have parameters in order to get it right—parameters that are rooted in the real world. The problem is we didn’t have those parameters. We didn’t know how deadly the disease was. We didn’t exactly know how it spread. It was guesswork.
When I looked at these models, my reaction was that we just don’t have enough data or information to really understand whether the models are producing accurate estimates. It turned out they weren’t. The other thing is that society is complicated. When you have an intervention like a lockdown, it is two weeks where essentially everyone tries to stay at home, except for the essential workers. Well, right there, right? The essential workers still have to work. So you still have to keep society going, you have to have doctors and nurses working, and you have to have electrical line workers to make sure you get electrical supplies. You have to have food. Now all of a sudden it’s not everyone—some people are staying home to stay safe while the rest of society’s going, because it has to keep going.
If you’re giving birth, the newborn and the mom shouldn’t be separated. There’s all kinds of things. What does it mean to lock down? They say, “Okay, it’s going to be complicated, it’s going to be bad.” My first thoughts were actually about some of the harms that could happen as a consequence of the lockdowns.
Immediately I thought, “What would happen when you close schools?” What would happen to kids that are abused?” That child abuse is picked up in schools. You close the schools, now all of a sudden child abuse still happens, because there’s no one to intervene. What happens with school breakfasts and school lunches where a lot of poor kids get their meals, a very large fraction of American kids get their meals?
What happens to people in poor countries? Those were my thoughts about what was likely to happen, and that we were going to have all these collateral harms. I thought we didn’t have enough data to actually know that it was going to be worthwhile to shut down. Then I was thinking about the possibility of all these collateral harms to come. I was very reluctant to say yes.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve become one of the more prominent critics of lockdowns. Let’s start here, because there’s been a lot of backpedaling where people that initially supported lockdowns are saying, “Hey, we’ve never really supported lockdowns. What are lockdowns really?” For starters, let’s work on our definitions. What does it mean? What have we meant by it for the last two years?
Dr. Bhattacharya: A lockdown could mean a range of things, of course. The primary goal of a lockdown is to prevent humans from interacting with each other. That is the main goal, because the theory is that if you have two individuals not interacting with each other physically, then they can’t spread a virus from one to another. It’s as simple as that. The physics of it is simply—you keep people apart, and the virus doesn’t spread. But the way that it’s actually implemented, is that there is a whole suite of policies ranging from welding people into their houses if you think they have COVID—which is apparently what some Chinese authorities did—to stay-at-home orders, quarantines of the elderly, quarantines of even the healthy population, without physically barring the doors, and very strong recommendations to stay home.
In Australia, for instance, there were orders that you were allowed to leave the house for an hour by yourself for exercise and that’s it. It’s a prison-style lockdown in your own home. There was social distancing, staying six feet apart when you’re in line at the grocery store. Even the masks—in a way it’s like I’m physically separating my breath from yours—are a form of lockdown. It’s any intervention that’s aimed at keeping people physically apart from each other.
Mr. Jekielek: How did it work out?
Dr. Bhattacharya: It was a catastrophic failure. It was a catastrophic failure on its own terms of protecting people from getting and contracting COVID, and it was a catastrophic failure in terms of all of the collateral harms it has had on societies around the world. It’s the single biggest public health mistake in history.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s a big thing to say. What are the other public health mistakes that we’ve made?
Dr. Bhattacharya: We’ve had so many. The handling of the HIV crisis was a huge public health disaster. The handling of research for syphilis, where we intentionally exposed, and then allowed syphilis-infected black men to not be treated for multiple years. We’ve had the spread of misinformation about the link between autism and childhood vaccines. We’ve had many, many mistakes in the recent hundred-some years in the public health community. I’m hard-pressed to think of a single one on a global scale like this, with the scope of harm that lockdowns have caused.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned the HIV crisis. In this recent FOIA that we did, we found that Dr. Fauci had in an email basically accused you and some of the other signers of the Great Barrington Declaration of “AIDS denialism.”
Dr. Bhattacharya: I find it utterly shocking. In no way have I or any of the signers of the Great Barrington Declaration denied COVID. COVID is a deadly disease, it’s killed millions. In particular, it is a danger to older populations. The very premise of the Great Barrington declaration is that COVID is a danger, or else we wouldn’t have written it. We’re not arguing that COVID isn’t caused by the SARS-COV2 virus, so the analogy makes no sense on its own terms. In terms of denying the harms of COVID, it’s quite the contrary. What we are trying to do is take the data about who’s most at risk from COVID, seriously; take data on who’s most at risk from the lockdowns, seriously; and then propose a policy that would address the risk that COVID actually poses, as opposed to the failed policy of which Tony Fauci was the primary architect—where if we just lock down for a short period of time, the disease will go away.
If we just wear masks for a short period of time, the disease will go away. If we force-vaccinate 100 per cent of the population, the disease will go away. All of these were failed promises based on flawed scientific understanding of the nature of COVID. It is not accurate to turn around and say that we were somehow denying COVID. The charge goes more strongly in other direction, where Tony Fauci and others who supported lockdowns denied basic facts about COVID, such as whether COVID-recovery patients have natural immunity. That actually led to many of the mistakes that were made.
Mr. Jekielek: Before we go into the lockdowns, there has been a general approach of attacking people that have alternate viewpoints. Indeed, that’s part of the purpose of the event that we’re going to be at today. Of course, you’ve been on the receiving end of this. How has your thinking evolved since you first encountered the responses to your perspective, and doing the Santa Clara study?
Dr. Bhattacharya: When I first got involved, I thought I was doing science, and I still think I’m doing science. Although now I am more involved in the public debate over what the right strategy should be. Certainly the goal of the Great Barrington Declaration was to create a public debate to let the public know that there were scientists that were uncomfortable with the lockdowns. In October, 2020, when we wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, most people thought that most scientists were in favor of the lockdown-focused strategy. “We keep people apart, the disease will go away.” All of the movement of the virus, the vagaries of it coming up and down, were dependent on human behavior, as opposed to it’s just the way that these viruses happen to spread. There was this illusion that we had control over the virus.
Behind his illusion of control was another illusion, that there was a scientific consensus that we had control over the virus. So every time a wave went up, it was a failure of the population to comply with the orders. Every time it went down, finally the population started complying with the orders. But I knew that there were many scientists that disagreed with that. That in fact, there wasn’t a consensus. Now at the time I thought that I was in the minority. So I wrote this Great Barrington Declaration to tell the public that actually there were many scientists that had grave concerns about the strategy. Now, in retrospect, I don’t think we were in the minority, even among scientists.
Tony Fauci, Francis Collins, and Jeremy Farrar, a scientist in the UK and director of the Wellcome Trust that funds many, many epidemiologists and scientists in the UK, worked to create an illusion of consensus that didn’t exist. They marginalized scientists that disagreed with them, and worked with the press and Big Tech to suppress the voices of scientists who disagreed with them.
When we wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, me, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, and Martin Kulldorff, then of Harvard University, it posed a big threat, because now you have scientists from prominent institutions like Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford saying, “No, the lockdown-focused strategy is the wrong way to go.” Then if you’re Tony Fauci, you can’t automatically say, “Oh, every reputable scientist agrees with me.” So it was a huge threat. He reacted by acting in entirely inappropriate ways. You already asked the question about AIDS denialism, which is like a cardinal sin. You’re going to get thrown out of the scientific community if you say that.
Francis Collins wrote a email to Tony Fauci calling the three of us “fringe epidemiologists.” I’m going to get that put on my business card someday because it’s such a great term. But we weren’t fringe epidemiologists. This set of people, the epidemiologists who control the public discourse, yes, they disagreed with us. But it’s not true that all epidemiologists agreed with them, even at the time. The consensus that they wanted to create, this illusion of consensus they wanted to create was a false one. It was false then, and it’s false now.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s look at the lockdown harms. When we first met a year ago, I had this idea that there were pros to the lockdowns and cons to the lockdowns. But upon speaking with you now, we realize that there don’t seem to be as many pros as we had imagined, but a lot of us have been led to believe that, certainly. Let’s explore this.
Dr. Bhattacharya: We can start with why the lockdowns don’t work, because that’s very important, and because the allure of the lockdowns is so simple and so compelling. If I just keep people apart, surely the disease won’t spread. But the problem is, that works in the context of a computer model, but it does not work in the context of the real world. Let me just give you a data point from Mumbai, India. It’s a city of great inequality. They have slums where people live tightly packed together in not very sanitary circumstances, large numbers of poor people. And then you have a high tech hub where they have all kinds of connections to Big Tech. It’s a relatively rich part of the city.
In July of 2020, there was a zero prevalence study done in Mumbai. Zero prevalence is how many people have antibodies in their blood that indicate they were infected, and have history of infection. There was evidence that with the residents of the slums of Mumbai, about 60, 70 per cent of the population living there had already been infected with COVID and recovered, much more than people had realized. In the richer parts of Mumbai, it was something like 20 per cent.
This points to the problem with lockdowns. Society is not equal in its ability to comply with an order that says, “Stay home, do nothing, stay safe.” Most people can’t. Most people living on the earth cannot do that. They have to feed their families. There are legitimate human needs that require connection with other human beings. Of course, you get together for recreation, but there are absolutely essential things like making food, caring for patients, making pharmaceutical drugs so that people can get treated for other conditions, making sure your electrical lines work, making sure the sewers are running, and making sure that energy production goes on. There are a whole range of activities. It’s impossible for a government to say, “Well, these activities are essential, and these activities are not.” A non-essential activity to one government bureaucrat, may be quite essential to me.
For instance, I’ve talked with pastors who tell me that many of their congregants, because they were isolated, had suicidal thoughts. They needed church, they needed the synagogues, they needed the mosques in order to have that sense of community so that they could live. Is that essential or non-essential? How long can you put that off? It is not the place of government to make that distinction of saying essential, non-essential. The reason is simple. You can’t actually think of society like a video game. You can’t actually think that in society you can just keep people apart from each other, and the only thing that will happen is that germs won’t spread. Then there is the inequality in society. Because there are so many people that couldn’t afford to automatically lockdown, it meant the lockdowns couldn’t work. That’s what happened. The lockdowns were the focused protection of the laptop class.
Mr. Jekielek: The premise of the Great Barrington Declaration was focused protection of the most vulnerable. Can you quickly remind us of that? And how is what we actually did the focused protection of the laptop class?
Dr. Bhattacharya: A disease like COVID-19 discriminates by age. That’s the single most important risk factor. There are other risk factors, but by far, the most important is age. It’s a thousand-fold difference in the risk and mortality from the oldest of the youngest. How would your normal person look at that and react to it? I look at that and I want to protect the people that are at risk. The people that face the highest risk of the disease are the elderly. So focused protection is just a common sense thing where you say, “Okay, I want to protect the people that are at high risk.” It’s some folks with severe chronic conditions that predispose them to have a bad outcome if they were to get sick. That makes complete sense. We could have poured the resources that we poured into COVID response into protecting the old.
We did some, but not nearly enough. Almost 80 per cent of the deaths worldwide have been people over 65. The world did very poorly, and certainly the United States did very poorly in protecting the old. Instead what we did is reorganize society to protect the well-off, the laptop class. It is a trickle-down epidemiology policy that we followed, a policy aimed at protecting people that are relatively low risk. We made it so that Uber drivers deliver food to them. We made it so that they didn’t have to leave their house, and they could still keep their job. But everyone else has to go work. They have to sacrifice for the wellbeing of this particular class of people. I’ll give you one other data point about public health that’s in a paper I published that didn’t get a ton of attention.
In the United States,in the early days of the pandemic, public health had to decide where it would place its testing centers. Remember in the early days, pandemic testing was a scarce resource. It turns out in many places, there was a preference given to rich neighborhoods over poor neighborhoods. That’s revealing. In a time of great crisis, where do the resources go? It went to protecting the relatively well-off, whether they were truly vulnerable or not, instead of looking at the disease, and looking at who’s most vulnerable and seeking to protect them.
Mr. Jekielek: What is this trickle-down to epidemiology that you referenced? What does that mean, exactly?
Dr. Bhattacharya: It’s a little bit of a play on economists that get accused of being in favor of trickle-down economics. It is the idea is that if we have a policy that benefits the rich, it will trickle-down and benefit the poor. That’s essentially what the lockdowns were. We’ll adopt a policy that is tailor-made to benefit a relatively rich class of people. I couldn’t think of a better analogy. Somehow it will help the poor avoid the disease by some of that magic. But in fact, the opposite happened, the poor actually were exposed. The working class was exposed. So the lockdowns failed. The places where it looked like lockdowns were successful for a while were island nations like New Zealand or Australia, where the disease hit during the summer.
Mr. Jekielek: Hong Kong is another example.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Hong Kong, another example, and also Singapore. The disease hit during their summer in the Southern Hemisphere, just like New Zealand and Australia. So they locked down. It looked like they got to zero, but then they had to keep locking down whenever there was a single case. Now the cases have exploded. The lockdowns can’t go on forever, because society can’t live like that. The people in society have to be able to connect with one another. It’s part of who we are as humans, we connect with each other, physically connect with each other. If you think that’s not possible, you just don’t understand society very well. The epidemiologists, the mathematicians that designed this policy, they did not understand human society at a very deep level.
Mr. Jekielek: I recently interviewed Laura Dodsworth about the use of fear to promote lockdown and other policies in the UK. She actually found that the pandemic policies had been pretty well outlined for the UK. They certainly had lockdowns, but there were already in the policy records counter-indications about what the harms of lockdowns would be, and why you should not use that strategy, but they used it nonetheless. Are you aware of this? Is there something like this on the U.S. side?
Dr. Bhattacharya: I don’t think there was a formal thing like in the U.S. like there was in the UK. However, there was in the lead-up to the decision to lockdown in 2020, a big debate that had been going on for at least two decades within the public health community about how to deal with bioterrorist events. Some of the plans involved lockdowns, short lockdowns to try to reduce the spread of some hypothetical bioterrorist agent. But there’s also people like Don Henderson, the most prominent and best epidemiologist of the 20th century. He was responsible for designing the strategy that eradicated smallpox, and was very reluctant to lockdown. He thought the lockdowns would disrupt society.
His view was that if you panic society, it will stop functioning well, and that harms the health of the population. Even when you have an infectious agent that’s traveling around, lockdowns could not possibly be a good way to go. The disruption would cause more harm than the good created from reducing the spread of the agent.
There was a debate in the public health community. I’ve looked at the CDC plans. I don’t see anything that justifies a two-year-long state of emergency to deal with a respiratory virus over which we have no technology to stop the spread. What we did was absolutely extraordinary. It was far outside of the scope of the plans that we had coming into the pandemic.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the John Hopkins study that I mentioned earlier. Of course, this is something that’s been much maligned in social media and in the media in general. They looked at a whole bunch of examples of lockdown policy, and they found there didn’t seem to be much benefit. That’s my bird’s eye view of it. And of course there’s a lot of criticism of this, so tell me about it.
Dr. Bhattacharya: The Hopkins study is a meta-analysis, which means it’s a study of studies. You can imagine there is a lot of interest in the question of did the lockdowns work? Did it actually save lives? A lot of scholars looked at this. The Hopkins study did a search of the scientific literature trying to understand what scholars are saying regarding the evidence on whether lockdowns worked. They found around 1800 studies that matched search terms that have to do with effectiveness of lockdowns. They narrowed it down to studies that looked like they were reasonable studies, and they found two classes of studies. One class of studies uses the modeling, “What would’ve happened had we not locked down?”
Very famously, the Imperial College model predicted that if the United States didn’t lockdown in March of 2020, two million people would die in the United States within a short couple of months, within a very short period of time. With these models, because they’re video games essentially, you can run it twice, once with a lockdown, and once without a lockdown. Then you can say, “Here’s what would happen if you didn’t lockdown. There’s a prediction of two million.” You compare the prediction of what would’ve happened without a lockdown, versus what actually happened with a lockdown, and see we didn’t get two million deaths. And they say, “That means we saved two million lives.”
The problem with these kinds of studies is that it assumes that the models that predicted the-
Mr. Jekielek: Mass death and destruction.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Yes, are correct—that they are populated with parameters that are right, that it understands all of the nuances of how people interact with each other in society are right, all the social interactions between people are right, all the transmission modes of the virus are right, everything is right. But that’s just not plausible. So a lot of these studies that conclude that lockdowns saved lives are based on that kind of modeling infrastructure, on models that have repeatedly over-predicted the spread of the virus.
Mr. Jekielek: And the impact too?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Yes, and the impact. The other question then is. “Did the lockdown save lives, relative to doing nothing? That’s not the right question. The right question is, “What did the lockdowns do, relative to other strategies to protect the population, like The Great Barrington Declaration?” So a study that answers the question of what happens if you let the virus rip, versus doing a lockdown, that’s not all that informative really. Because there are other strategies other than letting the virus rip, like focused protection of the vulnerable. The real question is how would a lockdown do relative to that strategy, not versus letting the virus rip.
By the way, that is another thing that Tony Fauci tried to do—claim that The Great Barrington Declaration was an argument to let the virus rip, which is nonsense. We were aiming at protecting the vulnerable, not letting the virus rip. So that’s one set of studies.
The second set of studies in the literature looks at real world settings—one country that has a sharp lockdown, with a stay-at-home order, and another country which doesn’t have mandatory stay-at-home orders during a period of viral growth or of cases spreading. Which country did better in terms of case-spreading or death?
One country has a mask mandate, one country doesn’t have a mask mandate. One county has a mask mandate, another doesn’t. One county has business closures, another county doesn’t. You can use this variation in the real world to try to say, “Okay, did the places that locked down do obviously better on COVID?” And the outcomes from that literature are much more equivocal. There’s some studies that find that there was some lifesaving from lockdown and many studies find there was no lifesaving from lockdown. In fact, some studies find negative life saving from lockdown. That’s what that John Hopkins study was telling us. If you look at this modeling literature, you get results that say lockdowns save lives, but you shouldn’t believe it. On the other hand, if you look at this real world data, it’s much more equivocal.
Lockdowns are not like penicillin. If you give somebody with a bacterial infection an antibiotic to which the bacteria is not resistant, you are going to cure that infection. Lockdowns are not like that. It’s not obviously true. You don’t need a very large number of patients to see that a antibiotic works against a bacterial infection. You just need a few. It’s like there’s a famous thing in medicine about you don’t need to run a randomized trial to show that parachute is useful when you’re jumping out of an airplane. Lockdowns are not like that. Lockdowns are not parachutes. Lockdowns, because they are such extraordinary intervention, need extraordinary evidence to show that they accomplish extraordinary things. What the Hopkins study showed is that we don’t have such evidence in the scientific literature.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s not even taking into account the actual harms that obviously happen from this type of policy.
Dr. Bhattacharya: That’s correct. That’s a separate question. One question is, “Does it protect against COVID?” The other question is, “What other harms did they do?” Let’s think about what lockdowns did. They separated society, and they stopped society from functioning. Societies are very complicated things. Sociologists and economists and other social scientists spend decades trying to understand how society functions. If you disrupt it overnight, you’re going to cause ripple effects that are going to harm people in ways that you don’t anticipate. And it has. I’ll take one example that we haven’t talked about yet—school closures. That’s a form of lockdown. Why close schools? Because you don’t want kids close to each other and close to teachers, and keeping them apart will stop the virus from spreading. That’s the theory.
Let’s leave aside whether it was successful, and I actually don’t think it was particularly successful in stopping disease spread. Let’s just talk about what the consequences are from school closures. There was a large literature in health economics before the pandemic about the importance of schooling for the health of children over their entire lifetime. There were studies looking at how one state would pass a law requiring kids to stay in school until they were 16, compared to another state that only required until age 15.
The state with a 16 year old requirement would have kids stay in school longer, a few months longer, than the states with the 15-year-old requirement. It turns out that in the states that had those 16 year old requirements, with the kids that went through that system, they lived longer, healthier, richer lives than the kids with the 15-year-old requirement. These short periods of extension of schooling had enormous consequences on the whole lifetime of these kids. Over the course of the pandemic, in the United States, and especially in Blue states, we disrupted the lives of these children in that we replaced regular school with Zoom school. Kids dropped out at very alarming rates. Five-year-olds were taught to read by Zoom. I have no idea how that could possibly work. You were seeing illiteracy rates go up.
There are consequences to skipping schooling. There’s one estimate published in JAMA Pediatrics that estimated that this would cost something on the order of five-and-a-half-million life years for our children, and that was just for the spring 2020 lockdown. The consequences are just devastating to think about. How do you make up for, essentially, a year-and-a-half or more of lost schooling? The answer is you don’t. Those are years that you don’t ever get back. Those are vital years in the development of children, and we just threw it away in the hopes of viral control, without understanding that education is a fundamental birthright that we owe our children. That’s just one harm.
Mr. Jekielek: This is in the context of knowing fairly early on that children don’t actually spread it that much, compared to influenza.
Dr. Bhattacharya: That’s correct. Yes, there was early evidence from Iceland, from Sweden, and elsewhere. In Sweden, they kept their schools open during spring. The primary schools are open, age one to 15, no child deaths. The teachers actually had lower rates of COVID than people in the population at large, because schools were relatively safe places to be. Schools reflect community spread, they don’t drive community spread. So we did it for nothing. We stopped the lives of these children for nothing. One other note to add to this about children, it’s not equally distributed. Parents of richer children sent their kids to private schools. In private schools that actually met in person, they had tutoring pods, where they would hire teachers who didn’t have anything to do because their school was out. They would hire these tutors and they would come to their home and teach the kids. Poor parents didn’t have that option. So you’re a poor family, maybe you’re a single mom, you have to go work. Your kids stay at home on Zoom school, and no one’s supervising them. Again, it was an example of trickle-down epidemiology. One group, the poor, have to pay the harms for compliance with this lockdown order that, again, didn’t do very much.
Mr. Jekielek: This is one point which seems extremely serious. Where else do you see this? Some people call it collateral damage.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Yes. Let’s just look at developed countries, because the collateral damage to developing countries is higher by orders of magnitude.
Mr. Jekielek: But for the ones that actually implemented the policies—because that’s not everyone either?
Dr. Bhattacharya: The developing countries faced harm both because they implemented the policies and also they’re dependent on the developed world for trade. They fit into this global economy. Their own economy and also the well-being of the people in poor countries depends on that global economy functioning well.
So the rich countries, when implementing lockdowns, had enormous negative consequences on the health and well-being of the poor countries, which we can talk about in a second. I don’t want to leave the developed world yet. We talked about schools, now let’s talk about health. When we shut down during the early days of the pandemic, the hospitals actually emptied. If you look at the data in the United States, hospital use was actually lower during 2020 and into 2021 than in previous years. Most of the hospitals were not overflowing with COVID patients. The waves came, during those times, yes. There was a lot of stress on hospitals. But for vast chunks of time during the last couple years, hospitals were empty. People skipped cancer screening, people skipped diabetes-management, and diabetes-care. People absolutely skipped fundamental preventative care.
As a result, women will show up with breast cancer, late-stage breast cancer that should have been picked up earlier and they will die from late-stage breast cancer as a consequence of the collateral damage from the lockdowns. The fear associated with COVID caused people to stay home. People stayed home with heart attacks and died of heart attacks, rather than getting care that would have saved their lives in developed countries.
The psychological harm is just catastrophic. One CDC study in July of 2020 found that one in four young adults seriously considered suicide in the month of June 2020. The rates of depression and anxiety are through the roof. Fortunately suicides haven’t gone up yet, but drug overdoses have. A whole bunch of indicators of mental health have deteriorated. It’s going to have consequences, because these are not things that are simple to address. It’s almost like society-wide PTSD.
We harmed the well-being of the working class, the poor, and the well-being of kids. We harmed the health, both the psychological and physical health of huge populations in the West. Actually, let me give you another incredibly short-sighted thing in the West. You lock down. A lot of women actually ended up quitting their jobs in order to take care of the kids. They called it the “she-session,” a big decrease in labor force participation, particularly among women. A lot of those women were actually nurses and other hospital staff members. The hospitals then got short staffed and made it more difficult to care for their patients, another economic consequence of the lockdown. Society is complicated, it’s interconnected. To think that we could lockdown and end a lot of these normal interactions that take place and see no consequences was incredibly short-sighted.
Mr. Jekielek: We have all these organizations like Collateral Global that are trying to document the impacts of all of this.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I actually work with those folks, as a co-editor for Collateral Global. It’s going to be very important to tell that story, because our minds have been so focused on COVID that we forgot about the importance of society, essentially forgot about these people harmed by the collateral damage of these lockdowns. Actually, can we turn to the poor in the developed countries?
Mr. Jekielek: Please.
Dr. Bhattacharya: It’s devastating. One World Bank estimate early in the pandemic said that there would be 100 million people thrown into poverty as a consequence of the lockdowns. Poverty meaning less than $2 a day of income. Now why might that be? For the last 20-some years or even longer, we’ve had this globalization of the world economy. Our economic systems are interconnected with each other. Poor countries reorganized their economies so they would fit in, and when these connections were severed overnight or greatly disrupted, and supply chains were disrupted, it threw a lot of people who were headed toward the middle class within the poor countries into poverty, dire poverty. We had lifted a billion people out of poverty over the last 20-some years, a great success, an unheralded success. But the progress on that has been halted over the last two years and 100 million people are poor that otherwise wouldn’t have been, absent these lockdowns. The consequences of that on health have been devastating. Tens of millions of people are starving as a consequence of these lockdowns. The UN put an estimate out in March of 2021 that in South Asia alone, almost 30,000 children had died from starvation as a consequence of the lockdowns.
The stress that the lockdowns have placed on the poor everywhere around the world has been enormous. I don’t believe that there’s a single poor person on the face of the earth that has not been harmed by these lockdowns. It’s so sad. This is why I believe it’s the biggest public health error in history.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m also aware that apparently the wealth of the most affluent people in the world increased dramatically, by the trillions in fact. That’s another piece of the puzzle. You’re saying that the laptop class, so to speak, got this focused protection as a result of the policy, also while being told that they were on the right side of things morally, because of doing their part to stop the spread.
Dr. Bhattacharya: It’s the direct moral inversion of the truth. It wasn’t immoral for a poor person to go work to feed their families and then get COVID. We created this sense of shame around getting COVID, just as a result of people doing normal things that they need to do in order to keep their lives going. That was wrong, and that was a huge part of the public health disaster, this moralization of COVID. You touched on it Jan, and what you said is incredibly important. We made poor people feel like they were doing bad and illicit things, because they weren’t staying home, and staying safe. How could they? They don’t have the economic circumstances to do that. We made rich people feel like they were good people, just because they had the economic wherewithal to stay home, and stay safe. It made no sense. From a public health point of view, it’s a disaster. From an economic point of view, this is the single biggest driver of inequality that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, from a single policy.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve been looking at this for some time.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I do research on socio-economic status and health.
Mr. Jekielek: It seems like we’re emerging out of this, and there’s all sorts of indicators. People that were arguably strong lockdown proponents are backpedaling and saying “What are lockdowns, actually?” I’m seeing a lot of these kinds of things. In a sense I take that as positive. One of your stated goals at the moment is to make sure that lockdowns, however they manifest, never happen again or be considered as a possible policy.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I want lockdowns to become a dirty word. That’s my goal. When people think about lockdowns, I want them to think of them in horror. This suite of policies, this aim of stopping society from functioning as a way of stopping infectious disease, we should think of in almost the same as we think of medieval torture instruments. They were a catastrophic mistake. That is my goal, to help people understand what a catastrophic mistake they were, so next time, when an infectious disease comes, when we get an epidemic, we don’t jump to lockdowns as the obvious strategy, and that we at the very least think 15 times before we launch ourselves into them.
Mr. Jekielek: There is this other piece that you’ve been vocal about, the loss of trust in public health, because of the public health policy that was implemented.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I love public health. Public health, when it’s functioning well, is incredibly important to the health and well-being of so many people. At the very minimum, it provides the public with solid scientific information about how to stay healthy, and what’s important in life to stay healthy, and even more muscular things like making sure that bad drugs don’t get put on the market that harm people. There’s a whole host of things that public health does behind the scenes that’s absolutely vital, and is important for the health of the public. For public health to function well, it needs the trust of the entire public. It can’t be a partisan thing where half the public trusts it, and half the public doesn’t. It can’t be a thing where it’s a the butt of jokes because Kyrie Irving, an NBA basketball player, is allowed by public health orders to come sit courtside without a mask next to his teammates, but he’s not allowed by public health to actually play on the court because it spreads COVID? It makes no sense. You sit in a restaurant and you have to have the mask on while you’re walking, but when you sit down, because apparently COVID doesn’t spread when you’re sitting, you can take the mask off. The public notices this, and it makes public health look like a laughing stock. They stop trusting public health and then they get hurt, because public health is actually important to the health of the public. What has happened during COVID is an utter collapse of trust that many people had in public health. We have to work to reverse that, and that’s going to mean acknowledgement by public health that they made incredible mistakes during the pandemic, and then reaching out to the public and explaining reform, so that it does better next time.
Mr. Jekielek: Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, it’s such a pleasure to have you on again.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Thank you Jan, always fun to talk with you.
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