As a result of the lockdowns, millions across the globe have been thrown into poverty, with many at the brink of starvation. In America, thousands have skipped health examinations or cancer treatments and thoughts of suicide are at record highs among college-aged youth.
A year later, were lockdowns worth it?
“I’ve had many, many, many scientists write to me telling me that they agree with me, but they can’t speak up,” says public health policy expert Dr. Jay Bhattacharya. He’s a Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economics Research, and he advised Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on COVID-19 policy.
How has science been politicized during this pandemic?
Jan Jekielek: Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Of course, we’re going to talk about coronavirus, or as we call it at The Epoch Times, CCP virus, policy. You describe the lockdowns as “the biggest public health mistake we’ve ever made.” That’s a very big statement. Please tell me what you’re thinking.
Dr. Bhattacharya: A few things. First, you have to think about the lockdowns as an absolutely extraordinary measure. The pre-pandemic plans, many of them had considered and rejected lockdowns as a means to control a virus like this, an epidemic like this.
If you look at what the consequences have been, you have to not just consider the effects on controlling the spread of the virus, which I think have been very limited in many ways, which we can come back and talk about, but primarily the collateral damage from the lockdowns, both domestically and worldwide.
Sometime in April of last year, the UN put an estimate out that there were 130 million people at risk of starvation from the lockdowns worldwide. Basically, almost every poor person on the face of the earth potentially harmed to the point of starvation by the lockdowns and tens of millions of children worldwide thrown into poverty.
Many of those prophecies have come true. In fact, those predictions have come true. You see now, things in the scientific literature that have documented, again, millions and millions of children thrown into poverty worldwide, food insecurity, potential starvation at a level not seen before, other than major wars.
What we’ll come to understand very shortly, maybe even if we don’t understand that now, is that the harms from the lockdowns are orders of magnitude greater than whatever potential benefit you might think they’ve had in controlling the spread of the disease.
Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t you outline for me the forms of this collateral damage you’re describing here?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Think about what a lockdown actually is. A lockdown is an attempt to reduce the amount of personal interactions between people to an absolute minimum.
Humans are born and to live in society with one another. It’s not a normal thing to cut down our interactions. Hugging your grandmother, hugging your children, going to coffee with your friends, going to work together, every single possible human interaction has been severed. If you want to understand the scope of the effect of the lockdowns, you have to understand that every single aspect of life is going to be affected by them.
Let me just give you some examples that impinge on public health. During the epidemic, we had, in the United States alone, people who skipped their cancer treatments because they’re more scared of COVID than cancer. They skipped cancer screening, so we’ll see many more women with late-stage breast cancer this year that should have been caught early last year. We’re already seeing that, for instance, in the UK. It’s already been documented in the literature.
You had something on the order of 1 in 4 young adults in the U.S. in June of this past year who reported serious thoughts of suicide. This is according to a study published by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. This is just the beginning of it and that’s just domestically. I’ve already mentioned some of the international harms.
I think we’re going to see every aspect of human health that can possibly be hurt, has been hurt by this. I haven’t even started to talk about the social damage, the anxiety, and the consequences of the panic and fear that’s been induced in the population will continue to have. Once you ring that bell of panic and fear, it’s very difficult to undo.
Mr. Jekielek: 1 in 4 young adults has contemplated suicide. What’s the number usually?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Something on the order of 4 or 5 percent. It’s a shocking increase in a group that normally should be socializing, living their life, and learning to become adults. Yet, they spent the year isolated alone in fear. 1 in 4 seriously contemplated suicide.
Think about the level of the depth of anguish and pain that represents. Of course, it’s not just young adults. Lots and lots of other age groups have also had this similar result, but they’re the group that’s faced it the worst, at least in the United States.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible. I also heard another statistic that there’s actually more fear of contracting coronavirus among the younger population, which has a much lower risk than the older population. Is this true?
Dr. Bhattacharya: It’s true. Yes. Basically, there’s a whole body of literature on this. The risk of dying from COVID infection is a 1000-fold difference between the young and the old. The oldest people who get infected are 1000 times more likely to die from the infection than the young. In fact, this past year in 2020, more children died from influenza virus infections than COVID, which is shocking when people hear it.
But it’s absolutely true because the children, to a large degree, don’t face a large risk of severe outcomes from COVID infection. So the fact that young people are in more fear and in more panic about COVID than older people has two effects.
One is that the older population probably take more risks than they ought to because they actually do have some higher risk from COVID. My mom is 80, she shouldn’t be going out to parties, whereas younger people have stopped their lives on the basis of a tiny risk.
Instead, they’re taking on an enormous risk, which is this withdrawal from society, this lack of socialization, this lack of normal living that is healthy for them. It’s a failure of public health messaging. We created the sense that there’s this equal fear or equal panic, and as a result, we miscommunicated the risk to the population that actually is most vulnerable and least vulnerable, with consequences for both.
Mr. Jekielek: You think that we’ve under-represented the risk for the older population and over-represented the risk for the younger. It’s almost backward—
Dr. Bhattacharya: Yes, it’s inverted. It’s just a straight failure of public health messaging. In fact, I saw a New York Times story sometime last year arguing that there wasn’t enough panic in the population about COVID, and the public health messaging should seek to induce more panic and fear. But in fact, that’s the exact wrong thing to do.
The public health toolkit should not include panic at all, because it leads to unreasoned activity. Instead, it should communicate honestly what the risks are and give people tools to address that risk in their lives in the best way possible. It’s a deadly disease, there’s no question. It’s more deadly for some than others. The kinds of activities you can take to mitigate them should correspond to the risk that you take.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to talk more about how this type of message that you just described has been transmitted throughout the population. That’s fascinating, and frankly, deeply disturbing. I also want to talk a little bit about the questions around masks, because this is something you were in a round table about with Governor DeSantis.
Of course, you were an adviser to Governor DeSantis and his policies for Florida. There was actually a whole roundtable in March that was taken down by YouTube, ostensibly because it was argued that masks aren’t needed for young people. What is the reality according to science, as best as you can tell me?
Dr. Bhattacharya: It’s a policy decision whether to recommend masks for children or not. I’m a health economist by training. I have an MD and a Ph.D. in economics. I think about things from a cost-benefit point of view. You have to think about what the costs and benefits are of any policy, before you make a recommendation about them.
In the case of masks, the evidence that children spread the disease—even without a mask—is that they’re much less efficient spreaders. It’s not like the flu where children actually are efficient spreaders of the disease. In the case of coronavirus, for reasons we don’t fully understand, children even unmasked are much less likely to spread the disease to adults, than an adult is to spread the disease to an adult.
I’ll just give you one study that I read in April or May of last year from Iceland. The researchers looked at a representative sample of the population, a 12 percent sample of the population. They had this mechanism of not just identifying who had the infection, but of sequencing every single virus.
Why does the sequencing matter? A standard contact tracing study is—if I’ve interacted with you, and you and I both get the virus, it’s hard to tell if you gave the virus to me or I gave the virus to you, you can’t tell the direction.
But if you do genetic sequencing, this virus mutates all the time. By shared genetic mutations you can tell—did you give the virus to me or the other way around. The striking result of this study was that there was not one instance of a child passing the disease on to a parent.
Mr. Jekielek: Out of a huge sample—
Dr. Bhattacharya: Yes, exactly. [There were] lots of instances of parents passing on to kids. In many ways, it’s a godsend. These are completely unexpected scientific results, contrary to intuition about what these kinds of viruses are like, and yet, that’s what science is saying.
On the other side, there are actually harms to children wearing masks. You can look at the World Health Organization guidance documents around this. They acknowledge these harms. Children have developmental needs that require them to see other people’s faces.
Learning to speak, for instance, requires seeing lips move. For slightly older children, they learn body language and how to interact socially by watching people. When you ask them to wear a mask, you cut that out. So you have harms on one side and very little benefit on the other. So when Governor DeSantis asked me whether I think mask-wearing should be recommended to children, the answer was no.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think about the fact that this video was removed from YouTube?
Dr. Bhattacharya: It’s absolutely shocking. If you think about what science is for and scientific communication is about, science works only when you are able to discuss the evidence in the open.
I might be wrong, maybe you disagree with me, I don’t know. The point is that I’ve given you my evidence, and you can say, “Jay, you’re right here. You’re wrong here.” Then maybe I’ll change my mind or maybe you’ll change your mind. We’ll have a discussion and it will result in some sort of resolution where we’re both better informed as the consequences of the discussion.
The censorship of science essentially, effectively, is that you may as well not do science at all. Because you’ve ended the conversation that actually produces the conclusions that you’d have some confidence in with science. So on that level, it’s just really bad science policy that YouTube has followed.
The other thing is, it’s not like they can actually censor. In a sense, you can actually still get the video. There are other ways to work around it. So they’re not actually trying to protect the public in an ineffective way. What they’re trying to do is warn the public that this is a dangerous idea.
If they’re going to do that, they have a moral obligation to actually make arguments about why it’s a dangerous idea. They can’t just appeal to authority. They actually have to engage the arguments we make if they want to say that. It’s a very high standard.
They’ve not met that standard. They just censored it. They want to create this aura of, you shouldn’t hear this idea, as if it’s some banned book. Rather than arguing why the banned book is bad, they just say, “It should be banned.” They are the moral inheritors of book burners.
Mr. Jekielek: As you’re saying all this, there’s a significant impact on how people will now respond to getting information. The implications of this are significant. Maybe you’ve had some thoughts on this as well.
Dr. Bhattacharya: If YouTube thinks that children should wear masks, make that argument. Show us the evidence. Show us your reasoning and we can have a discussion. That is a healthy argument. I’m not particularly dogmatic about this. If someone shows evidence that I’m wrong, I’ll change my mind on this. I’ve done a lot of reading on the scientific literature on this. This is my opinion based on what I’ve read, because I’m comparing costs and benefit.
Maybe YouTube values the small reduction that they think is consistent with the scientific literature on COVID spread really highly, and so the difference is just a value thing. I value the flourishing of children very highly and so I put a lot of weight on the harm, saying, the harm on children flourishing outweighs whatever tiny risk of COVID spread [there is.]
You can’t just simply appeal to authority and then hope to convince anyone in any moral way that masks should or shouldn’t be in place for children. It’s not a persuasive argument and no one should take it seriously. And yet because they have this monopoly of power on the flow of information, they can just label an argument as dangerous, without actually making an argument why you should believe them.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk a little bit about your philosophy and also basically what you actually do, because there’s been a lot of different messaging out there about that. You’re a public policy expert, and what does that actually mean?
Dr. Bhattacharya: I have an MD and a Ph.D. in economics. I’ve been a professor at Stanford in the medical school for 20 years. I do work on public health. In particular, I’ve been working on infectious disease policy. I approach it both as a scientist, an epidemiologist, and also an economist.
The way that you do this kind of work is you evaluate the costs and benefits of different policies, and then you make decisions based on what the scientific evidence says, whether the policy is good or bad. When you do this kind of work, it necessarily involves scientific evidence [such as] if I do a lockdown, will it actually slow the spread of the disease? That’s a fact about the world. It may or it may not. You can look at the evidence and say, “Yes, a lockdown will have all these effects on the health of these other populations.”
On top of that, you have to overlay, because there are always trade-offs. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. That’s a basic tenet of economist thinking, and it’s true in my experience. You always have to say, “What are the tradeoffs?” If I hold values in this way, I would weigh the trade-offs in this way. If I hold a different set of values, I’d weigh the trade-offs another way.
I can’t argue with people about their values. They may have some values that I disagree with, but it’s up to them. It’s not up to me to tell them what their values ought to be. My job mostly is helping people understand what those trade-offs are and what the data say about those trade-offs.
Of course, I have some values. Who wouldn’t? But they’re way less important in my professional work than the communication about the evidence [on] the trade-offs. In the coronavirus setting, a lot of that has gotten conflated.
You’ll hear scientists, epidemiologists, and others say, you should do X, you ought to have a lockdown. They’ve conflated both their view of what the effectiveness of the lockdown is, including the collateral harms, with their value system. Maybe they’re very, very risk-averse in their private lives.
In fact, I’ve seen evidence of that. There are the surveys of epidemiologists where they say, “What kinds of activities are you comfortable doing?” and they strike me as way more risk-averse than me. I can’t argue with them. That’s their values. I’m not going to argue about that, but are those the values shared by the entire population? Probably not.
The responsibility, I view, is to say clearly, “Here’s what I think the evidence says about the efficacy of a policy,” versus “Here’s what my personal values on how I evaluate that evidence.” Those are two very different things. I have a lot of expertise in the evaluation of the evidence—I have very little expertise about what your values ought to be.
Mr. Jekielek: Are you saying that this is actually happening in our public health messaging on a large scale?
Dr. Bhattacharya: It is. It absolutely is. Again, it’s another mistake in public health. This conflation of values, the way the public health people have talked about this disease and this epidemic, they’ve moralized things to an extent that I thought we, as public health people, decided that we were never going to do.
In the HIV context, this was a huge error in public health and we repeated that error in the context of COVID. For instance, if someone comes down with COVID, what’s the first question anyone asked? “How’d you get it? What did you do? Were you not being careful?” We’ve stigmatized COVID.
Public health has effectively worked to stigmatize COVID. Instead of providing compassionate care to someone who’s sick, we’ve decided to interrogate you about what did you do wrong. It’s an enormous mistake. Again, it’s a value. It’s this value that you’re unclean because you’ve come down with the disease. Public health should never have adopted that kind of approach to COVID, but yet it has. We’re so used to it for the last year as if it’s like normal, but it is not normal.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the role of the media in all of this, in your mind?
Dr. Bhattacharya: What’s the responsible role of media, versus what is actually done? Let me just give you my sense of what it’s actually done, and then I’ll give you my opinion about what ought to have been done, just so we can keep it separate and consistent with my philosophy.
I think what has actually been done is to stoke the panic. It’s worked to make the population very scared. They’ve systematically found the most pessimistic experts and highlighted them, platformed them, and put them in places where the public can see them saying the scariest things imaginable about the disease.
If there’s good news that comes out, and believe it or not, there actually has been a fair bit of good news even through the whole of last year about this disease—it being much less deadly, for instance, than initially people would have thought. We know a lot more about the risk factors than initially thought, for instance. Those kinds of things get suppressed and as a result, you end up with a population that does not truly understand what the risks are, and people overestimate the risks relative to what they actually are.
Some people underestimate, just like we talked about before. It has huge negative public health consequences. The media has been incredibly irresponsible. In a sense, they played a propaganda role as opposed to an informative role, which is difficult for me to say because the media in a democracy has responsibilities to tell the truth.
I do have some sympathy. A lot of media folks I’ve talked with don’t have a ton of scientific training and they can’t tell the difference between someone who’s a crank and someone who knows what they’re talking about. They should just play the debate straight instead of picking sides. The people who agree or disagree with the consensus, let the public hear them because it serves the public better to understand that there is a scientific debate.
A lot of the problem regarding media is that they’ve got the sense that there is a consensus about COVID policy, a consensus about elements of COVID science. This is a novel disease. The science is evolving very rapidly. There’s a lot of disagreement in the scientific community about the science itself and also about the right policy to take. Why not let the public know that instead of pretending that one side is right and the other side is dangerous, as if somehow the media knows from God how to referee this dispute.
Mr. Jekielek: Frankly, you’ve been harmed personally by some of this coverage from what I’ve seen.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I’ve been painted as someone who’s ideological. Frankly, I don’t care a ton about politics. I’ve never been particularly interested in participating in political fights. I’ve spent my career writing papers for journals and trying to persuade my fellow scientists and health economists about various things that I think are interesting to talk about.
I’ve never donated to a political party, I’ve never signed up for a political party. Before the Great Barrington Declaration, I never signed a petition at all. In my view, I have a responsibility to talk to anybody regardless of their political affiliation or stripe and treat them with respect.
What I found is that’s not common in my circles. There’s sort of disdain for people on the Right, frankly, and I really don’t understand it. It seems like an abdication of responsibility to me. As someone who does public health, I need to be able to treat everyone with respect, so that they can have some chance of believing what I’m telling them.
If you treat someone with disrespect, they’re not going to believe you, and a lot of the public health folks who work in public health have basically ignored this principle. I shouldn’t know if you’re someone who does public health, what your politics really are. They shouldn’t be front and center. You can have it, that’s fine. We’re human and we have them. But really, as a professional responsibility, our job is to leave that aside when we’re talking to people about the evidence.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned the Great Barrington Declaration and you’re one of the three co-authors. I’m wondering if you could just briefly tell us what it is and why it’s so revolutionary. I know, as we discussed earlier, that you don’t think of it that way, but for some people, it seems very contentious. Also, what the status of the support for it, because I understand that’s been growing.
Dr. Bhattacharya: The Great Barrington Declaration was a 600-word document that Martin Kulldorff of Harvard, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, and I put together in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in October of last year. The premise of it is just basically two scientific facts that I think everybody agrees with.
One is that there’s this enormous age gradient in COVID risk, so that the oldest are 1000 times more at risk than the youngest. The second is the lockdown harms are enormous across the board. So when you put those two facts together, for the older population, COVID is likely more dangerous than the lockdowns.
So what should you do there? You should do a strategy of focused protection of the old. Don’t send COVID-infected patients back to nursing homes, because you’re going to infect people who are really vulnerable there. If we follow that strategy from the beginning of the epidemic, we wouldn’t have made that mistake.
But there’s a whole list of policies that we think would help protect older populations. Now that we have the vaccine, we can protect them perfectly. Prioritize older populations with the vaccine. Not just in the U.S., by the way, worldwide. We have some responsibility, a moral responsibility to take our doses that we are thinking about giving to 16-year-olds that won’t really do them much good, and send them to 80-year-olds around the world who don’t currently have the vaccine.
For the younger populations, the lockdown is way more harmful than COVID. It’s not moral to expose them to the lockdowns. For them and society at large, while you’re doing focused protection, lift the lockdowns and end them, because they are harming those populations on net.
That’s the Great Barrington Declaration. I don’t think there’s anything novel in it. This is effectively reflecting pandemic plans that we’ve made previously, that have worked for a century in dealing with epidemics—identify who’s vulnerable, devote considerable resources to protect them, and for the rest of the population, try to disrupt life as little as possible. That’s the Great Barrington Declaration.
Mr. Jekielek: I understand that a lot of people, a lot of ex-policy experts and scientists have come on board with it. Actually, there’s another wrinkle. There’s actually a social cost to this, and you were telling me offline that someone may have even lost their job because of signing onto this?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Yes. We have tens of thousands of doctors, scientists, epidemiologists, and literally hundreds of thousands of normal people that have signed on to the petition. Strange to say, I’ve never signed up or written a petition before, but there it is. It’s a common view in science and yet, you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage. You think this declaration is a strange outside view, and that everyone really supports the lockdown.
That is not true. In fact, I would venture to say the declaration is probably the majority view. Yet because of suppression, this sense that like it’s dangerous that’s taken over the media and science, where the loudest voices say we should have lockdown—people are afraid to speak up.
Since writing this declaration, I’ve had many, many, many scientists write to me and tell me that they agree with me but they can’t speak up because maybe they don’t have tenure yet, and even the ones that are tenured. There’s one who lost his job because he signed the petition, this epidemiologist in Belgium. They’ve been vilified by their colleagues.
It’s a mechanism that usually we wouldn’t use in science, essentially ad hominem attacks to make you agree with something that you don’t agree with. You lose your job, you’re threatened to be ostracized, you won’t get grants. I think this is a conversation that we need to have within science that this kind of behavior, when just because someone disagrees with what purportedly is a consensus, you shouldn’t face reprisals on the basis of that, but that’s exactly what’s happened with the context of the Great Barrington Declaration.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s funny. As you’re describing this, I’m just remembering to learning about, in grade school, Copernicus and what he faced from the establishment in his time trying to forward new ideas.
Dr. Bhattacharya: My colleague, Martin Kulldorff, wrote a Tweet sometime in November in the context of the attack on Scott Atlas by some of my colleagues at Stanford. He said that the 300-year experiment with the Age of Enlightenment is over.
The Age of Enlightenment works because there’s this ability to dissent from the consensus. Maybe the dissent is right, maybe the dissent is wrong, but you don’t turn the dissenter into an outsider, an anathema figure, just because the dissent has occurred. You discuss it. You debate with them. Maybe you come to a resolution, maybe you don’t. In any case, the discussion itself leads you closer to the truth than just saying you’re not allowed to dissent.
Mr. Jekielek: Basically, you’re talking about an end to free and open inquiry.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Within science. It’s absolutely shocking. When I saw Martin’s Tweet, I was taken aback. But in many ways, he’s right. I think science cannot function in this environment. It absolutely needs the ability for people to dissent without the kind of reprisals they faced in the context of doing so in these lockdown settings.
Mr. Jekielek: As you’re describing all this, I’m thinking about how the Chinese Communist Party reacted to the beginnings of the virus. We did a lot of reporting on that back in the day. Michael Senger has argued that some of this messaging that came out of China was actually deliberate. They had someone falling over, ostensibly from coronavirus.
“Look, these lockdown measures are so effective.” Those were the very strong messages that were sent out of China in the early days. At the same time, a lot of information and a lot of data were suppressed. Maybe not all, I know we were discussing that, but a lot, and frankly, a lot of it was also misrepresented or even false. So I’m curious, in your mind, how much of an impact that had on the policy here and the rest of the world?
Dr. Bhattacharya: As we were saying earlier, the early evidence out of China, a lot of it was published in the medical literature. A lot of it actually was quite useful. For instance, the age gradient in mortality risk was very clear in the published Chinese data and that’s turned out to be completely true, and is the center of what the right policy should have been, this focused protection policy.
There were some elements of what came out of the early Chinese experience with the virus that turned out not to be right. For instance, this idea that lockdown could actually suppress the disease once it’s sufficiently widespread in the population, turned out to be very, very, very wrong.
What is extraordinary to me about the policy though, is the extent to which Western governments copied the lockdown policy. That is the central most pernicious thing that came out of the Chinese experience with this, the idea that the lockdown could stop the disease from spreading altogether in a place where it’s already relatively widespread.
Huge numbers of Western governments copied that with absolutely devastating consequences and that turned out to be really misleading. It hasn’t stopped the spread of the disease. It’s just caused all these kinds of harm that we talked about earlier in the conversation.
Mr. Jekielek: You could think about what happened in China and the way the Chinese Communist Party approached the virus. In China, there isn’t a lot of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the regime doesn’t put a lot of value on individual liberty. There’s a philosophy there—to get rid of the virus, we can lockdown and it just doesn’t matter a ton what actually happens to people. My question is, how much is this reflected in what we did here and other places in the world?
Dr. Bhattacharya: China had an absolutely draconian lockdown in Wuhan. The doors were barred and locked so they couldn’t get out, forced quarantining of sick people away from their homes, a whole bunch of measures that if you’d asked me in February of 2020, would it be possible to enact them in the United States, I would have said it was impossible.
And yet, we tried. We said, “You have to stay at home—mandatory shelter-in-place order. Your business is closed. You can’t go to church. Your schools are closed. You can’t gather out outdoors with your friends, even small gatherings. So a whole series of absolutely extraordinary restrictions on normal human behavior in the hopes of controlling the spread of the virus. It still astounds me that we adopted this policy.
I still don’t understand how Western governments went from these commitments to basic liberties, to a situation where it’s been completely normalized to adopt these kinds of gross violations of human rights. The actual reality of it has been in some sense, very, very unequal.
There’s a class of people that have really, in some sense, enjoyed the isolation. If you are rich enough to work from home, you don’t lose your job and you can have people deliver stuff to you, you’ve done fine.
Whereas the working class, the regular folks whose jobs can’t just be replaced by Zoom have suffered. They’ve lost their jobs. They’ve lost their ability to feed their families or take care of their families. Their kids can’t go to school. You can’t replace it with private schools if you’re not rich enough, or pods or tutors. We’ve had this incredibly unequal set of outcomes as a consequence of adopting this policy, that in effect violates the human rights of everyone that faces it.
Mr. Jekielek: In the U.S., as you know, because you’ve been advising Governor DeSantis in Florida and perhaps others, the policy hasn’t been developed equally across states, right? In Florida, the lockdown or stay-at-home was only about a month’s time. There are other places where those orders still exist. In my hometown of Toronto, there’s a draconian lockdown, as far as I can tell.
Dr. Bhattacharya: You’re right about this. Six weeks of you’re not even allowed to gather in small groups really, even outdoors.
Mr. Jekielek: Of course, Canada is a separate country, but there are quite radically different policies. How is this actually played out now? Can you give us a picture?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Sure. So, we’re filming in California and California has been pretty much locked down to one extent or another all through the epidemic. My children who are in high school and junior high school, my younger ones, are still not in school. My younger one has two days a week of school in-person, but it’s with masks and plexiglass.
It’s not normal school. My middle son, he’s not been in school at all in a year and some. It’s all Zoom. The church that I go to has not met in person indoors at all through the whole epidemic. The school where I teach, Stanford, only in the last month have some students been invited back. It’s been a ghost town for much of the epidemic. We’ve had an enormously draconian lockdown in California, again, through much of the epidemic.
Florida, on the other hand, as you said, in May, Governor DeSantis lifted many elements of those shelter-in-place orders. In September, he lifted the lockdown almost entirely, although I think he couldn’t force some places, some large counties to get rid of the mask mandates, but they got rid of the fines. Schools were open all through this year in Florida.
In fact, I participated as an expert in a lawsuit helping the Florida Department of Education argue against the teachers union, which had sued Florida to close the schools, which we won eventually, one of my proudest accomplishments actually in this epidemic.
One of the results of this— the age-adjusted death rate from COVID is higher in California than in Florida to date, it’s higher. From a COVID perspective, California has done worse than Florida. The unemployment rate is two or three times higher in California than in Florida.
If you look at L.A. County, the zip codes with the highest poverty have had three times the COVID death rates than the zip codes with the lowest. So Beverly Hills has done much better than Watts in L.A. County.
In Florida, there’s almost no gradient like that. Richer places have not done better. Everyone’s just done better overall. Both the under-65 and over-65 COVID mortality is lower in Florida. The lockdown has not helped California produce better COVID results, but it has produced all these collateral harms. Unfortunately, I have to say, for almost no purpose.
Mr. Jekielek: So why do you think there are so many places that are still locked down right now, given the data that you’ve been explaining to me throughout this interview, and the evolution of the thinking around all of these questions.
Dr. Bhattacharya: The demand for the lockdown at this point really stems from fear. It’s not coming from data. It’s a sense that we have to do something and if we don’t do something, people will blame us for not taking the disease seriously enough. What I’d say to other politicians and other people who think the lockdowns are a good idea—people think about this as you either lockdown or you just let the virus run rampant through the society.
In fact, when the Great Barrington Declaration came out, that is how Anthony Fauci characterized the policy. The New York Times wrote propaganda pieces, in fact, saying that the Great Barrington Declaration was “let it rip”. But it is not let it rip. There’s a third policy in between lockdown and let it rip, which is focused protection.
A state or province that follows that policy will see less death from COVID, and will see better outcomes from the lockdown harms, because there won’t be any, or many, many fewer of them. There’ll be less human misery and destruction if you follow this middle ground policy-focused protection.
Now with the vaccine, you basically have an opportunity to do perfect focused protection, vaccinate the old, prioritize vaccinating the old. 80 percent of the deaths in the U.S. have been for people 65 and up. 40 percent of the deaths are in nursing home settings. We know who’s most vulnerable. If you want to defend against this disease, protect them. And if you don’t want the lockdown harms to affect the rest of society, don’t impose a lockdown.
So if you follow this policy, you get better results literally for everybody. It’s not arguing for letting the virus rip through society. In a sense, we did the opposite of the policy in New York at the beginning of the epidemic. We exposed vulnerable people in nursing homes to the virus and with devastating results. It’s not an argument to let it rip. It’s an argument to take the facts about the virus seriously in our policymaking.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’ve actually seen the effects of this focused protection policy. So we know that that’s what’s been applied in Florida. But where else have we seen the effectiveness of what you’re describing?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Sweden is a good example of this. So in Sweden in the early days of the epidemic in Stockholm, they did the opposite of focused protection. There were Stockholm nursing homes that they essentially left unprotected. And of course, they very famously followed a very laissez-faire policy, in some sense.
After the early days, sometime in April or May they realized where the risk was. They did as best they could to try to do focused protection in their Swedish way, asking the older population to stay at home, to isolate themselves, and telling everybody else to go about their business. They kept schools open through the whole epidemic for ages 1 to 15, with very, very few bad outcomes for children, vanishingly few deaths.
And for teachers, again, no masks in these schools. The teachers actually had lower severe COVID outcomes than other professions. It was safer for them to be in school than to do other professions. So they followed this policy.
Now, their death rates from COVID are somewhere in the middle of Europe. It’s higher than their Norwegian neighbors, but lower than the UK, Spain, France, and other countries. Their overall excess death rates are actually near the bottom of where Europe is.
They didn’t have any excess deaths, or very few excess deaths, because they didn’t have collateral damage. They followed something like a focused protection plan after the initial days. I don’t think there’s any place that got it perfect. There’s a lot of uncertainty around this.
Mr. Jekielek: I remember how vilified Sweden was back in the day. I haven’t been following it, but that’s astounding,
Dr. Bhattacharya: Sweden is in the midst of a huge uptick in cases which has gone on since February this year, and their deaths haven’t followed. When you don’t do focused protection, the case rises are always accompanied by rises in deaths very sharply, maybe two weeks after, because you’re exposing vulnerable people to the disease.
If you follow focused protection and you prioritize vaccinating the old, you can get cases rising. It may spread, that’s fine. I mean, that’s not really fine, because it’s COVID, but the deaths don’t follow, because the vulnerable people aren’t as close to the virus. That’s the right policy for this virus.
Mr. Jekielek: So you mentioned the vaccine rollout, which is actually something that Governor DeSantis has been criticized about. There was a recent 60 Minutes piece that came out about him, which was also criticized. So what do you think about this 60 Minutes piece?
Dr. Bhattacharya: It’s nonsense. Think about this. He basically made agreements with places where people tend to go shopping so they can get vaccinated. How is that bad or wrong? From what I understand, he made agreements with this grocery chain, so that older people could get vaccinated there. It was relatively close to where many older people lived.
Look at the results. They’ve had a very large fraction of their older population vaccinated in relatively record time, compared to most other states. They’ve had fewer deaths as a result of it. How is that? I don’t follow politics, but it seems like they’re just missing the point.
The point is, let’s vaccinate the elderly population, and that’s what Governor DeSantis has done. When I told you earlier about the lower COVID death rates in Florida than in California, that’s why. In Florida, by the end of January of this year, every person in nursing that wanted a vaccine had been vaccinated, or at least received the first dose.
In California, my 80-year-old mom lives in L.A. County. She was not fully vaccinated until the middle of March. I’m vaccinated now, but I didn’t feel right to get vaccinated until she was vaccinated. She’s 80, and I’m 52. There’s no moral reason for me to be vaccinated before her.
And now, actually, we’re debating about whether we should give the vaccine to children, even though it hasn’t been tested on children. Let’s leave that discussion aside. It’s just immoral. There are large numbers of older people around the world who haven’t been vaccinated.
Let’s send those doses to save lives elsewhere, first. Then we can discuss about low-risk people being vaccinated. It’s a huge mistake that will result in lots and lots of deaths, because, again, we’re not following the standard idea of protecting the vulnerable.
Mr. Jekielek: So we’ve covered a lot of ground here. Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Dr. Bhattacharya: I’d tell your audience, if you think about lockdowns as the only way to address this epidemic, I would ask your audience to think differently. We’ve now had a full year of experience with them and they have not worked and they’ve caused enormous damage. There are much better ways available.
You don’t need to fear the epidemic. You don’t need to fear the virus. Don’t live your life in fear. Live your life informed. The virus has a 99.95 percent survival rate for people under 70, based on an enormous body of evidence. For people over 70, it’s much more deadly. Get vaccinated if you’re in a high-risk group as fast as you can, and live your life again. This epidemic will end. It’s coming.
Mr. Jekielek: Jay Bhattacharya, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Thank you.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.