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COVID-19 saw every disagreement become a culture-war flashpoint

COVID-19 saw every disagreement become a culture-war flashpoint

On Oct. 4, 2020, a group of doctors and medical experts, mostly specialists in epidemiology, immunology, and related public health disciplines, challenged the wisdom of the widespread COVID-19 lockdowns in rebuttal. The Great Barrington Declaration named for the town in Western Massachusetts where it was drafted - was written by three scientists with distinguished credentials: Martin Kulldorff, a professor of medicine at Harvard; Sunetra Gupta, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Oxford; and Jay Bhattacharya, medical student and professor at Stanford Medical School.

Coming from both the left and right, and throughout the world, we have dedicated our careers to protecting people, began the declaration, which was soon adopted by thousands more public health scientists and doctors. Current lockdown measures have devastating consequences on short and long-term public health, according to the study.

The scientists warned that keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable harm, with the underprivileged most severely harmed. They argued instead for a policy that aimed to protect those most at risk from the virus, namely the elderly and infirm, while also allowing others to resume normal lives with common-sense precautions.

The relatively short statement was followed by a much more detailed analysis of lockdowns and their collateral damage, as well as of the best ways to protect the elderly and people in other high-risk groups. This was a very serious proposition from highly respected epidemiologists, who were concerned that the lockdowns were causing more deaths than improvements. Kulldorff, Gupta, and Bhattacharya anticipated their views to be challenged after all, lockdowns had become the primary default strategy for containing COVID-19 in nearly every jurisdiction but they never anticipated the whirlwind of denunciation and censure that their statement sparked.

The three scientists have been vilified for a year, according to The Berkshire Eagle last week. Bhattacharya told the paper he is concerned for his safety as a result of... ostensibly censorship efforts on the [Stanford] campus where il has worked for 35 years. Kulldorff, a Harvard student, said he too continues to be criticized. In an article for the British website Spiked, the scientists expressed surprise that their good-faith critique of the lockdown strategy led them to be subjected to a multi-pronged propaganda campaign and demonized for their views.

But thats been the story of this epidemic. Every disagreement has, as with so much else in American society, been turned into an ideological battle. Anyone who dissented from the prevailing opinion was significantly less likely to get a respectful hearing than to be denounced and ostracized as merely expressing his/her feelings.

Whether it was lockdowns, masking, social distancing, vaccination, the origins of the virus, or even what the disease should be called, dogmatism always drowned out open debate. COVID-19 and how to address it should have taken place in a continuous, active process of questioning, testing, and revising scientific understandings. Yet too many people, in their turn, preferred to dig in, refusing to acknowledge that critics or dissidents may have a valid point. People, both on the right and on-the-left, have insisted on looking at public health measures through a political or partisan lens.

In retrospect, it appears that the authors of Great Barrington were on target in doubting the advisability of massive lockdowns. Numerous studies have shown that shutting down the economy was largely ineffective in limiting COVIDs spread, and that it did little that could not have been achieved by less stringent means.

Whatever the effect the lockdowns had on containing the coronavirus, it is clear that they negatively affected public health in many other ways, including domestic abuse, mental illness and addiction, anxiety and depression among children, deterioration in oral health, missed cancer diagnoses, and thousands of additional deaths from untreated heart disease.

None of this implies that the Great Barrington Declaration was unassailably correct, let alone that its provisions, if they were adopted, might not have caused other problems. But did it have to be a flash point in the culture war? In the midst of a epidemic, respected epidemiologists should be able to raise concerns about prevailing public health policy without being ridiculed as fools or apostates. The fact that they couldnt is alarming and should make us all anxious, lockdown supporters and detractors alike.

Jeff Jacoby is available at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. Visit bitly.com/Arguable to read Arguable, his weekly newsletter.

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