Our response to the Covid pandemic continues to be incoherent and ineffective. No matter how many interstate comparisons prove that lockdowns confer no permanent benefit, no matter how much economic devastation we endure and how many lives are ruined, we soldier on, refusing to learn from experience.
Our panic-driven approach was originally in reaction to an apparent overall death rate of 3% and the need to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. But we now know that 82 studies worldwide have found a median death rate of 0.2% of all those infected by Covid and supplemental hospital units were mothballed.
Even more encouraging, the virus is not equally threatening to all. The mortality rate for people over 70 is 1000 times greater than for children, who are almost totally protected. In fact, over twice as many children have died from seasonal flu this year than from Covid.
The sparing of the young is of course a great blessing. Yet we continue to pursue policies of blanket restrictions as if all groups are at equal risk.
This is the folly addressed in the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), authored by Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford epidemiologists, now signed by 50,000 medical practitioners and 664,000 concerned citizens worldwide. The declaration calls for “focused protection“ in place of the one-size-fits-all lockdowns that have wreaked havoc everywhere.
Societies are urged to concentrate isolation strategies on those most at risk: the elderly, obese, and already ill, who comprise the vast majority of fatalities. Those who would likely experience Covid as a flu-like infection, or nothing at all, follow basic prevention hygiene protocols but otherwise resume their lives.
Unfortunately, what should be a stimulus for rational scientific discovery and discussion has deteriorated into another of the partisan brawls Americans have come to despise. Fights break out over masks. Police block the entrance to gyms and bars. Protests over mandates become unruly. Nut cases threaten public officials.
In this hyper-politicized environment, the right to peaceably disagree goes out the window. Although epidemiology is normally not influenced by political ideology, the reliably left-wing media has been reflexively hostile. Google initially shadowbanned GBD.
Many scientists have resorted to name-calling and silencing rather than reasoned debate. One of the GBD authors was accused of “Trumpian epidemiology“ by a colleague. Another doctor charged the GBD was the work of “COVID-19 deniers“ similar to “creationists, HIV/AID denialists, and climate science deniers“. Meanwhile, 1300 epidemiologists signed a letter assuring that BLM protests were harmless but all the rest of us should self-quarantine.
Lockdown critics are frequently charged with a heartless over-emphasis on economics. But the UN estimates that 130 million additional people internationally will starve as a result of the economic damage resulting from lockdowns.
Moreover, the fixation on one disease at the expense of all others has severe consequences. Childhood diseases like diphtheria, pertussis, and polio are beginning to reappear because parents are over-focused on Covid. Deaths from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are also trending up from patients’ reluctance to seek routine care.
Mental well-being is in steep decline. Seven in ten teenagers report struggling with their mental health and crisis hotlines are reporting a surge in suicide-related calls. Suicide deaths far outnumber Covid deaths among the young.
School shutdowns may be the most harmful and senseless of all. Since school children very rarely get sick from Covid, they neither endanger themselves nor are contagious to others. The spectacle of millions of children staying home or struggling with distance learning, because the teacher’s unions insist upon it, is an outrage.
The vaccine will help of course, but those expecting a permanent eradication of Covid anytime soon are likely to be disappointed. For starters, 46% of Americans, partly in response to the disparagement of the president who oversaw its development, intend to refuse the vaccine. Moreover, most flu-type viruses mutate freely so immunity, even when achieved, may not be permanent.
We’ll likely be dealing with the virus for some time yet and will need realistic science-based guidance. But science can’t do its job in an environment where anyone challenging the politically dominant status quo gets demeaned or canceled.
Thomas C. Patterson, MD is a retired Emergency Medicine physician, Arizona state Senator and Arizona Senate Majority Leader in the ’90s. He is a former Chairman, Goldwater Institute.