Jay Bhattacharya: "The Catastrophic Failure of Lockdowns, the Single Biggest Driver of Inequalities"
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: The Catastrophic Failure of Lockdowns, the ‘Single Biggest Driver of Inequality’ in the Last Half Century
American Thought Leaders' Jan Jekielek: Interview with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya
“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.
Below is a transcript of this American Thought Leaders episode from April 5, 2022.
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 of 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, made absolute extraordinary promises. If you just sacrifice for the next 15 days, stay at home, well, 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. And that promise was not true then, it’s been shown not true for the last two years and it’s destroyed the lives of so many people and the trust in public health is as I think also been destroyed with it.
Mr. Jekielek: Why? So it’s not necessarily obvious. I remember watching this too. It wasn’t necessarily obvious that this was, going to turn out so bad I think. But are you saying at the time you already saw that there was a serious problem?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Well, I think the premise of two weeks to slow the spread were a set of models. These models are, you can think of them as 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. And it’s just like these complex models that forecast that there would be millions and millions of deaths if we didn’t shut down over a course of a month, two months, very short period of time. And these models, in order to make them work, they have to have parameters in them generally in order to get it right, 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 know exactly how it spread. It was guesswork.
And 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, like two weeks to essentially where 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, you have to have electrical line workers to make sure you get electrical supplies. You have to have food. I mean, now all of a sudden it’s not everyone’s leaving this good to stop, some people are, 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. I mean, there’s all kinds of things where as soon as you act like query, what does it mean to lock down? You say, “Okay, it’s going to be complicated, it’s going to be bad.” And my first thoughts were to actually some of the harms I thought of that could happen as a consequence for the lockdowns, right?
So I mean, I thought immediately to what would happen when you close schools, for instance, what would happen to people, kids, that are abused that have child abuse. Well that child abuse is picked up in schools. So you close the schools, now all of a sudden child abuse still happens because there’s no one to intervene. Or school breakfasts and school lunches where a lot of poor kids get their meals, like a very large fraction of American kids get their meals.
Or to people in poor countries, I mean, those were my thoughts about what was likely to happen, that we were going to be all these collateral harms. So I thought we didn’t have enough data to actually know that it was going to be worthwhile to shut down. And then I was thinking about the possibility of all these collateral harms to come. And I was very reluctant to say yes.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve become one of the more prominent critics of lockdowns, right? Let’s start here because there’s been a lot of, we’ve been discussing this, a lot of backpedaling, people that initially supported lockdowns and saying, “Hey, we’ve never really supported lockdowns. What are lockdowns really?” For starters, let’s work on our definitions. Okay, what does that mean? Or what have we meant by it for the last two years?
Dr. Bhattacharya: So 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, the idea 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, the virus doesn’t spread. But the way that it’s actually implemented, there’s a whole suite of policies ranging from weld people into their houses if you think they have COVID, which is apparently what some Chinese authorities did, to stay home recommendations, essentially orders to stay home, quarantines of the elderly, quarantines of the population, even the healthy population, even without like physically barring the doors, 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. To social distancing, stay six feet apart when you’re in line at the grocery store. Even the masks I think are in a way it’s like I’m physically separating my breath from yours is the idea, it’s in a sense to me is a form of a lockdown. It’s any intervention that’s aimed at keeping people physically apart from each other.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, how did it work out?
Dr. Bhattacharya: I think it was a catastrophic failure. So it was a catastrophic failure both on its own terms in 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. I think it’s the single biggest public health mistake in history.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s a big thing to say. So you’re comparing this to what are the other public health mistakes that we’ve made?
Dr. Bhattacharya: We’ve had so many, right? So yeah, I think the handling of the HIV crisis was a huge public health disaster. The handling of research for syphilis, where we intentionally exposed, allowed syphilis infected black men to have syphilis and not be treated for multiple years. I think we’ve had the spread of this misinformation about the link between autism and childhood vaccines. We’ve had many, many mistakes that in the recent past, in the recent hundred some years we’ve made in the public health community, but I’m hard pressed to think of a single one on this global scale and scope of the harm that the lockdowns have caused.
Mr. Jekielek: So you mentioned the HIV crisis. And so there’s actually in this recent FOIA that we did, we found that, and Dr. Fauci had written an email basically accusing you of some of the other signers of the Great Barrington Declaration of AIDS denialism if I recall.
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 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. And in terms of denying the harms of COVID, I think 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, which Tony Fauci was the primary architect I believe, 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% of the population, the disease will go away. All of these were or failed promises based on flawed scientific understanding of the nature of COVID. And to turn around and then say that we were somehow denying COVID, I mean, I think the charge goes more strongly, the other direction where Tony Fauci and others who supported lockdowns denied basic facts about COVID such as what their 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’s just been this kind of general approach it seems 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 about this evolved since you first encountered the kind of responses to you voicing your perspective publicly and doing the Santa Clara Study and…
Dr. Bhattacharya: So when I first got involved, I thought I was doing science, and I still think I’m doing science. Although I think now I am more involved in the public debate over what the right strategy should be. And certainly that was 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, because October, 2020, when we wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, it seemed to me I think most people, it seemed like, thought that most scientists were in favor of the lockdown focus strategy. We keep people apart, the disease will go away. We just have all of the movement of the virus, the vagaries of it coming up and down were dependent on human behavior as opposed to just the way that these viruses happen to spread. That there was this illusion of control that we had over the virus.
And the idea was another illusion, the illusion there was a scientific consensus behind that illusion that sense of control we had 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 I at the time thought that I was in the minority. So I wrote this Great Barrington Declaration to tell the public that there was actually many scientists that had grave concerns about the strategy. Now, in retrospect, I look back and I think actually, I don’t think we were in the minority even then among scientists. I think that Tony Fauci, Francis Collins, another scientist in the UK, Jeremy Farrar, who’s a funder for a group called the Welcome Trust that funds many, many epidemiologists and scientists in the UK.
They worked to create an illusion of consensus that didn’t exist by marginalizing scientists that disagreed with them, by working with the press and big tech to suppress the voices of scientists who disagreed with them. So when we wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, me, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, then of Harvard, it posed a big threat because now you have scientists from prominent institutions like Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford saying, “No, the lockdown focus strategy is the wrong way to go.” Now you can’t automatically say, “Oh, every reputable scientist agrees with me,” if you’re Tony Fauci. So it was a huge threat. And he reacted by acting in entirely inappropriate ways. You already asked 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, right?
Francis Collins wrote a email to Tony Fauci calling the three of us fringe epidemiologists, which I’m going to get put on my business card someday because I think it’s such a great term. But we weren’t fringe epidemiologists. The set of people, the epidemiologists who control the public discourse, yeah, they disagreed with us. But it’s not true that all epidemiologists agreed with them even at the time. And I think the consensus that they wanted to create, this illusion of consensus they wanted to create was a false one. And it was false then and it’s false now.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so let’s look at the lockdown harms. When I first came in, when we first met year ago, a while ago now I had this idea that there’s pros to the lockdowns and cons to the lockdowns. But upon speaking with you, 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. But let’s explore this.
Dr. Bhattacharya: So maybe we can start with why the lockdowns don’t work, because I think that’s very important. Because the allure of the lockdowns is so simple, so compelling, right? If I just keep people apart, surely the disease won’t spread to each other. But the problem is that it works in the context of a computer model, it does not work in the context of the real world. Right? So let me just give you a data point from India, from Mumbai. It’s a city of great inequality they have slums where people live tightly packed together in not very sanitary circumstances, poor people, large numbers of them. 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 indicates that they were infected, and have history of infection. And the slums, residents of the slums of Mumbai had evidence about 60, 70% 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, something like 20%.
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. You get together, of course for recreation, but even for absolutely essential things like making food, caring for patients, making drugs so that pharmaceuticals so that people can get treated for other conditions, making sure your electrical lines work. I mean, making sure the sewers are running, making sure that energy productions go, there are a whole range of activities and I’d say it’s impossible for a government to say, “Well, these activities are essential and these activities are not.” A non-essential activity for one person, a government bureaucrat, may be quite essential to me.
I’ve talked with pastors for instance, who tell me that their congregants, many of them, because they were isolated, had suicidal thoughts and that they needed church, they needed the synagogues, they needed the mosques in order to have the sense of community so that they could live. And is that essential or non-essential? How long can you put that off? I don’t think it was the place of government to make that distinction really to say essential, non-essential. But the reason is simple, it’s like you can’t actually think of society like a video game. You can’t actually think of society where you can just keep people apart from each other and the only thing that’ll happen is germs won’t spread. And the inequality in society, the fact that there are so many people that couldn’t afford to lock down automatically meant the lockdowns couldn’t work. And that’s what happened, right? So the lockdowns were focus protection of the laptop class.
Mr. Jekielek: So the premise of the Great Barrington Declaration was focus protection of the most vulnerable. Maybe you can just quickly kind of remind us of that. And then how is what we actually did the focus of the laptop class?
Dr. Bhattacharya: You look at a disease like COVID-19 where it discriminates by age. That’s the single most important risk factor. There are other risk factors but by far, the most important is age. Thousandfold difference and the risk and mortality from the oldest of the youngest. Well, how would your normal person look at that and react to it? Well, I mean, 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, that’s the old. So focus protection is just the common sense thing where you say, “Okay, I want to protect the people that are high risk.” Here it’s some folks with severe chronic conditions that predispose them to have a bad outcome if they were to get sick. That makes, I think to me, complete sense. We could have poured the resources that we poured into COVID or COVID response into protecting the old.
We did some, but not nearly enough. Almost 80% of the deaths worldwide, I think 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 we reorganized society to protect the well off, the laptop class. It is a trickle down epidemiology policy we followed. A policy aimed at protecting even 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, well, you have to go work, you have to go sacrifice for the wellbeing of this particular class of people. I mean, I’ll give you one other data point about public health in a paper I published that didn’t get a ton of attention.
In the early days in the United States of the pandemic, public health had to decide where it would place its testing centers. Remember the early days the pandemic testing was a scarce resource. And it turns out in many places, there was a preference given to rich neighborhoods over poor neighborhoods. I mean, that’s revealing. In the time of great crisis, where do the resource go? Well, it went to protecting the relatively well off whether they were truly vulnerable or not, instead of looking at the disease, looking at who’s most vulnerable and seeking to protect them.
Mr. Jekielek: And what does this trickle down to epidemiology that you referenced? What does that mean exactly?
Dr. Bhattacharya: So it’s a little bit of a play on, because economists get accused of being in favor of trickle down economics where the idea is that we do a policy that benefits the rich and it’ll trickle down and benefit the poor. That essentially was what the lockdowns were. We’ll adopt a policy that is, I mean, if it was tailor made to benefit a relatively rich class of people, I couldn’t think of a better one. And somehow that would help the poor avoid the disease, I guess, by some of that magic. But in fact, the opposite happened, the poor actually were exposed. The working class was exposed. And so the lockdowns failed. The lockdowns at best what they did in the places where it looked like they were successful for a while, like in New Zealand or Australia Island nations where the disease hit during the summer.
Mr. Jekielek: Hong Kong, I think is another example.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Hong Kong, another one, another example, Singapore. The disease hit in their summer, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, like New Zealand and Australia. So they locked down. It looked like they got to zero, but then they have to keep locking down whenever there was a single case. And now the cases have exploded, right? 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 that we connect with each other, physically connect with each other. And if you think that’s not possible, you just don’t understand society very well. So the epidemiologists, the mathematicians that design this policy, they did not understand human societies at a very deep level.
Mr. Jekielek: So one of the things I learned recently interviewing Laura Dodsworth about essentially the use of fear to promote lockdown and other policies in the UK, that’s where she focused. She mentioned and she actually found that the pandemic policies had been pretty well outlined for the UK. There certainly were lockdowns, but in fact, they were also already in the records or the policy records or so forth counter indications as to what the harms of lockdowns would actually be and why you would not use that strategy, but they used it nonetheless, right? Are you aware of this? Is there something like this on the US side?
Dr. Bhattacharya: So I don’t think there was a formal thing like in the US like there was in the UK in the US but there was in the lead up to the decision to lock down 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. And some of the plans involved lockdowns, short lockdowns to try to reduce the spread of some hypothetical bioterrorist agent. The problem is at, but there’s also people, people like Don Henderson, the most prominent and best epidemiologist of the 20th century, who was responsible for the eradication of designing the strategy that eradicated smallpox, who was very reluctant to lockdown, he thought the lockdowns would disrupt society.
His view was that societies, if you panic them, they stop functioning well and that harms the health of the population. And then in fact, even when you have an infectious agent that’s traveling around that lockdowns could not possibly be a good way to do this because the disruption would cause more harm than the good from the reduction of the spread of the agent.
So there was a debate in the public health committee. But I’ve looked at the plans, the CDC plans and so on, I don’t see anything that justifies a two year long sort of state of emergency to try to deal with a respiratory virus over which we have no technology to stop the spread. I think what we did was absolutely extraordinary outside of the scope of the plans that we had, far outside of the scope of the plans that we had coming into the pandemic.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s talk about this John’s Hopkins study that I mentioned earlier. Of course this is something that’s been much maligned as well in social media and in the media in general. They looked at a whole bunch of examples of lockdown policy being impacted and they found they didn’t seem to be too much benefit. I mean, that’s my kind of bird’s eye view of it. And of course there’s a lot of criticism of this so tell me about this.
Dr. Bhattacharya: So the Hopkins study is a meta analysis. Meta analysis, what that means is it’s a study of studies. So you can probably imagine there’s a lot of interest in the question of did the lockdowns work? Did it actually save lives? A lot of scholars looked at this. So the Hopkin’s study did a search of the scientific literature trying to understand what scholars are saying regarding the evidence on whether lockdowns worked. So I think they found, I don’t remember the exact number, like 1800 studies, something on that order that matched search terms that have to do with effectiveness of lockdowns. And they narrowed it down to studies that looked like they were reasonable studies and they found two classes of studies. That one class of studies is a class of studies that uses the modeling as a basis for asking what would’ve happened had we not locked down, right?
So very famously the Imperial College model, it predicted that if the United States didn’t lock down 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. And then with these models, because they’re video games essentially, you can run it twice, once with and once without a lockdown and say, “Well, here’s what would happen if you didn’t lockdown.” So there’s a prediction of two million. Well, you compare the prediction of what would’ve happened without a lockdown, versus what actually happened with a lockdown that we didn’t get two million deaths. And they say, “Oh, well 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: Yeah, are correct. That they’re populated with parameters that are right, that it understands all of the nuances of how people interact with each other in society are right. It’s got the social interactions between people are right. The transmission modes of the virus are right. Everything right. And that’s just not plausible, right? So a lot of these studies that conclude that lockdown safe 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, right?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Yeah, and the impact, right. And the other question then is also not just, did the lockdown save lives relative to doing nothing? The right question is not that. The right question is, what did the lockdowns do relative to other strategies to protect the population? The Great Barrington Declaration. So a study that looks at what if you let the virus rip versus doing a lockdown? That’s not all that informative really. Because if there are other strategies other than letting the virus rip, which there were, focused protection of the vulnerable, the real question is how would a lockdown do relative to that strategy? Not versus letting the virus rip.
That by the way is another thing that Tony Fauci tried to do is to try to claim that the Great Barrington Declaration was an argument to let the virus rip, which is itself nonsense. We were aiming at protecting the vulnerable, not letting the virus rip. On the other hand, okay, so that’s one set of studies. The second set of studies in the literature is a set of studies that look in real world settings. One country has has a sharp lockdown of stay at home order, another country 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 lockdown did they 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 savings from lockdown. And so that’s what that John’s Hopkins study was telling us that 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 that works against a bacterial infection works, right? 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. And what the Hopkins studies showed is that we don’t have such evidence in the scientific literature.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. But that’s not even taking into account the actual harms that happen obviously, right, just by basic logic from this type of policy.
Dr. Bhattacharya: That’s correct. Yeah, that separate question, so one question is, does it protect against COVID? The other question is what other harms did they do? So let’s think about what lockdowns did. They separated society, they stopped society from functioning. Societies are very complicated things. Social interactions are really, sociologists and economists and other social scientists spend decades trying to understand how society functions. 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. Well, I’ll just take one example that we haven’t talked about yet is school closures, right? That’s a form of lockdown. Why close schools because you don’t want kids close to each other and close to teachers because keeping them apart will stop the virus from spreading, right? That’s the theory.
Let’s leave aside whether it was successful, I actually don’t think it was particularly successful in stopping disease spread. Let’s just talk about what consequences there are of school closures, right? So there was a large literature in health economics before the pandemic about the importance of schooling for the health of children in over their entire lifetime. So there were these studies where they would look at one state would pass a law requiring kids to stay in school till they were 16, compared to another state that only required till age 15 or something.
And 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. Turns out that the states that had those 16 year old requirements, the kids that went through that system, they lived longer, healthier, richer lives than the kids in the 15. 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 so 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. And you were seeing illiteracy rates go up.
The consequences of 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, and that was just for the spring 2020 lockdown, for our children. The consequences are just devastating to think about. How do you make up essentially a year and a half or more of lost schooling? The answer is you don’t. I mean, those are years that you just 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’s a fundamental birthright that we owe our children, this education. So I mean, I think that’s just one, that’s just one harm, right? You talk about-
Mr. Jekielek: I just have to add this and this is in the context of knowing fairly early on that the children, strangely even compared to influenza, don’t actually spread it that much, right?
Dr. Bhattacharya: That’s correct. Yeah, so there was early evidence from Iceland, from Sweden, and elsewhere, that actually, in Sweden, they kept their schools open during spring. The primary school’s open, age one to 15, no child deaths. And 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. And let me just, one other note to add to this about children, it’s not equally distributed. Richer children, parents from richer children, they sent their kids to private schools in places so that private schools that actually met in person, they had tutoring pods, they would hire teachers who were basically didn’t have to do anything because their school was out, so they would hire these tutors and they would come to their home and teach the kids. Poor parents didn’t have that option, right? 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, no one’s supervising them. It was again an example of trickle epidemiology, right? So 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, right, that you just mentioned, which seems extremely serious. So where else do you see this, I mean, some people call it collateral damage, right?
Dr. Bhattacharya: Yeah. So let’s just stay inside developed countries because I think the damage to developing countries is orders of magnitude even higher, the collateral harms. So let’s just stay-
Mr. Jekielek: But for the ones that actually implemented the policies, because that’s not everyone either, right? I noticed.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Well, I mean the thing is like, well the developing countries face 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 the wellbeing of the people in poor countries depends on that global economy functioning well.
So the rich countries, when we implemented lockdowns, had enormous negative consequences on the health and wellbeing of the poor countries, which we can talk about in a second. But I don’t want to leave the developed world yet because so we talked about schools, let’s talk about health. When we shut down during the early days of the pandemic, the hospitals actually emptied. If you look in the data in the United States, hospital use was actually lower during 2020 and into 2021 then in previous years. The hospitals for most of them were not overflowing with COVID patients. The waves came, during those times, yeah, there was a lot of stress on hospitals. But for vast chunks of the last couple years, hospitals were empty. People skipped cancer screening, people skipped diabetes management, diabetes care, people skipped absolutely fundamental preventative care. So 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 going and 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 a consequence because these are not things that are simple to address. It’s almost like society-wide PTSD.
So we harmed the wellbeing of the working class, the poor, the wellbeing of kids. We harmed the health, both psychological and physical health of huge populations in the west. Actually, let me give you another incredibly short sighted thing in the west. You know, 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 marked 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, as a consequence of the economic effects 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 that we value 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 work actually with those folks, as a co-editor for Collateral Global. I think that 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, forgot about essentially 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: That’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? Well 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 overnight these connections were severed or greatly disrupted, supply chains disrupted, what it did is it threw a lot of people who were headed toward the middle class within the poor countries, into poverty, dire poverty. We’d lifted a billion people out of poverty over the last 20-some years, a great success, a sort of unheralded success. But the progress on that has been halted over the last two years and 100 million people are poor than otherwise wouldn’t have been absent these lockdowns. The consequences of that on health have been devastating. So 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 have been enormous. I don’t believe that there’s a single person, poor person on the face of the earth that has not been harmed by these lockdowns.
Mr. Jekielek: (Nervous chuckle)
Dr. Bhattacharya: (Nervous chuckle) I mean we have to laugh because it’s so sad. This is why I believe it’s the biggest, this is the biggest public health error in history.
Mr. Jekielek: Ok, well it seems to me, the reason I responded the way I did, I’m also aware that apparently the wealth of the sort of, some of the most affluent people in the world increased dramatically, in the trillions in fact. So that’s another piece of the puzzle. And then you’re saying that the laptop class so to speak got this focused protection as a result of the policy, also while kind of feeling and being told that they were morally on the right side of things because we’re doing our part to stop the spread and so forth.
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, that was a huge part of the public health disaster, this moralization of COVID and you touched on it Jan, it’s really, 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, staying safe. How could they? They don’t have the economic circumstances to do that. And we made rich people feel like they were good people just because they had the economic wherewithal to stay home, 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, if I could point to one policy, one health policy or one economic policy for driving inequality, this is the single biggest driver of inequality I’ve ever seen in my lifetime from a single policy.
Mr. Jekielek: And you’ve been looking at this for some time.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I do research on socioeconomic status and health.
Mr. Jekielek: It seems like we’re emerging out of this. There’s all sorts of indicators of this. People that were arguably strong lockdown proponents backpedaling saying “what are lockdowns actually?” These kinds of things, I’m seeing a lot of that. I take that in a sense as actually positive. I think one of your stated goals at the moment is to make sure that lockdowns, however they manifest never happen again or that this isn’t considered as a possible policy.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I would lockdowns to become a dirty word. That’s my goal. When people think about lockdowns, I want them to think of them in horror. That this suite of policies, this aim of stopping society from functioning as a way of stopping infectious disease, we should think of almost the same as we think of mideaval 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. We at the very least, think 15 times before we launch ourselves into them.
Mr. Jekielek: And there’s this other piece that you’ve been vocal about. It’s been the loss of trust in public health because of, well frankly the way the policies, the public health policy was implemented.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I love public health. I think public health, when it’s functioning well is incredibly important to the health and wellbeing of so many people. At the very minimum, providing the public with solid scientific information about how to stay healthy, what’s important in life to stay healthy. 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 that’s absolutely vital, often behind the scenes, that’s 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 where Kyrie Irvign, NBA basketball player, by public health orders is allowed 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? I mean it makes no sense. Or you go 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. It makes public health look like a laughing stock and the public notices and they stop trusting public health and then they get hurt because public health is important to the health of the public. What has happened during COVID is an utter collapse of trust that many people in the public have in public health and I think 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 seeking to reach out to the public and explain reform so that it does better next time.
Mr. Jekielek: Well Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, it’s such a pleasure to have you on again.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Thank you Jan, always fun to talk with you.