As we enter 2023 and watch the Times Square Ball drop, we must learn from our mistakes. We must also hold our public health intellectuals accountable.
(Day after day, people enter the abode of Yama—the god of Death & Justice—yet those who remain believe that they will live forever. What can be more surprising than this?)
Yaksha Prashna, Aranya Parva, 311-12.33, The Mahabharata
History will remember the Covid pandemic for the utter moral, ethical, and intellectual failure of our public health individuals, leaders, and institutions. In his famous 1967 essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, Noam Chomsky ascribes three primary responsibilities of intellectuals:
Intellectuals are supposed to speak the truth and expose lies.
Chomsky argues that “if it is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective”.
He suggests that the intellectual should lift the veil of ideology, which is the underlying framework of ideas that limits the boundaries of debate.
The Covid pandemic has exposed modern intellectuals. When we needed truth and science from our public health intellectuals, we got unadulterated ideology and the dogma of science. Indians (and many others) are acutely aware of what it means to be fed the wrong history and taught half-baked facts. Many of us realize that the prominent academic presentations of India—Orientalist, Indologist, and Marxist—do not reconcile with the lived Indian reality.
Aspects of the Covid pandemic sound more like an orchestrated fiction than objective scientific reality. As the coronavirus wreaked havoc in China in its early phases, we faced many unknowns. But academic “experts” like Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior research scholar at Princeton University in the US, and Samir Bhatt of the Imperial College London, predicted several million deaths due to Covid in a matter of months in India and the US alone.
However, despite the devastation Covid brought upon the world, the overall infection-to-fatality rate (IFR) across all age groups remained less than one percent. IFR will be even lower if we factor in the number of asymptomatic and unreported infections. This faulty modeling created panic and hysteria, which led to the implementation of dangerous public health policies. We locked down our people, closed our economies and institutions, and imposed draconian mandates—masks, vaccines, isolation, etc. Schools were closed, and children as young as two years old were forced to mask.
“We did all this for what?” wondered Anish Koka, a Philadelphia, USA-based cardiologist. “So we can defer getting infected for some time? Some of what we see in China is just two and a half years later than what happened in the rest of the world.” Koka was hinting at the recent Covid outbreak in China. The Chinese government has followed an extreme zero-Covid policy throughout the pandemic. After weeks of protests and riots, the Chinese government scrapped that policy.
The lockdowns were unprecedented in human history. What started as “15 days to flatten the curve” became almost two years of mindlessly trampling of human rights worldwide. Weddings and festivals were cancelled. Religious liberties were severely curtailed. People were not allowed to hug their sick and elderly, hold their loved one’s hands as they died, or perform the last rites of their loved ones. All of this was cruel, inhuman, and unscientific.
Governments and private corporations poured in money and cut red tape to fast-track the development of vaccines that promised miracles. However, while people waited for the Ram Vaan (Bhagwan Ram’s precision arrow) vaccines, the sick and elderly were denied treatment until they ended up on a ventilator in the ER. Public health institutions and professionals were disallowed or condemned for providing their patients with therapeutics and other available remedies.
Once the vaccines were given the Emergency Use Authorization, the race to vaccinate the entire population began. Before, a drug was never mandated for the whole population, including kids as young as five and pregnant women, without any real-life data. The sacred patient-doctor relationship and the most fundamental notion of modern medical science—informed consent—were blatantly ignored in this exercise. Digital vaccine passports were conceived as a convenient Covid management tool. However, they soon became a tool of bio-medical racism and violation of privacy and individual liberty.
While most intellectuals capitulated to groupthink and dogma, some rebelled against it. “The idea that everybody needs to be vaccinated,” wrote Martin Kulldorff and Jay Bhattacharya in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “is as scientifically baseless as the idea that nobody does. Covid vaccines are essential for older, high-risk people and their caretakers and advisable for many others. But those who have been infected are already immune.”
Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, was primarily targeted by the media and Big Tech. Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff (a professor of Medicine at Harvard University), and Sunetra Gupta (a professor of theoretical epidemiology and the University of Oxford) published the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). In place of lockdowns and mass vaccination, the GBD proposed “focused protection” by which those with the most risk could be kept safe from severe illness and death.
This deviation from the “scientific consensus” did not sit well with the Science Gods. In an email to Tony Fauci dated 8 October 2020, the US National Institute of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins vilified the GBD as the work of “three fringe epidemiologists.” “There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of its premises,” Collins told Fauci in that email. “I don’t see anything like that online yet–is it underway?”
Bhattacharya and countless others were censored by the Silicon Valley Big Tech and Social Media companies such as Twitter, Google, and LinkedIn. YouTube took down the video of Bhattachary’s testimony to the US Congress. Twitter suspended Koka for sharing a link to a study on the risk of myocarditis among young men after receiving the mRNA vaccine. Social media users hounded India’s lawyer Prashant Bhushan for tweeting about natural immunity and the low risk of covid among children. Twitter also labeled his tweet “Misleading”. We all know that Bhushan’s tweet was a well-established scientific fact.
The recent Twitter Files exposures have confirmed that much of this censorship was committed under pressure from various agencies, including intelligence agencies of the United States government. In some cases, many former intelligence officers were embedded in these companies through gainful employment. Google, for example, employs 150 former members of the US Intelligence Community in several high-ranking positions. Unfortunately, the Government of India has awarded civilian honours to the CEOs of some of these companies.
There is a tendency among many educated Indians to “ape the West,” said Koka reflecting on the past two years’ events. “Social distancing,” “isolation,” and masks, which have no proven scientific benefits in Covid mitigation, were mindlessly implemented in India. Such “Covid appropriate behaviour” is almost impossible to implement in India’s densely populated hot climate. But the Indian police harassed, beat up, and fined mostly poor people for failing to adhere to these nonsensical protocols.
Children have always been the safest demographic group from severe illness and death from Covid. According to studies, children’s risk of death from Covid is 10,000 times less than that of someone 80. However, they have disproportionately faced the consequences of Covid public health policies. Their social, educational, and behavioral learning has been set back several years. Children were considered vectors of disease and threats to their elders for the first time in history. Also, for the first time, they were tasked with the physical, mental, and emotional burden of keeping their elders safe.
Medical science is not a one-size-fits-all intervention. As a society, we should be very wary of those individuals and institutions who advocate mandated universal mass solutions for individual health. Advocacy for interventions must be seen differently from science. People must be allowed to assess their risks and benefits and consent to treatment.
For the first time in its 114-year history, in 2020, the New Year’s Eve extravaganza in New York City’s Times Square was shut down for live audiences due to Covid restrictions. In the absence of a cheering, milling crowd, the Square looked like a ghost town. As we enter 2023 and watch the Times Square Ball drop, we must learn from our mistakes. We must also hold our public health intellectuals accountable.
The author is a JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign alumnus. He is a recipient of the San Francisco Press Club Journalistic Excellence Award in 2021 and 2022.