Thérèse Soukar Chehade: COVID Wars 

  •   mactrunk

Published: 12/22/2020 2:05:32 PM

Last spring, at the start of the pandemic, Dr. Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist of Sweden, implemented an age-based approach that kept most of the country open in an effort to mitigate the virus without completely shutting down normal life.

This was very different from what was happening elsewhere in Europe, and the media went on the attack. I was baffled by the harsh criticism, which seemed driven by a strange and mean-spirited wish to see the country fail. If most Swedes supported their government’s approach, why were so many foreign journalists clamoring against it?

My friend, Dr. Martin Kulldorff, was born and raised in Sweden. He is a professor of medicine at Harvard, a biostatistician and an epidemiologist with expertise in detecting and monitoring infectious disease outbreaks and vaccine safety. He supports his birth country’s approach.

In the U.S., the response to the pandemic was rife with conflict from the start: on one side the lockdown, and on the other a hands-off approach, both quickly turning into orthodoxies with no hope for a middle road. It was fascinating to watch Kulldorff, a scientist with strong credentials and a wealth of experience, try to publish in the American mainstream media, to no avail: Dissenting opinions were shunted to the wilderness.

In April, “Spiked,” an internet magazine based in the U.K., picked up his article. Soon, there were more publications and interviews, most of them in the right-wing press. Lives were at stake and science transcended politics, Kulldorff thought, so he talked to anyone who would listen. It was somewhat expected that the right would embrace him. The left was closed off to his findings, while the right picked the parts it liked best.

Eventually, Kulldorff found other scientists who shared his views: Dr. Sunetra Gupta, professor at Oxford University, a world-renowned epidemiologist and an accomplished novelist; and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford University Medical School, epidemiologist and public health expert. They met in Great Barrington and authored the Great Barrington Declaration.

The recommendations listed in the Declaration are similar to those implemented in Sweden: offer focused protection for the elderly and people with compromised health and encourage the young and healthy to live as normally as possible while following measures like social distancing, hand washing, working from home when possible and avoiding public transportation and large gatherings. The approach is not about “letting it rip,” as Amy Goodman of Democracy Nowmischaracterized the plan when she interviewed him in October.

In keeping with public health principles of equity and care for all areas of health, not only those that are COVID-related, the trio drew attention to the following:

1) In its non-adaptive, one-size-fits-all approach, the lockdown severely exacerbated socioeconomic disparities by transferring the risk of infection to working-class people, who were conveniently dubbed “essential” and sent out to keep the rest of us afloat with necessities, while the non-medical professional class had the option of working from home;

2) The lockdown’s impact on physical and mental health was enormous, and its effects will be with us for a long time to come. This collateral damage, the scientists maintained, must be included in the overall assessment of the lockdown.

The declaration and its authors were attacked, not least from the scientific community, which was becoming as splintered as the rest of the country. But they also gained a sizable following. Their views are slowly beginning to appear in the mainstream press. New research confirms assertions they have been making all along: that immunity after infection is likely long-lasting, and that it is safe for children to return to school, a view now held by most scientists. I highly recommend watching the John Hopkins debate. How heartening it was to see, finally, a discussion that was both informative and civil! Comments from the audience expressed the same sentiment. A subsequent article in Scientific American emphasizes the importance of debate for the healthy functioning of society.

Had it not been for my personal connection with Kulldorff, and to a lesser degree with Gupta, with whom I share a common friend, I might have dismissed their claims. Sensitized by a climate of mistrust and animosity, I might have felt uncomfortable with the endorsement from the right and steered away. Fearing for my health, I would have willingly stayed in hiding until a vaccine made it safe for me to come out. But I am not alone in the world. The last few months have been hard on everyone. For some, they have been devastating.

I am not qualified to evaluate the best approach to the virus. But I’m listening, and a lot of what Kulldorff and his colleagues say resonates. I applaud their persistence in drawing back the veil of silence and demanding a seat at the table.

All qualified scientists of good faith should be asking questions, sharing their expertise and calling each other out on their blind spots in the spirit of collaboration and service to public health. That some of the best minds in the world have been excluded from the conversation because they strayed from the pack is incomprehensible. The shutdown of thought and healthy debate has been another casualty of the pandemic at a time when we need all the knowledge we can get.

Thérèse Soukar Chehade is an ESL teacher in Amherst and the author of “Loom,” winner of the 2011 Arab American Book Award in the fiction category. She lives in Granby.


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