TDF Ethics Scholar Dr. Julie Ponesse speaks with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya about science, public health, informed consent, trust and the future of COVID-19.
I spoke with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of health policy at Stanford University and director of the Centre on the Demography and Economics of Health and Aging, who has an MD and a PhD in economics. Dr. Bhattacharya’s research focuses on the health and well-being of vulnerable populations, with a particular emphasis on the role of government programs, biomedical innovation, and economics.
Dr. Bhattacharya co-authored the 2020 Great Barrington Declaration, which advocates for letting the COVID-19 virus spread in lower risk groups with the goal of reaching herd immunity while using focused protection the most vulnerable.
During our conversation, we discuss where we might be today had we followed the advice of the Great Barrington Declaration. Dr. Bhattacharya describes how the declaration is essentially the same plan that historically has been used to deal with respiratory pandemics and how the lockdowns have created excessive harm, in particular, to the more vulnerable, impoverished parts of the world, and has disproportionately affected the working class and children. From his perspective, the lockdowns actually extended the length of the pandemic, never acknowledged the inequalities in society and only protected the laptop class.
We touch on what it is to be an expert in the COVID era and the inherent conflict between science, a process of learning about the world that incorporates the free discussion of ideas and hypotheses, and public health, a body that acts as a higher authority, which requires unanimity of messaging to achieve its goals.
We discuss the concept of trust in both the scientific and public health fields. The violation of trust can cause extensive damage for the advancement of science and can drastically impede the public’s capacity to trust in public health advice again. Dr. Bhattacharya describes how public health has been using manipulation and has created outgroups to gain control over people. At the centre are the public health authorities and those who follow their advice, and on the edge are those who question the advice. He describes three different positions currently held in the US about the approaches taken during the pandemic and how there is one position that gives him hope and involves a few public health professionals doing some introspection on what went wrong.
In North America, there has been a hardening of positions and a relentless hold on the mainstream narrative, but in some European countries like Sweden and Norway, there has been an acknowledgement of poor decisions made.
We touch on the new California Assembly Bill 2098 that proposes to discipline physicians for spreading false information about COVID-19 and how Dr. Bhattacharya believes this bill could turn doctors into agents of state public health instead of advocates for their patients. Doctors have been afraid to treat their COVID-19 patients even with approved treatments for fear of being reprimanded and physician groups that had previously stood up for doctors are now suppressing them. We discuss the violation of informed consent in the patient-physician relationship and the use of coercion to achieve public health goals.
Dr. Bhattacharya gives his outlook on the future of COVID-19, which he believes is here to stay, and suggests the potential for two different kinds of societies depending on how public health reacts when faced with future waves.