An absurd and disturbing cancellation campaign in public health
Wen is called “unscientific” for to suggest, this spring, that vaccinated people should be able to return to a pre-pandemic normal. It is labeled as “unethical” for the most part to agree with new guidelines for schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which eased restrictions on distancing, masks and self-quarantine after the agency weighed the harms of such interventions against the fact that today Today COVID-19 poses a far lesser threat than it did earlier in the pandemic. She is chastised for mentioning learning loss as a concerning issue with keeping children out of school. And, among other complaints, Wen is accused of being “fatphobic” for saying that eat donuts every day is not healthy.
The letter calls for Wen to be replaced with someone whose work is “consistent with anti-racist” and “anti-eugenics” public health practices. (Wen declined to comment when I reached out to her this week.)
The letter reads like a parody of Woke Justice. Yet it has been signed by epidemiologists, doctors, researchers, administrators, doctoral students and post-docs in public health, at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley and Emory, among other institutions.
Is the public supposed to take seriously the claim that echoing CDC guidelines is outside the parameters of acceptable academic discourse? There is an unreality to the positions taken in the letter, and it is deeply troubling that many of the signatories are in a position to influence public policy.
Until his recent turn to moderation that so angered his critics, Wen was, in my view, an extremist whose pandemic-related views were often downright wrong. For a time, she favored maximizing restrictions and a heavy-handed, punitive approach to anyone unvaccinated. In the fall of 2021, she said unvaccinated people should not be allowed to leave their homes and compared them to drunk drivers. But overall, this debacle has less to do with Wen or his opinions, specifically, and more to do with the culture that spawned the letter. Misrepresenting speakers, refusing to hear views that differ from one’s own, and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to demonize those with whom one disagrees, is an intellectually bankrupt way for anyone to conduct themselves. That the attempted cancellation is perpetrated by scientists and academics is all the more discouraging given that some dissidents in the field have sharp out.
A straight line in the letter is that Wen’s views are unethical because they prioritize individual rights over those of the public and, in particular, those of the most medically vulnerable. . The letter calls his positions contrary to the philosophy of public health. “We are not a field driven by individual risk and medicalization; our mission is to maintain public health and collective well-being. . . towards health equity,” the letter reads. Yet, while this may be accurate in the abstract, as a specific accusation against some of Wen’s positions, it is a pretense. It stems from hubris that the values of the signatories of the letter necessarily match those of all who are perceived to be at greater risk of poor outcomes from the virus – and which the authors should dictate to their colleagues and the rest of us. we the compromises society should make in the face of COVID.
During the pandemic, as a writer often critical of the mitigation measures imposed on children and the evidence gaps behind certain COVID-related policies, I have been contacted by many parents of children with medical frailties, from those patients with cancer to organ transplant recipients, who, through their own value judgments, nevertheless wanted their children to be in school, and without being forced to wear masks. Not everyone, including the most medically fragile people and their caregivers, views maximizing risk aversion as the primary goal. Good health – on a personal and public level – requires the recognition that an unbalanced attempt to avoid a single harm creates its own harm. Different people, from ordinary citizens to public health and medical professionals, will disagree about which policies are best or most reasonable. This should go without saying, but, alas, it must be said: a diversity of opinion must be encouraged, especially among colleagues who seek to influence those in power who decide policies that affect us all.
Claiming that some of Wen’s opinions — which reflect current CDC guidelines and the approaches of many European countries — are so unethical and outlandish that Wen herself should be barred from presenting at a conference of her peers, reveals a segment of the public health profession to be separated from common value systems. It’s a bit rich that Wen has to speak at a panel on resisting “backlash against public health.”
On the positive side, the American Public Health Association did not give in to the letter and to the demands of its activists. When reached for comment, an APHA spokesperson told me the following: “Public health has a history of healthy dialogue and disagreement. Finding common ground in these discussions is how to move the needle towards creating healthy people in healthy communities. We value vigorous public health debate and support respectful, fact-based discussion.
Hopefully all APHA members will heed the wisdom of the organization’s position.
David Zweig, a writer in New York, is the author of the forthcoming book “An Abundance of Caution”. Follow him on Twitter @davidzweig.