Public health is the meeting between medicine, science, and politics, wherein politician decide what will be the public health measures agreed upon. That doesn't keep them free from lobbying by public health experts with their own political agendas, and where else would one turn to find that but the New York Times, where John M Barry pontificates. The Times' bio states: John M. Barry is a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” You might think he's a doctor, or possibly an epidemiologist, but no, Mr Barry is an historian, an author, and somewhat of a political gadfly. He has no medical or public health credentials.
That explains why he so authoritatively gets so much wrong in his piece here within the NYT. We can debate herd immunity until the cows come home, and probably will, and I should say I'm skeptical that it will ever come in sufficient numbers but for a vaccine, though that is not to say that it cannot occur in numbers sufficient to slow an epidemic into what health authorities call instead an outbreak, and we should not scoff at the significant differences between the two nor their implications.
Mr Barry, apparently not privy to COVID-19 mortality rates dropping throughout the world, cites numbers from an IHME which has yet to score an accurate prediction during this pandemic, in crafting his admittedly scary mortality rate prognoses. Even with increased outbreak we have no reason to believe his mortality numbers will be accurate just from what we're seeing in hospitals today. Needing some medical terminology to bolster his case for horrendous side effects to contracting COVID-19, he trots out "encephalitis lethargica," probably because he wrote a book on the great flu pandemic of the early twentieth century, but he omits the fact that there never has been, nor exists today, any kind of authoritative link between influenza and encephalitis lethargica. The encephalitis lethargica outbreak of the early twentieth century remains one of the great medical mysteries yet today. Needless to say, irrelevant to the COVID-19 epidemic and its collateral damage.
Then come the whoppers, now that he's established himself as sufficiently informed and concerned, apparently presaging what would happen under a Biden administration. After assuring the reader that no one now proposes "the kind of large, general lockdown that began in March", without explaining why not, if it worked, he says, rather disingenuously:
"Is there an alternative? There was once a simple one, which the vast majority of public health experts urged for months: social distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, washing hands and a robust contact tracing system, with support for those who are asked to self-quarantine and for selected closures when and where necessary."
Most good lies have an element of truth within them, and Barry's is no exception. In fact, a lot of people, and a lot of public health officials, advocated for social distancing (a new term for an old practice), washing hands, and the self-quarantining of those most at-risk to the novel virus. Shutting the economy down and rigorous contact tracing was viewed as unworkable by those people, and rightly so, but lockdown proponents, and now herd immunity skeptics such as Professor Barry, elide the point that those policies were specifically rejected as insufficient by blue state governors and their public health flacks, instead choosing to democratize the virus, keeping everyone at home instead of those most at-risk. We yet await their "robust contract tracing" plans confrontation with the American concept of liberty, though in fairness, there never was any such plan proposed so obvious was its failure to come. The states Barry points to with pride are the very states which mandated COVID-19 patients be admitted to nursing homes without discrimination. Discrimination is that thing you do when comparing people who've acquired a deadly virus to those who have not when you seek to keep them apart.
His final salvo at the president, for this is nothing to do with herd immunity, a subject Barry knows little about, rather than an assertion the president has somehow botched the epidemic, is to list examples of nations the president should have emulated. It must have taken great restraint on his part to leave China off his list, but you know, they're a bit too authoritarian even for the pages of the NYT, which is to say, they're not authoritarian, they're totalitarian. We cannot be South Korea, Japan, or Australia, he asserts, feeling no need to mention each followed a radically different plan from the other two in combating the pandemic, but maybe we can be Canada or Germany, bona fide success stories. What Professor Barry needs is a subscription to a good newspaper, the NYT apparently not getting the job done for him, because Germany is currently having a major outbreak, after doing all those things Barry said they should do, and none of the things he said they should not do. (The good news is that mortality rates remain low.) Japan didn't lock down at all, while Korea did so only regionally, and small regions at that, and nowhere in the world has the great COVID-19 school outbreak taken place, regardless of prior policies.
Professor Barry is a political flack trying to make hay off what no one can know will work or not work, by misrepresenting a president's hope it will work as being an assertion it will work, when no one knows whether it will or not, and won't know for some time. And the irony to it all is, he proposes exactly those policies which the opponents of lockdowns and other heavy-handed government intervention said we should do in the first place. Is he angling for a position within a Biden administration? Because, if so, he'd fit right in that Alice in Wonderland scenario.
Could there be any other paper more apropos to Mark Twain's assertion, “If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.”?