“Public health is for the laptop class”
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, one of the three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, recently blocked me on Twitter. That is perfectly fine, and I do the same with people who annoy me. Though it’s important not to insulate yourself in a bubble, we all have the right to curate whom we allow in our lives.
Our final conversation began when he Tweeted that “Public health is for the laptop class”. Dr. Bhattacharya also linked to a video titled “The Catastrophic Failure of Lockdowns“, which was posted at The Epoch Times, a misinformation website linked with the new religious movement Falun Gong. You can’t make this stuff up. I stopped watching after about 30 seconds when he whinged because someone called him “fringe”. This seems to be the touchstone moment of the pandemic for him, the same way watching a healthy 23-year-old die during the first wave left a lasting impression on me.
While Dr. Bhattacharya’s Tweet didn’t specify which public health measures he opposes, as best as I can tell, the only such measure he supports is vaccinating older, vulnerable people. A core theme of his work is that aside from this, public health measures only help privileged people, whom he derides as the laptop class. To get an idea of who he means by the laptop class, picture a meticulously coiffed Stanford doctor who doesn’t see patients, but who has starred in a lot of YouTube videos. Someone who made a melodramatic production about asking his boss for a permission slip he never needed. Someone who’s worst experience this pandemic was being called “fringe”.
Maybe it’s because being called a name doesn’t sound all that bad, but Dr. Bhattacharya’s Tweet annoyed me. Nevertheless, I will agree with him on two points in this article. The first of these is that working class Americans who couldn’t isolate suffered much more than those who could. A recent study found that such workers died at 5 times the rate of wealthier Americans during 2020. As reported by a recent news article:
The staggering disparity was revealed in a study of roughly 69,000 U.S. coronavirus victims ages 25 to 64 who died in 2020.
Sadly, the virus didn’t know these younger workers were supposed to be “non-vulnerable”, as Dr. Bhattacharya claimed they were. It is a travesty more wasn’t done to protect them. However, instead of arguing for better protections for these workers, Dr. Bhattacharya’s solution to this disparity would have been to also expose “non-vulnerable” members of the laptop class. He apparently believes that bus drivers would have suffered less had more members of the laptop class also contracted COVID and that as morgues overflowed with bodies, only lockdowns kept the laptop class safe at home. I guess he thinks hedge fund managers wouldn’t have thought to isolate themselves.
Of course the laptop class didn’t need lockdowns to protect themselves. As Noah Louis-Ferdinand wrote,
An analysis from June of 2020 immediately looking back shows that mobility decreased massively before the lockdowns even started. There was no sharp decline once they set in, mobility increased throughout the lockdown, and it did not increase sharply once they were lifted. Similar graphs show a sharp mobility decline (albeit less steep) in Stockholm, Sweden right around the same time. Sweden never locked down.
If you doubt the privilege of the laptop class, consider that even though Dr. Bhattacharya instructed many others to “resume life as normal” before vaccines were available, he wisely managed to avoid the virus until August 2021 after he had been vaccinated.
Where do frontline healthcare workers fit into this rubric?
Beyond these issues, something important is missing in Dr. Bhattacharya’s claim that “Public health is for the laptop class”. Where do frontline healthcare workers fit into this rubric? The answer, of course, is we don’t. We are invisible to people like Dr. Bhattacharya. When frontline healthcare workers were loudly begging people to be more careful during the pandemic’s biggest surges, Dr. Bhattacharya was making self-pitying YouTube videos claiming he’d been “censored“. He’s never amplified the voices of frontline healthcare workers. When an emergency room doctor asked for his help, he declined (listen to this). Even though public health measures were found to have slowed the virus (here and here), the notion that they may have helped us didn’t occur to Dr. Bhattacharya. Beyond a perfunctory Tweet, we are invisible to him.
However, we didn’t feel public health measures were just for the laptop class. We wanted people to avoid the virus. Careless doctors had to apologize for their behavior, and a scene of young, wealthy people doing karaoke in a crowded bar in April 2020 would have infuriated us. We knew that a few of them could get really sick and they could easily pass the virus to a vulnerable person. As forklifts were needed to move corpses into giant refrigerated trucks, I didn’t hear anyone at my hospital lament that our jobs would be easier if only the laptop class was unrestrained by lockdowns so they too could get COVID. We knew that public health measures weren’t harmless, but they were needed to prevent our hospitals from being further overwhelmed.
Are frontline healthcare workers the laptop class?
So, does Dr. Bhattacharya think frontline healthcare workers are part of the laptop class? He certainly utters pleasant platitudes about us under duress. He told me:
The doctors and nurses who served at the front lines were heroes, many getting covid while taking care of patients. And then in 2021, public health turned on them with vaccine mandates. Many of these heroes were fired. Mr. Brain, please stop lying.
As with most things Dr. Bhattacharya says, this is false in pretty much every way. My name isn’t Mr. Brain, and very few of these “heroes” were fired. Most health systems lost 1-2% of their workforce due to vaccine-refusal, and I’m not aware of any evidence that this miniscule number was composed primarily of frontline doctors and nurses. Dr. Bhattacharya just made that part up.
It turns out that frontline heroes and their professional organizations supported vaccine mandates. They’ve existed our entire careers, and we are both used to and grateful for them. As Dr. Nicole Cifra put it:
None of my co-workers felt ‘turned on’ because of mandates. We felt supported.
I suspect frontline healthcare workers at Stanford feel the same way. Perhaps Dr. Bhattacharya can arrange a Zoom meeting with some of them.
“They definitely made my job harder and if anything, harmed my patients”
In contrast, I don’t know of any frontline heroes who felt supported by Dr. Bhattacharya and the Great Barrington Declaration. Do pediatric intensivists feel the authors of “The Ill-Advised Push to Vaccinate the Young” made life easier for them and their patients? I doubt it, especially considering over 1,000 children have died since that anti-vaccine essay was published exactly one year ago today.
I recently put my belief to the test when I asked on Twitter whether frontline healthcare workers felt supported by authors of the Great Barrington Declaration. “Are they your allies. Did they make your job easier? Did they help your patients?” I asked. I realize this is not a random sample, but exactly zero people answered that the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration supported them. They made it clear, often with colorful language, that it was sheltered, anti-vaccine doctors who “turned on” them. They felt their jobs would have been easier if doctors with enormous platforms were honest about the dangers of the virus and the benefits of the vaccine.
It’s sweet that Dr. Bhattacharya called us heroes, but this is just meaningless virtue signalling, a version of “thoughts and prayers”. If Dr. Bhattacharya wants to do something more for frontline heroes than utter empty words, he’d pause and listen. For example, pediatricians want their patients to be vaccinated. Dr. Bhattacharya hasn’t made a video with one of these heroes so they can share what it’s like to care for a sick child and present the evidence the vaccine can lessen these harms. Why not?
Instead of listening to frontline heroes, Dr. Bhattacharya has minimized the virus from the start and encouraged unvaccinated young people to contract it. This brings me to my second point of agreement with Dr. Bhattacharya. He was right that many healthcare workers contracted COVID while caring for patients. An estimated 115,000 of them died worldwide before the vaccine was available. However, as long as we weren’t “vulnerable”, this was what the Great Barrington Declaration was all about. Dr. Bhattacharya sympathizes with frontline heroes for getting a virus he hoped we would get. That’s weird, especially coming from someone who managed to avoid it for so long.
Though frontline heroes know that Dr. Bhattacharya and his ilk made their jobs much harder, even the most burnt-out healthcare worker knows others suffered more. We saw it all with our own eyes, not just from our laptops.