Remember in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” when the pig Snowball is whipping support for his plan to build a windmill, and his rival Napoleon sics a secret pack of dogs on him, “and he was seen no more”? Then Napoleon bans public debates, and “the sheep broke out into a tremendous bleating of ‘Four legs good, two legs bad!’ which went on for nearly a quarter of an hour and put an end to any chance of discussion.”
Similar is the intelligentsia’s recent reaction to two ER doctors’ public questioning of the official narrative about COVID-19. Far from merely refuting the doctors’ analysis in the public square—an exercise once considered a staple of civil society—the intelligentsia rushed to condemn, vilify, and disappear them from the agora.
In remarks uploaded to YouTube in April, Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi questioned the conventional wisdom about the coronavirus pandemic. They offered an alternative perspective to what government and medical officials were claiming about the virus’s spread and about how to contain it.
The point is not whether Erickson and Massihi are factually right. It is not even about their moral right to express a divergent viewpoint. The point is that our society’s capacity for civil discourse has atrophied so far that we regard alternative viewpoints as attacks on the herd.
Five out of five doctors agree: obey Alpha. There can be no open minds on Animal Farm. Any deviation from the “conventional wisdom” gets you labeled a lunatic or a heretic. If you disagree, we’ll crucify you and trust YouTube to hide your grave. You do not want to be a COVID-19 denier, because it could ruin your career.
The doctors based their analysis on their experience testing more than 5,000 patients for COVID-19. They determined that only 7 percent tested positive, so they questioned why their community needed to shut down.
Erickson and Massihi also weighed in on herd immunity. They basically asked, “Might we be doing more harm than good by isolating ourselves?” After all, herd immunity is the basis for populations becoming tolerant to pathogens in an environment. Exposure develops resistance.
Their questions and opinions were considered too dangerous for the public safety. A few days later, after the footage went viral, YouTube removed it, stating,
We quickly remove flagged content that violate [sic] our Community Guidelines, including content that explicitly disputes the efficacy of local healthy [sic] authority recommended [sic] guidance on social distancing that may lead others to act against that guidance [a local ABC affiliate station reported]. However, content that provides sufficient educational, documentary, scientific or artistic (EDSA) context is allowed — for example, news coverage of this interview with additional context. From the very beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and are committed to continue providing timely and helpful information at this critical time.
There it is, in YouTube’s own words: Erickson and Massihi violated the Community Guidelines by vocalizing doubts that the local “authority” had issued the right guidance. People who hear them might misbehave. Their divergent ideas are misinformation—not because of their medical merits or demerits, but simply because they are divergent.
As though embarrassed that YouTube’s rationale is pure Orwell, in the days since the video’s removal, experts of all varieties have produced statements ostensibly aimed at debunking Erickson and Massihi’s analysis on its merits.
Erickson and Massihi invited such dialogue by speaking publicly. Dialogue was the point. But like Napoleon’s attack dogs, the intelligentsia has not merely disputed Erickson and Massihi’s analysis; at least two organizations have attacked them as mercenary:
The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM) jointly and emphatically condemn the recent opinions released by Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi. These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.
So, to ACEP and AAEM, Erickson and Massihi are not just factually wrong—they are deliberately lying to the public to get rich.
If Erickson and Massihi are wrong, as they seem to be about at least some things, they’re in good company: How many times since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have elected officials, appointed bureaucrats, and medical advisors to the president and to governors revised their own opinions and guidance? Are they all Judases, too? How many tries do they get?
Well-meaning people are doing their best to devise a way out of this pandemic, but no one knows the right answer—certainly not the intelligentsia or the government. If they did, the headline two weeks ago would not be that Erickson and Massihi had an idea, but that the United States beat the coronavirus.
This is uncharted territory. Policies aimed at “starving” the virus by quarantining individuals at home may work, but we don’t know. Medications developed to treat the infected may work; again no one knows. Is it so outrageous to suggest that an open mind might help us beat COVID-19? In fact, public discussion and experimentation of ideas is absolutely required for progress in medicine.
Citing a deeply flawed study of patients at a Veterans Administration hospital in Virginia, for example, the intelligentsia have also argued that chloroquine is not approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration for COVID-19 and should be used sparingly, if at all. That logic has prompted Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak to practice medicine without a license by prohibiting doctors from using chloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients.
These critics fail to consider the condition of the patients who received the drug, or when in their course of treatment they received it. For example, if you gave Tamiflu to an elderly patient late in the course of influenza, it would not cure them, and then one might conclude erroneously that the drug was not worthwhile.
Moreover, those who balk at using chloroquine for a use not specifically approved by FDA are balking at a commonplace medical technique. Medical circles call this “off-label” drug use, and it is routine. Most drugs used in pediatrics have not received FDA approval, yet we use them because they work and are safe.
We leave these decisions up to doctors and their patients. This works in medicine because doctors and patients are still relatively free to weigh the benefits against the risks. This works because doctors and patients are (for the moment) free to hear opposing viewpoints.
This works because, and only because, we are not all sheep. At least, not yet.