Published 4 May 2021
In 1915, chemistry lost its innocence when mustard gas poisoned British troops in Ypres, Belgium. Physics lost its innocence in 1945 amongst the radioactive rubble of Hiroshima, Japan. Public health lost its innocence in March 2020 when the world adopted lockdowns as a primary tool to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea of lockdown was simple and beguiling – if we reduced all human contact to an absolute minimum, the virus would not spread, and our hospitals would not be overwhelmed.
However, the reality proved to be much more complicated and, indeed, much more harmful as governments sought to show how much they care about the mortality risks from COVID-19 at the expense of so many others.
What, in truth, does it take to minimize human contact? We found out this past year that it requires:
In other words, it takes the wholehearted embrace of panic as a public health strategy. The scope of these effects is even more wide-ranging than those of poison gas or the nuclear bomb in war.
The Collateral Global project aims to evaluate scientific evidence concerning the consequences of lockdowns on humanity. Our goal is to bring this evidence to life so that everyone, no matter their background, can understand what the science and data are saying. Along the way, we will use individual stories to illustrate these findings. While some of these accounts will be harrowing descriptions of suffering and loss, we will also tell stories of resilience and hope. As with war, not everything that came out of lockdown was bad and our reporting will reflect that truth. Indeed, some amazing opportunities have arisen out of the crisis and the policy responses, such as more opportunities to work from home, and we will document those as well.
Aside from myself, Collateral Global’s primary scientific advisors include Professor Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford and Professor Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University. Since we are also the coauthors of the Great Barrington Declaration, it is natural to imagine that we might slant our coverage and paint lockdown in an unjustifiably negative light. However, before we entered the COVID-19 lockdown fray, we were scientists who devoted our lives to scientific truth. That fact has not changed. We want the evidence to guide our story, not the other way around. Just as we are willing to change our minds when better evidence comes along, we hope others will do likewise.
To that end, Collateral Global will be a collaborative project, inviting experts and leaders from the scientific, legal, economic, and cultural communities to join and advise us on the topics we cover. The scope of lockdown effects is so broad—touching on nearly every aspect of life– that we must involve many people with expertise in many domains. That is the only way to do the topic justice.
The work we aim to produce will be as complete a portrait as possible of the effects of lockdown in all its diverse manifestations.
Science has been a force for so much good in the world but, like every human institution, it can be a mixed blessing. We are grateful for the discoveries of physics and chemistry that made human life better for so many, despite our knowledge of their destructive capacity, which our grandparents and parents did not have in 1914 and 1944.
That same awareness applies to public health in 2021. We know that it can improve human health and longevity but are also now acutely aware of its potential for devastation. Public health’s innocence is lost, but it can still be a force for great good in its maturity, if only we can better understand how to contain the danger.
* * *
Jay Bhattacharya is a professor of medicine at Stanford University and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is the director of Stanford’s Center for Demography and Economics of Health and Aging, and he serves as Collateral Global’s Editor-in-Chief.