This November, Boston will host the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, the largest public health conference in the world. Past meetings have drawn more than 12,000 attendees. The event will feature hundreds of sessions and thousands of presentations. Yet one scheduled talk, by Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst and frequent pundit, professor of health policy at George Washington University, and former president of Planned Parenthood, has caused an uproar. This week some members released a public letter, now signed by more than 500 people, that seeks to have her banned from speaking at the meeting.
The list of grievances against Wen — together with the demand that her invitation to speak be rescinded — exposes a strain of thought among a section of the public health field that is wildly out of touch with the values of most of the American public. It is also indicative of why at least some parts of the public health establishment have lost the confidence of so many regular people.
Wen is referred to as “unscientific” for suggesting, this spring, that vaccinated people should be able to return to a pre-pandemic normal. She is called “unethical” for largely agreeing with the new guidance for schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which relaxed restrictions on distancing, masks, and automatic quarantine after the agency weighed the harms of such interventions against the fact that today COVID-19 poses a far lesser threat than it did earlier in the pandemic. She is chided for mentioning learning loss as an issue of concern related to keeping kids out of school. And, among still other complaints, Wen is accused of being “fatphobic” for saying that eating doughnuts every day is not healthy.
The letter calls for Wen to be replaced by someone whose work is “consistent with anti-racist” and “anti-eugenicist” public health practices. (Wen declined to comment when I reached her this week.)
The letter reads like a parody of woke righteousness. Yet it has been signed by epidemiologists, physicians, researchers, administrators, and PhD candidates and postdocs in public health, at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, and Emory, among other institutions.
Is the public expected to take seriously the assertion that echoing the CDC’s guidance is outside the parameters of acceptable academic discourse? There is an unreality to the positions espoused in the letter, and it’s deeply troubling that many of the signers are in positions to influence public policy.
Until her recent pivot to moderation that has so angered her detractors, Wen was, from my perspective, an extremist whose views related to the pandemic often were flat wrong. For a while she favored maximizing restrictions and an authoritarian, punitive approach to anyone unvaccinated. In the fall of 2021, she said unvaccinated people shouldn’t be allowed to leave their homes and likened them to drunk drivers. But in the main, this debacle has less to do with Wen or her views, specifically, and more to do with the culture that spawned the letter. Deplatforming 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 attempt at cancellation is being perpetrated by scientists and academics is all the more disheartening, as some dissenters within the field have pointed out.
You can disagree with @DrLeanaWen on her stances on opening schools or mask mandates, but connecting her to eugenics in an effort to get her cancelled from the @PublicHealth annual meeting is morally reprehensible. I cant believe people signed this. https://t.co/Otu7YLtpeg pic.twitter.com/3lRV7gonhB— Eric Widera, MD 🇺🇦 (@EWidera) August 16, 2022
A through 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 more medically vulnerable people. The letter characterizes her positions as contrary to the philosophy of public health. “We are not a field driven by individual risk and medicalization; our mission is to uphold the public’s health and collective well-being . . . towards health equity,” the letter states. Yet while this may be accurate in the abstract, as a specific charge against some of Wen’s positions, it is a pretense. It derives from the hubris that the letter signers’ values necessarily match those of everyone perceived to be at higher risk of bad outcomes from the virus — and that the authors ought to dictate to their colleagues and the rest of us which tradeoffs society should make in dealing with COVID.
During the pandemic, as a writer often critical of the mitigations imposed on children and shortcomings of the evidence behind some COVID-related policies, I have been contacted by numerous parents of children with medical frailties, from those with cancer to organ transplant recipients, who, through their own value judgments, nevertheless have wanted their children to be in school, and without being compelled to wear masks. Not everyone, including those more medically fragile and their caregivers, sees maximizing risk aversion as the primary goal. Good health — on a personal and public level — requires the recognition that an out-of-balance attempt to avoid a single harm creates its own harms. Different people, be they regular citizens or those within the public health and medical professions, are going to disagree about what policies are best or most reasonable. This should go without saying, but, alas, it needs to be said: A variety of opinions should be encouraged, particularly among colleagues who seek to influence those in power who decide policies that affect us all.
To argue that some of Wen’s views — which mirror current CDC guidelines and the approaches of numerous European nations — are so unethical and outlandish that Wen herself should be prevented from presenting at a conference of her peers reveals a segment of the public health profession to be divorced from common value systems. It is a bit rich that Wen is due to speak on a panel about weathering “backlash against public health.”
One positive note is that the American Public Health Association has not yielded to the letter and its campaigners’ demands. When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the APHA told me the following: “Public health has a history of healthy dialogue and disagreement. Finding the common ground in these discussions is how we move the needle forward toward creating healthy people in healthy communities. We value vigorous debate about public health and support a respectful and fact-based discussion.”
Hopefully, all APHA members will heed the wisdom of the organization’s stance.
David Zweig, a writer in New York, is the author of the forthcoming book “An Abundance of Caution.” Follow him on Twitter @davidzweig.