Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, one character has ruffled more feathers than perhaps anyone else in the public health sphere. It's not Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who recently declared himself the symbol of scientific "integrity and truth." It's Leana Wen, the medical doctor, pundit, and COVID hawk-turned-COVID normalizer. Once the target of conservative outrage over COVID mandates, Wen is now being targeted by left-leaning public health advocates who oppose her insistence that COVID is endemic and we need to live with it.
In response to to Wen's advocacy, a petition is circulating online seeking to have her booted as a speaker from the 2022 American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting and likening her current public-health advice—she opposes mandates and emphasizes vaccines, personal risk reduction, and an attempt at cultivating normalcy—as one rooted in eugenics. "We are demanding our colleagues and fellow leaders in public health to reconsider and replace Dr. Wen with someone whose work is consistent with anti-racist, anti-eugenicist public health practices and community health," the letter reads.
The ordeal is a perfect example of how difficult it has become to have a normal discussion in a public forum about anything. I empathize deeply with anyone still anxious about the threat that the coronavirus poses to them, a legitimate fear for many people who are elderly, disabled, or immunocompromised. This isn't a hypothetical for me: I'm on a cocktail of immunosuppressants. COVID has been a weird and strange time. But Wen is not a eugenicist, and her ideas aren't either.
Consider some of the claims made by the displeased AHPA attendees. "Through her platform on news outlets and social media, Dr. Wen has promoted unscientific, unsafe, ableist, fatphobic, and unethical practices during the COVID-19 pandemic," reads the petition, which has been signed by over 600 public-health researchers, professors, students, and physicians.
To support the claim that Wen subscribes to views that are "unscientific," the petitioners point to a tweet from March of this year in which Wen noted that "everything has risk, and zero covid is not a viable strategy." That benign assertion is arguably scientific fact, recently touted by the head of the World Health Organization. Yet in this instance it's been deemed so unscientific and unsafe that it should preclude Wen from speaking in public.
That sort of weak reasoning pervades the rest of their claims. Wen is allegedly fatphobic because she suggests not eating a donut every day; she is ableist because she says people should make decisions based on personal risk tolerance; she is unethical because she agreed with the latest CDC guidelines. If someone is unfit for a public speaking engagement because she is in step with the nation's top public health agency—the one not exactly known for throwing caution to the wind, the one that seeks to police everything from how much wine you drink to how much meat you eat—then who, exactly, is safe to speak?
"In a recent article, Dr. Wen suggested that infection should be accepted as a 'new normal,'" the petition continues. This is meant to shock the conscience. In reality, it is, once again, the mainstream scientific consensus, repackaged as something that is not only unscientific but so nefarious as to be murderous. "The 2022 keynote is an opportunity for APHA, the foremost and largest public health organization in the United States, to reject the history of paternalism, eugenics, and racism and to begin rebuilding a relationship with the public we serve," they write. "The start of a new relationship with the public can and should start with us."
This is histrionic nonsense. Actual eugenicists in the U.S. sterilized racial minorities and the poor. California's eugenics experiment—which lasted into the 21st century—provided inspiration for Nazi Germany's program. The petitioners mock actual eugenics victims by comparing their abusers to someone who echoes the scientific consensus that COVID-19 is now endemic to the U.S. and cannot be fully eradicated.
It is hard to overstate just how benign Wen's positions are. She has called cloth face coverings "little more than facial decorations"—something that is indeed backed by science—and encourages people to wear high-quality masks (which protect the wearer) as they see fit. She also opposes mandates, arguing that they do not make sense in perpetuity. It's widely accepted now that they never made sense at all. While N95 masks work to mitigate spread, the data show that mask mandates decidedly did not, perhaps because wearing one from the host stand to the restaurant table, then removing it, could never suppress a highly contagious airborne virus. Though the APHA dissidents imply that Wen's stance is both unscientific and Darwinian, they do not reckon with the actual science nor do they lay out a scientific alternative to Wen's positions.
Such is often the case with censorship attempts. Instead of presenting a better idea, the goal is to make someone a pariah. It's easier. Who on earth wants to come to the table with a eugenicist?
Wen has been in the hot seat for the entirety of the pandemic. But it wasn't always this hot seat. The Washington Post columnist and CNN contributor once favored the mandates she now opposes, sometimes remarking that the unvaccinated should have fewer privileges in public life. It's a stance I very much disagree with. Now Wen does, too. What changed?
A panel she spoke on at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June provides a window. "How I think about risk has really evolved over the course of the pandemic," she said. "If there's one thing that I wish we had all done a better job of communicating right from the beginning, it's that change is to be expected. As in, the same things that we did in 2020, with the knowledge that we had in 2020, the tools that we had in 2020, are different than the tools that we have now….We're adapting to the circumstances." Those circumstances, in her view, included the initial hope that COVID-19 could be contained. But that was a pipe dream.
Her shift solidified with the advent of Omicron in December 2021, she noted, with its mild symptoms and high contagiousness. "We're all going to get COVID at some point," Wen said. "What am I willing to do to not get COVID? What am I willing to have my family do—in terms of not traveling, my 4-year-old still masking in school, not going to indoor play dates, all these things—what is the price we're willing to pay in order to avoid COVID?"
Put differently, she has been no stranger to backlash, some of it deserved and some of it not, though where those apply depends on the individual. Yet in a sort of cosmic irony, the APHA working group she is supposed to speak on is titled "Weathering the Storm: Countering Backlash Against Public Health." True to its name, the section is slated to delve into how people in the field deal with backlash; a copy of the schedule obtained by Reason shows Wen sharing her time slot with another controversial figure, Thomas Dobbs, the progressive medical doctor and Mississippi state health officer who was named in the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Wen will speak on "Harassment, bullying and death threats: Staying the course while under attack." In other words, the petition seeks to generate enough backlash against Wen to prevent her from speaking about how to deal with backlash. The jokes write themselves.
"Leana Wen is not a keynote speaker and is not being paid any sort of fee to participate in the APHA Annual Meeting and Expo," reads a statement from the APHA. In regards to Wen speaking on bullying, "this is something she and many other public health officials across the country have encountered at unprecedented levels in recent years, and that she is well-qualified to address." Indeed, the petition makes a strong case for her appearance.
But this letter is not just about a single conference and a single speaker. It's indicative of a larger trend, one where the loudest voices try to drown out opposition and speak on behalf of the collective. But being loud doesn't mean you speak for anyone; it just means you're loud. Consider a January Monmouth poll which found that 70 percent of Americans agree that "it's time we accept Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives"—the sentiment Wen shares, which has been branded too controversial for public consumption. Consider that a more recent poll by Morning Consult, taken in July, found that just 14 percent of Americans see COVID-19 as a "severe health risk." And consider APHA's motto: that they "champion the health of all people and all communities," not just a choice few.
The petitioners seeking to silence Wen don't speak for the majority of the public. They also don't speak for every vulnerable person mentioned in their letter, because they certainly don't speak for me.