Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew: Discussing Covid-19 Expertise

I discuss Covid-19 expertise.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

lukasz_gl/Pixabay
Source: lukasz_gl/Pixabay

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a wave of panic. People have been panic buying not just gloves, face masks, hand sanitizers, and cleaning products, but also toilet papers, food, and many other items, a pattern that suggests people do not know what challenges lie ahead and doubt their governments will be willing or able to help.

Meanwhile, many of us have been looking for information on Covid-19 vaccines, while others are frightened of the side effects of such a vaccine, particularly if vaccination becomes mandatory. Still others are looking to purchase vast supplies of drugs rumored to be helpful in treating Covid-19, drugs like chloroquine, antiviral medications (remdesivir, favipiravir), and anything else they can get their hands on. 

During the past few months, well-known mental health professionals have commented on the uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus disease and the governments’ measures to contain the epidemic. For instance, Dr. Phil McGraw, a clinical psychologist and TV host, recently said, “We have people dying—45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents...but we don’t shut the country down for that. But yet we’re doing it for this?” And earlier, Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction specialist, said Covid-19 is “way less serious than influenza,” and is “a press-induced panic.”

Will the real Covid-19 expert stand up?

Why do we even listen to anybody else except Covid-19 experts? Because there are none. Even the highly educated and experienced Dr. Anthony Fauci is not a Covid-19 expert.

Public health and infectious disease experts have very limited knowledge about Covid-19 because this is a new coronavirus disease. Compared to research on seasonal flu, there have been very few quality studies conducted on Covid-19—its symptoms and course, transmission and spread, prevention, and treatment.

As London and Kimmelman suggest, in an article this month in Science, the quality of research on Covid-19 has been questionable. Nevertheless, our goals, they say, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, must be to “reduce uncertainty.”

Nevertheless, uncertainty remains. And many people have started to lose trust in government officials, scientists, and doctors. This is not surprising because authorities and experts have changed their recommendations or disagreed with each other—understandably enough, given that we are dealing with a new infectious disease.

For instance, even when the goal seems to be the same (i.e. flattening the curve), some scientists have taken different approaches. A case in point is Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist behind Sweden’s decision not to impose a lockdown or other strict policies—primary schools and many businesses remain open in Sweden. He has said: “Closedown, lockdown, closing borders—nothing has a historical scientific basis,” and “Closing borders, in my opinion, is ridiculous.

So, there is an empty gap in desperately needed knowledge and a lack of trust in traditional authorities.

But aside from panic, defensive denial, paranoia, and conspiracy theories, some segments of the public have shown a different reaction: trust in beloved media personalities, such as Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew.

Was it wrong of Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil, then, to say what they said, knowing the power they hold in guiding the actions of millions of individuals?

webentwicklerin/pixabay
Source: webentwicklerin/pixabay

Should we listen to Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew?

I do not know why Dr. Drew, who had at one point said the likelihood of dying from the virus was similar to “being hit by an asteroid,” continued to downplay the seriousness of Covid-19. He eventually apologized and admitted he had been wrong. Perhaps he had wanted to reduce the fear and uncertainty millions of individuals were feeling; however, he ended up going to the extremes and his actions may have added to the public’s anxiety and difficulty trusting major public health figures.

As for Dr. Phil, it seems he was concerned with the mental health consequences of the lockdown. Dr. Phil had said that there is a “tipping point...at which people start having enough problems in lockdown that it will actually create more destruction and actually more deaths across time than the actual virus will itself.”

Perhaps the problem with Dr. Phil’s comments is that he is implying he knows when the tipping point is reached. Or maybe there is a fear of his comments being misinterpreted or used as an excuse by groups of individuals who have been challenging the seriousness of coronavirus disease and thus social distancing, quarantine, and stay-at-home orders.

As mentioned earlier, a large portion of the population seems to have lost trust in the government. While one group of people are severely frightened (with some experiencing a significant worsening of their mental health issues) or think the situation is worse than they are being told, others are showing the opposite reaction and denying the seriousness of Covid-19 and defying government orders. The concern has been to get the second group to listen. The first group has slipped through the cracks.

As a mental health advocate, I believe we need more research on the mental health consequences of the pandemic, so we can make informed decisions about protecting people most vulnerable to the virus and most vulnerable to mental illness. As Harvard psychiatrist Roy Perlis says, “The first curve was the pandemic itself. But I’m concerned that the second curve that we need to flatten is the consequences of the pandemic in terms of the psychiatric fallout, which I think could be substantial.”

A paper, written by over two dozen authors and published in Lancet Psychiatry this month, also warned about the mental health consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. One of its authors explains, “Increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress and an economic downturn are a perfect storm to harm people's mental health and wellbeing.”

**The teaser image is by RubyGoes (Flickr) and licensed under CC BY 2.0.