Obesity: COVID’s Third Rail
“Having obesity may triple the risk of hospitalization due to a COVID-19 infection,” the CDC has said. Obesity impairs the immune system, decreases lung capacity and reserve, and can make ventilation more difficult. As body mass index increases, so does the risk of death from COVID-19.
Last month the CDC reported that about 80 percent of those who are hospitalized or die in the U.S. because of COVID-19 are overweight or obese. If you contract the novel coronavirus, you have “50% more likelihood of dying,” a highly-regarded obesity researcher told the medical journal JAMA in an interview, saying his findings “really shook me.” Also in March, the World Obesity Federation reported that almost 90 percent of deaths with COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic were in countries where more than half of the population is classified as overweight. COVID death rates are 10 times higher in countries where most are overweight. That means you, America!
Yet you’ve probably read between zero and no articles in the popular media encouraging people to lose weight to reduce their COVID risk. Why? For various reasons, only some of which can be detailed here, it is essentially forbidden. If this article were made into a meme, it would probably violate Facebook’s vaunted “community standards.” (No joke: I actually did get a 30-day hitch for reposting a meme about obesity.)
Mind you, it hardly took COVID-19 to make overweight and obesity dangerous, or to make it a political third rail. The prevalence of U.S. obesity soared from 30.5 percent in 1999-2000 to 42.4 percent in 2017-2018, and the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7 percent to 9.2 percent. For black women, the obesity rate is a stunning 56.9 percent. Add in the overweight category and about two-thirds of Americans qualify, such that what was once called “normal weight” is now quite abnormal. This trend will continue, and the COVID-19 reaction has helped. Research shows Americans gained two pounds per month during lockdowns.
But the virus is hardly necessary in the killing process. According to the CDC, “Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer that are some of the leading causes of preventable, premature death. An assessment of 2014 health data conducted by researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and the New York University School of Medicine found obesity to be the top cause of preventable life-years lost. What part of “top cause” don’t you understand?
And fat’s not cheap. “The annual costs of being obese are approximately $4,879 for an obese woman and $2,646 for an obese man,” according to the Stop Obesity Alliance at George Washington University. “The costs for obese individuals are 15 times higher than total costs of overweight individuals, irrespective of gender and employment status,” it says.
In fact, “Forget Coronavirus, Obesity Is the Real Epidemic of the 21st Century,” declared the Jerusalem Post in January. After all, the U.S. is vaccinating more than 1 percent of its population each day against COVID-19 while there are no medical breakthroughs on the horizon for fatness. COVID-19 could have been an opportunity to raise awareness of the rising level of obesity and the need to effectively combat it. Instead, Krispy Kreme has received accolades for giving free daily doughnuts (perhaps the most caloric “food” ever invented) to vaccine recipients for the rest of the year. Never mind that at 190 calories, as one critic has noted, that amounts to about 15 pounds gained by year’s end.
It seems we’ve seen a backlash to linking COVID-19 to obesity without ever seeing the “lash.” Thus NBC News devoted a long print story shaming “fat shamers,” but provided no evidence that they even existed beyond an oblique reference to social media trolls.
“Fat acceptance” advocates for decades have tried to convince us that, despite mountains of evidence, either being fat is not unhealthy or that to the extent it is unhealthy that merely saying as much is actually worse. Yes, I do know that sounds like saying that advising smoking is bad because it just encourages more smoking, but it’s not an exaggeration. And it caters to an insidious foe, the desire for confirmation bias.
That’s why I devoted a whole chapter of my obesity book, The Fat of the Land, to debunking the “fat but fit” theory, and it’s still being debunked. “The idea that someone can be ‘fat and fit’ — that is, overweight but still healthy — has been around for some time. But don’t be fooled,” declared a publication of the Harvard Medical School last year.
Yet just in January Cosmopolitan published a whole issue devoted to women with various physical problems, but mostly obesity, using rotating covers. One of these displayed an obese black woman and declared in large letters “This is HEALTHY!” Another did likewise with a white woman. In fairness, there was some social media push back such as “Why is Cosmopolitan trying to kill obese people, who are particularly vulnerable to Covid?” and a few obscure articles. But nothing more.
Any article (or book) saying fatness is unhealthy is automatically dubbed “shaming,” and shaming we’re told is bad. Very, very, bad. Insert “weight shaming causes poorer health” into Google and you get an amazing 11,200,000 hits. Remarkably, a good number of those Google hits are opinion pieces from medical journals. “The latest science indicates that weight stigma can trigger physiological and behavioral changes linked to poor metabolic health and increased weight gain,” states one in BMC Medicine (BioMed Central) from 2018. Nowhere in the BMC Medicine blog does the word “calorie” or what a calorie measures, “energy,” appear. It appears that aside from “fat-shaming” causing people to become overweight and obese, the reason people get fat is some sort of black magic.
The very same thinking prevails regarding the obesity-COVID link, notwithstanding that even Saint Anthony Fauci has often made it. Declared a February 2021 article in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, “. . . questions remain about the quantitative risk of the association between fatness [and COVID].” It uses a common term in shame-shaming literature, “fatphobia.” That means if you disagree, you’re mentally ill.
“‘Unjust And Unethical’ Fatness Being Called A Risk Factor For Coronavirus – Kiwi Fat Studies Scholar,” is the headline of an article in a New Zealand commercial publication. “This insidious move of taking responsibility away from governments and putting it onto individuals [is ridiculous],” insists our scholar. “To say that your health is solely a matter of your own choice and your own personal responsibility, and therefore if you become ill or if you die, it’s your fault [doesn’t make sense].”
Yet shame has always been an effective tool in encouraging good behaviors and discouraging bad ones. I was a critic of the “Environmental Tobacco Smoke” pseudoscience (and was therefore accused of being paid by Big Tobacco), yet I’ll be the first to admit that it apparently served its purpose by shaming smokers in changing the message from “your smoking will kill you” to “your smoking will kill others.” The percentage of Americans smoking plummeted during and after the campaign, and I have no other explanation other than that “Smoking shaming” worked—an outcome I’m happy about, despite the underhanded method.
But smokers were much in the minority, whereas obese and overweight people are very much in the majority. Moreover, given that American journalists aren’t required to be fit like members of the military, there’s no reason to think that American journalists are any less fat than their target audience. They’re writing for themselves.
Given that success in today’s “journalism” means confirmation bias, just about anything you will read or see on obesity and being overweight will cater to our desire to believe individual responsibility plays no part. There have even been calls to eliminate use of BMI. “The BMI Is Racist And Useless,” says HuffPost. “The Racist and Problematic History of the Body Mass Index,” headlined Good Housekeeping. (It goes back to Nathan Bedford Forrest; who knew?)
Fatness has long been politicized, such as with Suzi Orbach’s 1978 bombshell Fat Is a Feminist Issue, notwithstanding that in the U.S. obesity is slightly more prevalent in men. And thus, with COVID-19 adding yet another obesity-related risk, we see that yet again we can blame politicians (from the opposing party), “conspiracy theorists” who don’t buy the official government line, and of course kids on spring break. But we cannot tell people “Please, try to lose some weight and here’s how.”
Last summer, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is probably more intelligent than his haircut would indicate, declared a “Better Health” campaign tying weight loss and simply healthier living to reducing COVID-19 risk. “If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus—as well as taking pressure off the NHS,” he said. So doing, he committed two mortal sins. First, he said being overweight was unhealthy in any context, and second he said that weight control involved individual responsibility.
Johnson’s effort was ripped by a blogger in BMJ, one of the farthest left of the generally far-left medical journal industry, who explained that the actual cause of weight gain is “social deprivation.” Which doesn’t exactly explain why the wealthiest countries tend to be the fattest countries, even as the whole world is getting fatter. Are we all somehow becoming more socially deprived, as opposed to, maybe eating too much of the wrong foods, and getting too little exercise?
All this rejection of individual responsibility, but we can be locked down for “15 days” into perpetuity, regardless of evidence whether lockdowns actually limit spread of the virus. We can be forced to wear masks and anti-socially distance or be arrested, fined, or at least accused of “killing granny.” But you see, that was all under government auspices. Sweden’s COVID-19 program, relying mostly on individual initiative, has become the most infamous government program since Josef Mengele took to heels. Yet Sweden’s death rate is in the middle of the pack for Europe.
In the collectivist Marxist mindset that prevails in public health (current director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, was a long-time member of Ethiopia’s ruling Marxist party [and accused of obtaining weapons for them] while his predecessor, Margaret Chan, being a high Chinese official, was presumably a member of the CCP) everything comes down to class struggle. There is no such thing as individual responsibility, and just as Lysenkoism dominated Soviet agriculture for decades, causing millions of famine deaths, obesity and COVID-19 and the connection between the two must be determined by politics and not science.
According to the WHO’s Adhanam regarding COVID-19, the real enemy isn’t that tiny piece of RNA, rather “I repeat this: we must be guided by solidarity, not stigma. The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other. We must stop stigma and hate!” Yet so saying he himself ran afoul of a report of the National Academy of Sciences that says the word “stigma” itself should be abandoned as—you may have guessed it—stigmatizing. Individual actions are never to blame; indeed, as the BMJ blogger “informed” us, in a sense there are no individual actions. Now we’re seeing that play out with fatness and COVID-19. Saving lives might be nice, but de-stigmatization appears to be the goal. In the Marxist dialectic, emphasizing personal responsibility doesn’t accomplish anything politically. Blaming society does.
Let’s just cut to the bottom line. You might think compassion regarding COVID-19 means reducing suffering and death, but you’re wrong. That’s the old public health paradigm established and perpetuated by Hippocrates, Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur, Walter Reed, and all those other dead white males. Whatever public health is today, it’s clearly no longer about the health of the public.
Michael Fumento is an author, journalist, and attorney who has specialized in disease hysterias for over 35 years. You can visit his website.