By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Finally, the death threats have stopped.
For most of 2020 and until a new administration came in, Vin Gupta regularly received not only threats but even unmarked packages to his home.
Gupta, who is a leading health policy analyst for NBC and MSNBC, has always tried to remain apolitical. But when the networks made him fact checker for the Republican National Convention, it was very hard to be seen as anything but partisan.
“Actually, the whole of 2020 was that way…It was hard not to be perceived as political,” he said.
This was difficult because one of the keys to his success—besides his mentors—has been “staying in my own lane.”
This does not apply to other subjects though. When it comes to medicine and policy, Gupta is outspoken.
During an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly, Gupta offered several bold policy recommendations, including delicensing doctors who spread false information about Covid-19 and encouraging health authorities to come up with a unified definition of the purpose of vaccination.
Even though he is a few months shy of turning 39, the journey has been much longer, and less straightforward.
His parents were immigrants from India, his mother a neonatal intensive care doctor and his father a civil engineer. After she completed her training at several top medical schools, she found a job in Toledo, Ohio. But Gupta’s father was working in Long Island.
So the family split up. The marriage remained intact, but Gupta spent much of his early childhood raised by his mother.
“She did everything for my brother and me, and given how young we were and the nature of her demanding career, to do it largely by herself for years—that’s a tribute to her selflessness and unconditional love,” he said.
When his older brother went off to college, it was decided the father should quit his job and move to Ohio to help look after Gupta. Gupta was sent to Maumee Country Day School, a private school. But he was shy and introverted.
“I didn’t develop those communication skills early on. I don’t think I innately had those skills, I had to really work at it.
Even when he went to Princeton, he said he spent the first years simply putting one foot in front of the other to get the highest grades possible. He had chosen a hardcore science track, like his brother, who was shining at schools like Stanford. And although he did well, albeit not quite as well as his brother, something was missing.
It was not until he spent his junior year abroad, in South Africa, that he learned to start taking risks, he said.
The country was less than 10 years out of Apartheid, and everyone was taking about issues that would later come to dominate discussion here. He was also exposed to issues of global policy.
“The year away really helped provide perspective,” he said.
Still, after he graduated, he enrolled in medical school at Columbia. He was back on his original track. Or at least it seemed so.
For Indian immigrants like his parents, getting a stable paycheck, living in the suburbs, and keeping a low profile always seemed like the desired goal. And there was something about being a doctor that was almost sacred.
“The profession of medicine is hallowed, almost mythical in value, and put on a pedestal, especially among older generations of the South Asian diaspora,” he said.
But soon he was off in a new orbit again. Partway through medical school, he joined the Air Force, partially so he could be financially independent from his parents, but also for the experiences and new perspective.
“At the time, I had become interested in global politics and global health security, and this was at the time of SARS1, and I wanted to better understand care delivery in that continuum of crisis.”
He ended up spending a year in China at their Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Shanghai, on the heels of a prior year based in Uganda studying drug-resistant Malaria. After completing medical school and degrees in international relations at Cambridge and a master’s in public administration at Harvard, along with a half dozen other fellowships and appointments, he still has two years left out of his nine-year commitment as a reservist in the military.
He became what he describes as “cross sectoral,” meaning he can traverse multiple spheres and disciplines.
On a recent Rachel Maddow show, he was shown discussing how the Air Force transports patients critically ill with Covid-19 using battlefield aircraft.
But critics abound.
For Gupta, however, the hardest thing is being mindful of all the groups he represents. This includes the medical community, the University of Washington, and a number of companies he guides through medical protocol.
“You have to be mindful that when you’re overexposed to the media, any misstep can be a reputational disaster.”
Other doctors, including Indian doctors such as Sanjay Gupta, have created huge media platforms long before him, making it possible for him to find his reach.
“I’d like to think that those who have enabled whatever success I’ve had in this space, like Sanjay, have just really been responsible with the platform. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he’s been telling stories in an elegant and articulate way for so long that you come to implicitly trust him,” he said. “I have thought long and hard about what it is that makes for persuasion, what are the ingredients, what is that soup, that is vital for communication.”
That is why he becomes so frustrated with doctors that use their platforms to disseminate falsehoods. In fact, if he had his way, any doctor that is spreading misinformation about Covid-19 would be delicensed.
“Right now, there’s all this happy talk that we need to hold doctors accountable that are promoting bullsh*t,” he said. “And yet we’re not. They’re still able to go on and say all kinds of ridiculous nonsense about Ivermectin without the fear of losing their medical licenses.”
Ivermectin, the animal deworming agent that has been promoted falsely as a treatment for Covid-19, is not the only issue on Gupta’s radar. Even before the pandemic, he was challenging the Trump administration about its support for vaping.
Now, he believes the debate about booster shots reveals a fundamental disassociation between health authorities.
“Even this confusion around boosters has opened up this whole debate about frankly what is the purpose of vaccination,” he said. “Should we expect vaccinations to eliminate the risk of transmission of the virus and create a sterile environment? I think that’s crazy.”
A more traditional goal is for the vaccines “to keep you out of the hospital.”
But even on this basic point, there is no agreement.
“The fact that we don’t have clarity on that fundamental definition of why we get vaccinated is underpinning so much confusion.”
Such confusion contributes to a perception of authorities such as the CDC and the WHO offering conflicting advice.
“And this is really harmful because it suggests to the 35% to 40% of people who have yet to be vaccinated that we don’t have our act together or we’re hiding something or the vaccines don’t work,” he said.
“And this is going to happen again,” he said, in regards to a pandemic. “And we can’t allow it to happen again.”
This health series is made possible by funding from the Washington State Department of Health, which has no editorial input or oversight of this content.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.