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Dr David Tuller: Another Excellent Read on Long Covid, ME/CFS and Medically Unexplained Symptoms


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Trial By Error: Another Excellent Read on Long Covid, ME/CFS and Medically Unexplained Symptoms
20 March 2021 by David Tuller Leave a Comment

By David Tuller, DrPH
In a post earlier this week, I noted some differences in the tenor of the debate over Long Covid in the US and UK. Yesterday, another excellent and in-depth piece on the issues appeared on the domestic front, this time in VICE. The author, Alan Levinovitz, is associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University in Virginia. (School motto, according to Wikipedia: “Knowledge is Liberty.”) Besides religion, Levinovitz writes on a lot of other interesting topics, like science and belief systems and how they intersect. Last year, he published Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws and Flawed Science. (It’s a good book.)

When the VICE article–“The Medical System Should Have Been Prepared for Long COVID”–popped up on my screen, it had slipped my mind that Levinovitz had contacted me some months ago. I still don’t recall our conversation in great detail, except that he seemed smart and engaged and appeared to be taking ME/CFS and the possible links to Long Covid seriously.
Well, I’m really glad I talked with him. He’s done his research. January’s New York Times Magazine article and other recent pieces explored some of the complicated overlaps between ME/CFS and Long Covid. Now Levinovitz has taken the matter a step further, asking why we don’t know more about post-viral illness in general. His answer, in part, is the long-standing neglect of ME/CFS. This is not news to those involved in the issue. But it is gratifying that a sharp outside observer has weighed the available information and come to the same conclusion.

I sent Levinovitz a message yesterday asking him what drew his interest in covering the issue. Here’s what he wrote:

I was drawn to the topic because I’ve been interested in the intersection of medicine and belief for a long time, especially psychogenic illness, mass hysteria, placebo and nocebo effects. When I saw what was happening with long Covid it immediately connected to these interests, and I saw a reflexive tendency to classify it as psychogenic.
So then I became curious: Is it psychogenic? And if it were, how would we know? That second question, it turned out, was very hard to answer, in part because the medical community doesn’t have a good way of answering it. Vice was willing to give me the space I needed to unpack these really complicated issues in a way that did them justice.

When I read thoughtful stories like the one in VICE, I don’t expect to agree with everything. I can usually find a point I might have expressed differently or a quote that doesn’t resonate with me, or maybe I would have interviewed those folks instead of these ones. But that’s ok