The dangerous calls for ‘herd immunity’

In the early Spring, with much of southern Europe already sheltering in place to slow the growing spread of the novel coronavirus, some politicians and commentators, almost exclusively on the political right, were already beginning to push the theory of ‘herd immunity’ as a possible solution to the growing crisis.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, before being hospitalized himself after becoming infected, seemed to advance this idea, saying at the time, “one of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population.”

Soon after the U.K.’s prime minister said this, a series of large public events went forward in the country despite dire warnings from public health experts. As many expected, cases, hospitalizations and deaths shot up until a national lockdown was imposed on March 26th, which unfortunately was not soon enough to prevent the country from having the highest death toll in Europe, even after lowering the count.

The way the theory continues to be taken seriously by many in the western media, while most of Europe and North America are now facing second waves of infection, defies reason. Until recently, herd immunity was most commonly used to describe the situation after a large enough part of a population has been vaccinated against an illness, something that’s likely still many months away at best in terms of Covid 19.

Arguing, as some are, that herd immunity, which is more properly called “the herd threshold theorem” when used this way is a mitigation strategy by which a population becomes immune by letting the disease rip through the community until a magic (and unknown) number of infections are produced, is really just demanding more sacrifice on part of those that have already and will continue to be most impacted by it.

At its core, ‘herd immunity’ is a call for large numbers of the aged, the marginalized, the poor and the disabled to be sacrificed for a return to ‘normalcy’. It’s libertarianism pushed to its limits, proving this school of thought is merely barbarism masquerading as a philosophy.

Those calling for it, including the signatories to the (Charles Koch funded) American Institute for Economic Research’s Great Barrington Declaration, ignore the possible impacts of what is coming to be called ‘long covid’, in which patients who have recovered from the main illness continue to suffer from problems like shortness of breath and chronic fatigue months later.

As Carl Pope recently wrote on Salon looking at the theory as a derivative form of the social Darwinism at the heart of modern conservative philosophy, “Those who die are the “weak” — the poorest, the youngest and the oldest — or can, at any rate, be classified as weak and deserving to die, because they died. Survival of the fittest requires discarding the weak.”

Those pushing the Declaration also seem to have failed to consider the fact that there are now a small number of people who’ve contracted the disease twice. Advocating the herd immunity theory knowing this seems not just cruel but stupid.

It’s a mystery why so many people who demand to be taken seriously can’t grasp what even small children know: when one gets a cold, which is sometimes caused by a different coronavirus, it doesn’t mean that they will never catch a cold again. Assuming that herd immunity is inevitable is pretty wishful thinking, the current U.S. president’s protestations about “his immunity” aside.

In order to bolster their inhumane argument, the right has landed on, of all places, Sweden as proof of concept, ignoring what makes the country’s experience unique, overstating the idea that a herd immunity strategy is a consensus point of view there and failing to point out the almost 6,000 deaths in a country of less than 11 million that point to anything but a successful intervention.

At the same time, as reported by Gretchen Vogel for the magazine Science, a lot of the narrative surrounding Sweden talking up the concept of herd immunity exaggerates the degree to which its government, led by the center left Social Democrats, and its citizens, actually dealt with the crisis, “Although stores and restaurants remained open, many Swedes stayed home, at rates similar to their European neighbors, surveys and mobile phone data suggest. And the government did take some strict measures in late March, including bans on gatherings of more than 50 people and on nursing home visits.”

It’s also important to remember that, like any country, the circumstances in Sweden are unique, one factor that is not much mentioned by those championing the country’s supposed approach to mitigation is how many Swedes live alone, meaning one common place where people get infected, in their own households from those who either don’t or don’t know to quarantine, was not as much of a factor as in countries like Italy that still often have large intergenerational households.

As in many places, the disastrous handling of elder care facilities and elderly patients surely skewed Sweden’s numbers in a terrifying direction, as many who appeared at hospital complaining of symptoms were sent away to protect the system from being overrun.

As explained in Time magazine last week, “Many sick elderly were not seen by a doctor because the country’s hospitals were implementing a triage system that, according to a study published July 1 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, appeared to have factored in age and predicted prognosis… Only 13% of the elderly residents who died with COVID-19 during the spring received hospital care, according to preliminary statistics from the National Board of Health and Welfare released [in August].” (All links and emphasis as provided in the original article.
Nonetheless, the numbers are still alarming when compared to neighbors Norway (278 deaths) and Denmark (688 deaths), which had harsher lockdowns.

Even in economic terms, the lack of trade as borders closed meant that the country, which has a very export oriented economy, didn’t do much better than other EU countries and certainly can’t be described as some kind of economic miracle.

It’s bizarre to call Sweden’s experience a great success when there are so many other countries that could be pointed to as genuine success stories, from poorer nations like Rwanda to rich ones like South Korea and New Zealand, where the focus on testing and contact tracing and, to a lesser extent, widespread use of masks helped slow and even prevent the disease’s spread.

Even from a solely political perspective, the championing of Sweden by the right as a pandemic model is strange, especially considering how recently many of these same voices in Europe were hysterically warning about the country’s welcoming attitude towards Syrian refugees. Even over the long term the country’s welfare state has always been anathema to libertarians, who normally argue against the kind of trust in government that most Swedes seem to take for granted and that probably led more of the country’s citizens to follow the guidance of experts than in North America.

One of the most ludicrous things about the response of leaders like Trump, Johnson and other so-called populists to the pandemic has been the constant macho posturing and use of war metaphors to describe a public health crisis when what was required was sensible advice and a call to sacrifice to protect others, even when the sacrifice being made is something as small as wearing a mask when shopping.

As we’ve seen over decades with climate change, we are sure to begin to see actual experts like epidemiologists debating highly paid public speaking shills about herd immunity on cable news in the months ahead. The main difference being that the former has always been easier to ignore than the refrigerated trucks we might begin to see again in the streets of urban areas in Europe and North America this winter. Those pushing this theory, which has never really been tested because the costs have long been considered too high, are a danger to us all. Is it too much to ask that they aren’t offered the world’s biggest platforms to spew this kind of misinformation?

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