Why the “Herd Immunity” Strategy Was So Appealing
Last Wednesday, Politico shared internal emails from Paul Alexander, a top Trump appointee to the office of Health and Human Services, who, on July 4th, urged his bosses to adopt a “herd immunity” pandemic strategy (emphasis added):
“There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD… Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk….so we use them to develop herd…we want them infected…“
A spokesman for the HHS said that Alexander’s urging “absolutely did not” shape department strategy, and that may be true. But to say that the ideas he was pushing did not shape the overall strategy of significant parts of the federal government is demonstrably false. The message from the White House from the moment that we knew COVID-19 had reached our fair shores has been remarkably consistent: There is no problem, go about your business as usual.
Trump’s assortment of lackeys, acolytes, and toadies in both politics and media quickly picked up that self-same message and ran with it, disseminating it to the extent of their own reach.
There’s a reason, despite the strident warnings of the best infectious disease experts in the world, that the so-called “herd immunity” strategy was and is so appealing to a certain segment of the population. It basically means that they don’t have to do a damn thing.
Nothing hard is required of them or anyone they care about. It’s a path that places all of us at the (nonexistent) mercy of the virus, eschewing any sense of responsibility or culpability along the way.
This abomination of a strategy rests upon the idea that those who have decided to implement it, and those who willingly go along with it, will be insulated from its effects — and that those who take the brunt of it were expendable to begin with. Furthermore, it’s dependent on the premise that we already know everything we need to know about this virus, while simultaneously using the vast number of unknowns as shields against accountability.
And really, it’s so easy! All you have to do is practice a little “never mind.”
Never mind that there are real world consequences for real people. Never mind that, as this is a novel virus, we still don’t know what kind of long-term effects it can have. The ones we already know about are pretty alarming.
Never mind that it’s nearly impossible for the average at-risk person to adequately isolate themselves from this disease if it’s running rampant through the rest of the population.
Never mind that, while most people who become infected survive, a number of people become sick enough to require hospital care. Never mind that, even if we had enough hospital space for everyone, it still represents an untenable burden on our health care providers.
Never mind that, as being overweight is considered a risk factor for COVID-19, upwards of 40% of American adults are therefore classified as “at risk.”
Never mind that, even though the virus goes easier on kids, children by necessity must come into close, frequent contact with adults — some of whom are “at-risk” individuals.
Never mind that spreading the virus encourages it to mutate, thereby leading to a greater number of different strains… thereby making it more difficult to ultimately treat. Never mind that we have multiple confirmed cases of reinfection.
While we may not have gone whole hog for the misnamed “herd immunity” strategy here in the U.S., we’ve had enough people actively or passively pushing it that we’ve seen some of its effects, and they’re not pretty. Hundreds of thousands are dead. Many more are suffering from organ damage, nerve damage, and/or cardiovascular damage, some of which is occurring in ways we can’t yet treat or even understand.
The degree of permanence of this damage is unknown — it may take these people months or years to recover, if they ever can at all. What we know from our last major coronavirus outbreak, though, isn’t good. According to the WHO, studies have shown that in the aftermath of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003, there was “persistent and significant impairment of exercise capacity and health status in survivors of SARS over 24 months,” and that, “[h]ealth workers who had SARS experienced even more marked adverse impact.” Moreover, “40% of people recovering from SARS still had chronic fatigue symptoms 3.5 years after being diagnosed.”
And never mind that many of the people who are reporting long covid symptoms are among those who had “mild to moderate” cases. Never mind, too, that “mild to moderate” here doesn’t mean you’ve got the sniffles and a sore throat for the weekend. It only means that your case isn’t so bad as to warrant hospitalization.
Through indulging in this extensive game of “never mind,” active or passive proponents of so-called “natural herd immunity” have made things very difficult for anyone who does not want themselves or their loved ones to be numbered among the seriously ill or the dead. We get in the way, you see, of the “just go back to normal, everything will be fine” mentality, for the simple fact that, to the best of our respective abilities, we aren’t going back to normal. We’re staying home. We’re not eating out. We’re not going out.
This messes up the narrative, and so we must be punished for it. When we wear masks and keep our distance, we’re “weak” and “fearful.” If we ask others to do so, then we’re “selfish,” or “inconsiderate,” and need to mind our own business. If we pull our children out of school and keep them home, we’re perpetuating abuses against them. If we isolate from family members, we must want them to be lonely. If we stay home from church, then we must not be very faithful. And then, of course, even if we do as many of these things as we can, if we were to still catch it because we haven’t gone full hermit-in-the-woods, we know that the very people pointing and sneering at us will be first in line to tell us that it’s all our fault.
Do you see? Do you see how this “strategy” coarsens and degrades us as a people? How it encourages people to view those weaker than themselves not as fellow citizens worthy of protection, but as annoyances and inconveniences to be ignored or gotten rid of? Setting aside for a moment the appalling cost in lives and suffering that we have seen thus far, think about what it does to the souls of the people who have been pushing for such measures, and to those others who have chosen to trust that their leaders know what they’re doing.
It is, at its heart, “might makes right” as public health policy. That should give everyone pause.
A common complaint against virus mitigation measures is that we, as a free people, are not responsible for the health and well-being of those around us. This is true: we are not, no more than we as individuals are responsible for making sure that every other car on the road is in working order and has a competent driver.
But wearing a mask, washing your hands, and social distancing aren’t about being responsible for your neighbor’s health. They’re about doing your best to ensure that you yourself are not an active hazard to the people around you. And this, just like following the rules of the road when you’re behind the wheel of a vehicle, is your responsibility.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that there were 36,096 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2019. Those who wish to behave as though COVID-19 is no big deal will point to such statistics and tell you that we, as a people, engage in risky endeavors every day. Thus, going about our business during a pandemic is no different.
What they will fail to acknowledge, however, is the many rules and laws we have on the books to make something like driving as safe as possible. We have lines painted on the roads to designate who is to drive where and in what direction. We have signs, we have traffic lights, we have speed limits. We have laws against driving while impaired. We have seat belts and airbags and crumple zones and car seats.
Imagine for a moment that the United States saw a sudden, significant uptick in traffic fatalities because a group of people decided out of the clear blue that the rules no longer applied to them. Condemnation would be swift, vehement, and pervasive. Anyone positing the theory that those of us who wished to remain safe should just avoid the roads would be rightfully pilloried.
It may be true, broadly speaking, that a certain number of accidents due to things like human error and weather conditions are unavoidable. That doesn’t excuse anyone from making the situation more dangerous by conscious choice.
The same principle holds in this pandemic. The virus will do what nature programmed it to do: if it finds itself in a host, it will use that host’s cells to replicate itself. That’s what it does, and there’s nothing we can do about that. We cannot reprogram it, nor negotiate with it. We also can’t intimidate or bluster it into submission. What we can do, however, is to take certain basic steps to avoid becoming its vector.
This isn’t a call to be your brother’s keeper — it is a call to love your neighbor as yourself.
From a historical perspective, we as a people have had it amazingly good for longer than most of us have been alive. Our food comes from the store, our water comes from the tap, our garbage goes to the dump, and our waste gets flushed away. Our fabric is woven or knitted by machines, our homes are climate-controlled, and our transportation can span miles in minutes (or whole continents in a matter of hours). Our favorite artists can, via photos and recordings, entertain us at our whim. Medical conditions that were crippling or deadly in our grandparents’ lifetimes are now curable or manageable. Even our wars are fought far away, in places most of us rarely if ever think of.
In short, we are not, as a people, used to hard things happening to us, at least not on this sort of a scale. Even with vaccines on the way (which is amazing), we still have several months between now and their broad deployment. In that time, we need to do the hard things — many of which, from that same historical perspective, aren’t even that hard. And we do them because we care about those who are at higher risk than we ourselves are.
It’s what civilized people do.