This past summer, I discussed COVID-19 with two different kinds of people. The first wore a mask and stood no fewer than 10 feet away, warning me that “everyone is going to die by the end of the year.” The second told me they’d decided to stop wearing their mask to the grocery store since COVID-19 restrictions are “stupid.”
The divide between these two people has nothing to do with any belief (or lack thereof) in “COVID-19 science,” but stems instead from a fundamental clash of competing world-views. In fact, it’s the same liberal/conservative divide that occurs in virtually every other area of U.S. public policy. This is, in the words of Thomas Sowell, the debate over “whether, or to what extent, surrogate decision-makers can make better decisions than those directly transacting.”
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this question could be posed as follows: is it better to make top-down decisions based on the advice of “experts,” or should we instead let American citizens decide what is best for themselves? To answer this question, we will explore a term often ignored: herd immunity. Why has herd immunity been dismissed by some experts, and why do we place ultimate authority in the hands of some experts over others? By answering these questions, we can hope to understand why — like the two kinds of people I discussed above — we seem to be divided on the subject of our COVID-19 response.
Why is “herd immunity” so controversial?
In 2020, it seems impossible to utter the words “herd immunity” without facing a torrent of backlash and accusations of holding “unscientific” views.
For example, when Sweden announced their intention to implement a herd immunity approach as opposed to widespread lockdowns, they were lambasted by the general public, the media, and foreign leaders alike. This caused Foreign Minister Ann Linde to publicly deny that Sweden was pursuing herd immunity, despite government records obtained by journalists indicating that herd immunity was in fact the Swedish government’s explicit goal.
Detractors of Sweden’s approach point to the country’s relatively high death rate (17th per capita) and note the lower rates in neighboring Finland, Norway, and Denmark. But that’s just one side of the story. Other data suggest Sweden may have implemented one of the most successful pandemic strategies thus far.
Back in May, Sweden had the highest COVID-19 death rate (based on 7-day averages) of any country in the world and ranked 7th on the list of overall per capita death rate. But in the following months, Sweden’s daily death count steadily declined, in contrast to many of the countries embracing lockdown strategies. Now, Sweden sits at 17th, and despite previously having the highest death rate in the world, recorded only seven new COVID-19 deaths on October 27th, and just one death the day before.
Time will tell whether Sweden’s approach saved lives, but it appears the strategy may be working. Even the New York Times conceded last month that signs pointed to Sweden having the virus under control.
Swedish officials are not the only ones who have faced criticism for opposing the lockdown consensus. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to back down after initially deciding to pursue a herd immunity strategy, and White House pandemic advisor Scott Atlas was criticized harshly after apparently proposing the same strategy.
Yes, herd immunity is “scientific”
On October 4th, the most resounding endorsement for a herd immunity strategy came onto the scene in the form of the Great Barrington Declaration.
Three highly-credentialed epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, along with several co-signers, published a declaration favoring a “focused protection” or “herd immunity” approach to COVID-19. Schools would re-open, people would return to work, social activities would be permitted to function as normal, with the goal of allowing healthy, young people to build up herd immunity while increasing protections for the vulnerable.
The authors, hailing from Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford, emphasize that what they’re proposing is based in science. According to one author, Stanford University Medical School professor Jay Bhattacharya, the group is “not arguing for anything really novel.” Instead, they’re calling for the scientific community to return to “thinking holistically” about public health by responding to the various other urgent health crises the lockdowns have caused.
Earlier this year, for example, the CDC reported that one quarter of young adults contemplated suicide during the lockdowns and by the end of the year, drug overdose deaths may reach an all-time high. Doctors observed thousands of excess deaths this year from heart attacks, Alzheimers, dementia, and other diseases, and thousands more may die from missed and delayed cancer screenings. On top of health concerns, many are still suffering from the massive economic shutdowns which led to the highest U.S. unemployment rate since the Great Depression.
The Barrington proposal would mitigate the collateral damage by allowing society to return to normal life. The proposal would also mean that we were no longer forced to “hold out” for a vaccine. Vaccines are rarely developed in less than five years, and even if a vaccine does arrive in 2021, it could take an entire year to reach the whole population.
In short, the Barrington proposal is based on a cost-benefit analysis guided by COVID-19 science and U.S. health data.
Quashing the Great Barrington Declaration
We’re told over and over by certain politicians and members of the mainstream media to “trust the science.” If science is the main concern, wouldn’t the media be interested in a proposal like the Great Barrington Declaration? After all, it was developed by highly-qualified experts and based on scientific data.
For over a week, The Washington Post and The New York Times failed to publish a single story on the declaration — even as it amassed thousands of online signatures from scientists, medical practitioners, and the general public. The Trump administration even met with the Barrington professors, indicating that the U.S. could be on track for a dramatic shift in COVID-19 policy, but the media seemed intent on ignoring it.
Nine days after the declaration went live, The New York Times finally published a brief, skeptical summary of the declaration, tossing in a few additional paragraphs about the unrelated White House COVID-19 outbreak. The following day, The Washington Post unleashed a barrage of attacks, describing the Barrington scientists as a “maverick” group proposing a “fringe” and “dangerous” solution for COVID-19 that could kill “millions.”
That same week, a group referring to themselves as the “scientific consensus” published a counter-declaration, dismissing the Barrington Declaration as “a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.”
For the Barrington authors, it’s a frustrating phenomenon. “One of the things I’ve regretted through this entire crisis,” observed a Barrington co-author “is this attempt to suppress scientific discussion because some ideas are too dangerous to even discuss.”
The opposition is not about science
Generally, the scientific community is expected to welcome new ideas and engage in vigorous debate in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. But the vigor with which the media and scientific community have opposed the Great Barrington Declaration suggests that its opposition originates far beyond mere scientific disputes.
So what is the divide really about?
The COVID-19 divide stems from an age-old question about the nature of man. In his 1987 classic, “A Conflict of Visions,” Thomas Sowell explains how, depending on a person’s view of human nature, they’ll likely land in one of two opposing political camps. It’s a trend dating back centuries and spanning continents.
The “unconstrained vision” would correspond to modern-day liberals. For this group, human nature is “unconstrained,” meaning man is essentially unlimited and can prosper, as long as the right political leadership is in place. From economics to jurisprudence, liberals believe every area of public policy should involve well-informed experts or bureaucrats who can devise solutions that are as close to perfect as possible.
The other view is the “constrained vision,” and it corresponds to conservatives. “Constrained” refers to the idea that man is inherently limited, both morally and in terms of knowledge. For conservatives, the world is far too complex for even the most informed experts to act as effective surrogate decision-makers. When government leaders implement what they think are the best solutions, they often ignore, or fail to foresee, other problems they create in the process and average people are left to suffer the consequences.
These ideas translate seamlessly to COVID-19.
Today, liberals generally believe that it’s best to delegate authority to “experts” to make decisions for the rest of the population. In 2020, that would be the medical professionals, scientists, and epidemiologists who are driving the legislative response to COVID-19.
Those with the constrained vision, i.e. most conservatives, see the world — and COVID-19 in this case — as too complex for any individual, no matter how well-educated, to make decisions that will fundamentally reshape society. Choices that will impact which businesses may stay open or closed, who goes to school, what social activities must be cancelled, etc., ought to be left up to individuals, not “experts” in the government.
Why liberals don’t like herd immunity
In short, the reason liberals oppose herd immunity is not necessarily because they think it’s bad science, but because it would almost entirely eliminate the role of scientific experts when it comes to shaping public policy. And eliminating all-powerful experts is fundamentally antithetical to the liberal vision of how public policy should operate.
Liberals also oppose the herd immunity approach because it feels like “settling” for a less than perfect solution while human lives hang in the balance. That’s why liberals often accuse conservatives who want to end lockdowns of not caring whether people die. According to the unconstrained worldview, anything more than a handful of deaths, no matter what the circumstances, should be viewed as a failure of public policy.
While conservatives care about human suffering and death just as much as liberals do, they recognize that the world rarely offers perfect solutions. In Sowell’s words, “the question is not whether ‘problems’ are ‘solved’ — they will not be — but whether the best trade-offs available have been made.”
That’s why, when conservatives say they oppose COVID-19 experts, they’re not denying their expertise. Conservatives are simply pointing out that many of the experts aren’t looking at the world in terms of identifying the optimal trade-offs that can be made.
They’re also saying that COVID-19 scientists don’t have the relevant experience and learned knowledge to dictate reforms or social policy. Dr. Fauci may know more than John Smith about infectious disease, but John Smith knows more than Dr. Fauci about whether it’s better for him to go to work or to stay home, whether or not his kids should go to school, and how he can best care for his aging mother while she is quarantined.
An old conflict
Conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley once said that he’d “rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
The implication is not that random individuals in the telephone book are more intelligent than Harvard faculty members, but rather that because they know less, they won’t be as intent on instituting large-scale societal reforms that could create severe collateral damage. It’s an argument about power, not knowledge.
The politics of COVID-19 may be forcing us into uncharted territory, but the underlying ideological debate is nothing new. As we move forward, we must remember the words of Sowell and Buckley, and seek trade-offs and knowledge, rather than impossible goals and power.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.)