Daily the news is pouring in: SARS-CoV-2 behaves like a textbook respiratory virus in its vectors of transmission and its conferring immunity. It is not and never was a strange and unfamiliar pathogenic meteor hitting the earth warranting panic to the point of shutting down the normal course of life.
The policy response should have followed the proven path of the past: vulnerable people protecting themselves while non-vulnerable populations go about life as normal with an expectation of exposure. This was the settled presumption of public health. This is what the Great Barrington Declaration said and it is what Public Health England is saying now.
Why did all this happen? Did sizable parts of the world fail to pay attention in 9th grade biology class when the subjects of viruses and immunity were discussed? For that matter, is this stuff not taught anymore?
I’m just not sure what accounts for this sudden loss of knowledge. I do know that people who specialize in political economy were blindsided last March with the policy response to pandemic. Nothing like widespread lockdowns had ever been attempted in the US, which accounts for why so little has actually been written about it. The result was that many intellectuals – on all sides! – found themselves unprepared. Subjects like cell biology and infectious disease are not topics usually examined by economists and philosophers, so many people decided to say nothing at all, thereby granting the lockdowners a free hand that dominated public discussion.
I had been variously writing on the topic of pandemic policy responses since 2006, but beyond the general conviction that government would only make things worse, I too was unprepared to deal with the specifics concerning viruses and their mitigation. Is it really true that closing restaurants and churches makes a contribution to stopping disease spread? Is forcing people apart actually a sound response to the presence of a pathogen? Is there no other path to minimizing the social harm of a virus other than waiting for a vaccine? For that matter, can a virus really be stopped?
Answering these questions takes more than political or ideological conviction. It requires at least some knowledge of cell biology, pathogens, pandemic history, public health practices, and immunological history. I scrambled to get up to speed so that I could understand more thoroughly and write in a more compelling way.
Mostly this consisted of reading as many medical studies on Covid as possible, in addition to listening to endless hours of talks online by specialists. That was essential. Even so, what I really needed was to embed myself in the bigger topic more deeply.
The books below provided me the most help on this intellectual journey.
The History of Public Health, by Paul Rosen. This fascinating treatise was first published in 1958 and reissued in 1993 with new material. It is a wonderful introduction to the whole concept of public health and how it evolved through the centuries. A major theme of the book is how poor understanding of disease dominated public health from the ancient world through the 19th century. Ignorance and fear led to a run-from-the-miasma mentality. Once the science of cell biology improved, so too did public health.
The last bout of medieval-style brutality toward disease was in 1918, after which public health got very very serious and swore that nothing like that would happen again. The turning point occurred when it became clear that large-scale collective efforts to beat back and hide from pathogens were futile and tremendously harmful. Instead, disease is something to be managed by doctors and their patients. The job of public health became to focus on clean sanitation and water and otherwise give a message of calm, and clear recommendations to people in light of medical resources.
The hardest challenge for public health was to get common people to understand the scalability of their own immune systems, so that people would stop fearing exposure as such but rather embrace evolutionary reality. After World War II, this became a major feature of public education.
Rosen further emphasizes how modern public health differs from ancient and medieval theory in that it is never about chasing away a single pathogen. Rather, public health must consider all aspects of health including economic and mental health. So panicking by running away from a germ is completely contrary to modern public health, to say nothing of lockdowns, which have zero to do with health.
One thing that slightly bothers is Rosen’s tendency to attribute all improvement in health to science and better policies. He has a whole chapter on the strange disappearance of a vast number of diseases after WWI. He thinks it is due to better sanitation and so on, which is undoubtedly true in part. But even while reading, I couldn’t shake Sunetra Gupta’s point that trade and migration vastly improved immune systems. It was a natural process of tossing off naive systems for exposed systems that made the largest contribution to longer lives and better health.
Molecular & Cell Biology For Dummies, by Rene Fester Kratz. This quick Kindle download provides an accurate look at the core of the topic at hand while minimizing the amount of technical and medical razzle-dazzle you would otherwise face with a first-year textbook from medical school. Not having an extensive background in this topic myself, I not only found the book fascinating; I was amazed that I found it fascinating! The human immune system shares features with any complex evolved system: as a reader you cannot help but be in awe of its workings and interactions with the world. In a year in which the lockdowners tried to pretend as if the immune is nonoperational without a vaccine, this introduction to disease basics is an outstanding corrective.
Smallpox: The Death of a Disease: The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer, by Donald A. Henderson. This is a spectacular history of one of the greatest triumphs in modern medicine. It is also beautifully written. Inoculation against smallpox has been around since the 18th century, and the vaccine since the late 19th century. The real challenges that met the eradicators – the author himself among the most famous and dedicated of them all – was about production, distribution, and administration. Here was what requires decades of work, and Henderson chronicles the litany of difficulties he faced around the world. I think of this book often these days given the completely predictable chaos of Covid vaccine distribution in 2021.
The Plague, by Albert Camus. This short but powerful book, written about the author’s own quarantine and published in 1947, is a work of fiction that speaks to the terrifying reality of lockdowns in the midst of a plague – the sort of plague that takes people down ferociously and brutally. He captures perfectly how the fear of sickness and death taps into a primal instinct and causes first denial and then panic. He speaks profoundly to the loss of direction and purpose in the midst of lockdown, the isolation and psychological damage that being cut off from the normal flow of life brings about. And he speaks to the loss of control felt both by citizens and officials when confronted with a mysterious pathogen, and just how disorienting it is to discover that the disease is smarter and more powerful than any of us.
Coronavirus and Economic Crisis, edited by Peter C. Earle. I am listing this one not because I have several essays in it, but rather because this book compiles some of the best research and writing from the early months of the pandemic lockdown. It is filled with white-hot passion and tremendous erudition. It also provides proof that what many of our writers predicted came true: tremendous social, cultural, and economic damage. We were warned at the time that we were acting too soon in publishing this, and it is true that AIER was just about first out the door with a book on the topic. But it turned out to serve as a great inspiration to others, and gave the principles that guided the opposition to lockdowns for the rest of the year. In the meantime, AIER released three additional books on the topic in addition to my own book Liberty or Lockdown.
Pandemic responses will continue to serve as a convenient rationale for government interventions in the future. Anyone who has a concern for human liberty and prosperity should armed with intellectual ammunition to combat this huge increase in government power. We need more than ideological instincts here; to fully understand, we need to be aware of the sciences of infectious disease and the discipline of public health.
At this point, ignorance threatens everything we hold dear. We owe the cause of freedom some effort on our part to read up, learn, and be prepared for the long battle ahead.