July 25, 2020 Reading Time: 8 minutes

From the beginning of this virus, political elites have used the language of war. The invisible enemy would be contained, suppressed, and beaten into submission. Then… it would go away. 

The tactics would be travel bans, shutdowns, closures, mandatory human separation, and restrictions on breathing. The computer models proved it would work so surely it would – liberty, human rights, and freedom of association be damned. 

We have all been used as non-player characters in a social experiment, untried in the whole history of humanity, and in ways that conflict with all values in which we previously believed as free societies. 

No one in charge asks your opinion or mine. We are here merely to play our role in an agent-based model. It’s the gamification of despotism. 

The dogma has kept unfolding in ever stranger ways, such as with utterly contemptible restrictions on bars and restaurants, and even the claim that choirs, wind instruments, and the pipe organ itself spreads disease. The American Guild of Organists has been forced to provide a long document justifying the existence of church music. The devastation in the arts community is palpable. The carnage is truly unfathomable. And getting worse: regulations on elevators will make America’s mighty skyscrapers unusable and pointless. 

What if the entire paradigm is wrong? No book on cell and molecular biology that I’ve found mentions lockdowns and hiding as ways to beat a virus. “For most viruses that attack humans,” says Cell and Molecular Biology for Dummies, “your only defenses are prevention and your own immune systems.” 

Strange isn’t it? Nothing about the awesome power of politicians to crush a virus. It should come as no surprise that the most comprehensive and global statistical analysis yet conducted concludes that “rapid border closures, full lockdowns, and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people” – which to say there is no evidence that any of this ghastly destruction saved lives.

A strikingly odd feature of media rhetoric during these terrible months has been the silencing of voices that speak of immunity as the way to defeat a virus of this sort. AIER has reported them when they appear but, as a seriously disgruntled reader of the New York Times, I can tell you that immunities via antibodies have not made their coverage much at all. 

In a way that stuns me, this has suddenly changed with a coherent write up that appeared yesterday: Can You Get Covid-19 Again? It’s Very Unlikely, Experts Say. This accurate piece amounts to a refutation of one of thousands of ridiculous popular articles claiming that this virus is so unprecedented, so lethal, so mysterious, that the only option is to throw out all morality and treat people like animals. 

Says the Times

While little is definitively known about the coronavirus, just seven months into the pandemic, the new virus is behaving like most others… It may be possible for the coronavirus to strike the same person twice, but it’s highly unlikely that it would do so in such a short window or to make people sicker the second time, they said….People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies. Several teams have recently reported that the levels of these antibodies decline in two to three months, causing some consternation. But a drop in antibodies is perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. Many clinicians are “scratching their heads saying, ‘What an extraordinarily odd virus that it’s not leading to robust immunity,’ but they’re totally wrong,’” Dr. Mina said. “It doesn’t get more textbook than this.”

Imagine that: “immune molecules called antibodies.” The Times writes as if it is introducing a new vocabulary word here, even though George Washington’s troops understood the point and dangerously pursued inoculation techniques against smallpox. 

So let us think about this. You get the C-19 virus, you get over it (as 99.8% do, especially healthy people) and then you gain protection against that virus and possible other similar viruses for a time. Your immune system improves. The million-year coevolution of humans and viruses takes another step in the direction of progress. The implication: rather than run and hide, maybe a bit of scientifically informed bravery is in order here. 

Yes, but if true, wouldn’t competent and credentialled epidemiologists be saying this? It turns out that many are. They just aren’t getting a hearing because the media and politicians ignore them. 

One of the brave and intelligent voices here is Sunetra Gupta, the professor of theoretical epidemiology who leads a full team of experts at Oxford University. 

Her understanding is so profound that she has, in an interview, offered up a fascinating thesis concerning why the flu pandemic of 1918 was the last truly catastrophic plague we’ve seen in the modern world. 

Gupta’s claim is that when we live in isolated tribes that are sheltered from exposure, those people gradually become weaker and more vulnerable. The wrong pathogen arrives at the wrong time and the people have not been biologically prepared for it. It wipes them out in shocking ways. But with modern capitalism came the end of such sterile isolation. It gave us new methods of travelling, mixing, associating, moving, and hence led to more exposure to disease and the resulting antibodies. Hence, it is not just better therapeutics and vaccines that helped us conquer some plagues but immunities themselves. Our biological toolkit for fighting disease became improved simply through travel, trade, and global commerce. 

I quote Gupta at length, beginning with her tutorial on virus immunity 101 gained over the course of last century and oddly forgotten in this century: 

The other interesting issue that I’ve suddenly realised with this particular threat, is that people are treating it like an external disaster, like a hurricane or a tsunami, as if you can batten down the hatches and it will be gone eventually. That is simply not correct. The epidemic is an ecological relationship that we have to manage between ourselves and the virus. But instead, people are looking at it as a completely external thing…. That’s the axis of disease, but then there’s the socioeconomic axis, which has been ignored. But there’s a third, aesthetic access, which is about how we want to live our lives. We are closing ourselves off not just to the disease, but to other aspects of being human

I think the trade-off is very extreme. Obviously the most extreme manifestation of that trade-off is the 23 million people who will be pushed below the poverty line as a result of this sledgehammer approach. The costs to the arts is I think also incredibly profound – the theatres and all other forms of performing art. But also the inherent art of living, which I think is being compromised.

Acts of kindness are being eschewed. Someone was telling me yesterday that their mother said to them “please don’t come home, you’re going to kill us”….

Now I see young people being terrified, even though they realise the risk to themselves is low, that they might infect a friend who will then give it to their grandparents. This chain of guilt is somehow located to the individual rather than being distributed and shared.

We have to share the guilt. We have to share the responsibility. And we have to take on board certain risks ourselves in order to fulfil our obligations and to uphold the social contract. So I’d like the politicians to remind people of that, because that’s what they’ve been elected to do – to see the social contract is being properly transacted….

It’s very difficult. I think there’s nothing to do except remind people that that is not only puritanical, but misguided. Because actually, the only way we can reduce the risk to the vulnerable people in the population is, for those of us who are able to acquire herd immunity, to do that.

Even if there is a little bit of a risk. I’m 55 years old, there’s some slight risk out there. But I would be willing to take that, just as I do with the flu. There’s a risk I might die of flu, but I’m willing to take that risk, because I know that if I don’t then flu will appear as it did before, it will enter the population of immunologically naive individuals, and then there will be a high risk of infection which will have a disproportionate effect on the vulnerable sector of the population.

Maybe the way to counter it now is to say, actually, not only is it a good thing for young people to go out there and become immune, but that is almost their duty. It’s a way of living with this virus. It’s how we live with other viruses. Flu is clearly a very dangerous virus, but the reason we don’t see more deaths from flu every year is because, through herd immunity, the levels of infection are kept to as low a level as we can get….

Now to more on the beautiful seeming magic of herd immunity, which has most recently been estimated to be 10-20%: 

[Herd immunity is] a technical term for the proportion of the population that needs to be immune in order to prevent the disease from spreading, which is the central concept in vaccinations. It’s a fundamental epidemiological concept, which clearly has been subverted. I guess the fact it includes the word herd has made it easier.

The truth is that herd immunity is a way of preventing vulnerable people from dying. It is achieved at the expense of some people dying, and we can stop that by preventing the vulnerable class in the process. In an ideal situation, you would protect the vulnerable as best you can, let people go about their business, allow herd immunity to build up, make sure the economy doesn’t crash, make sure the arts are preserved, and make sure qualities of kindness and tolerance remain in place.

We live, it seems, in this state of terror. Yes, international travel facilitates the entrance of contagion, but what it also does is it brings immunity.

And finally to the implications for history and the way global capitalism both ended our sterile isolation but also brought us biological immunity and longer lives. 

Why don’t we get flu pandemics anymore? Because before 1918 there was not sufficient international travel or densities of individuals to keep flu on as the sort of seasonal thing it is now. Pockets of non-immune people would build up, and then they would be ravaged.

That was the pattern until the end of the First World War. Since then, many of these diseases have become endemic. As a result of which we are much more exposed to diseases in general and related pathogens, so if something new comes along we are much better off than we would be if we hadn’t had some sort of exposure to it.

If coronavirus had arrived in a setting where we had no coronavirus exposure before, we might be much worse off. It also seems that in addition to protection against severe disease as a result of exposure to related coronaviruses, some fraction of us seem to be resistant to infection.

That’s just fantastic news, actually. Hopefully that will be consolidated at a scientific, laboratory level. We ourselves are looking at how antibodies to seasonal coronaviruses can impact on protection against infection and disease.

Maybe we will be able to build up a picture that will reassure the public that actually we are much better off having been exposed to related coronaviruses. We are in a better place to fight off this infection than we actually thought.

One might think that this learned professor’s outlook, offered from her position at perhaps the world’s most prestigious university, would hold some sway over media and politics. The implications of what she says are not only that the lockdowns are wrong. Not only that the closures are pointless. She goes further: they are making us less healthy,and taking steps to revert the progress of health we have made over a century of travel, mixing, and close commercial relationships. 

The implications of Gupta’s view – and its flipping of the run-and-hide, shelter-in-place narrative – offer a promising new way to understand the relationship between modern capitalism and the dramatic improvements in human health we’ve experienced over a century. It also sends up a warning flare: if we stay on the present course of hiding and futilely trying to suppress the virus, we will end up making all of society poorer both materially and spiritually and also delivering a dangerous blow to our biological health. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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