It would be bad enough if the Great Barrington Declaration, an eight-paragraph manifesto that is shaping White House policy on Covid-19, was simply misguided. But the statement, which now has more than 9,000 signatories, represents a potentially dangerous way of thinking — about not only pandemics but also human nature.
Debate over the declaration has centered on the concept of “herd immunity,” but that discussion has become so emotional that it is better to focus first on the concrete. The declaration stresses the notion of protecting the vulnerable, such as the elderly, and giving everyone else maximum possible freedom. That sounds good, but the declaration fails to deliver on the details.
First and foremost, the declaration does not present the most important point right now, which is to say October 2020: By the middle of next year, and quite possibly sooner, the world will be in a much better position to combat Covid-19. The arrival of some mix of vaccines and therapeutics will improve the situation, so it makes sense to shift cases and infection risks into the future while being somewhat protective now. To allow large numbers of people today to die of Covid, in wealthy countries, is akin to charging the hill and taking casualties two days before the end of World War I.
Not only does the declaration fail to make that point, but if anything the rhetoric conveys a sense of “letting things take their course” — after the most vulnerable are segregated from society, of course. It strikes exactly the wrong tone and stresses exactly the wrong points.
The declaration also sets up a false dichotomy by comparing its policy proposals to lockdowns. The claim is this: “Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.” The health problems are very real, but in most of the U.S., the lockdowns are not severe. In my home state of Virginia, there are relatively few commercial activities I cannot partake in, were I so inclined. I even can go see a live bluegrass concert in a nightclub (I won’t, not yet).
The problem is that most people don’t want to go out to such concerts, and indeed probably should not. It is this self-enforced isolation, not a government order, which screws us up, sometimes creating mental and other health problems.
Whatever you think of the stricter policies of last spring, they are now behind us, and the emphasis on “lockdowns” is not helpful. The more useful question is whether the list of prohibited activities should be expanded or contracted. In some cases, surely, it should be expanded. Indoor restaurant dining and drinking, for example, is probably not a good idea in most parts of the U.S. right now.
Yes, many of the Covid cases spread by such activity would be among the lower-risk young, rather than the higher-risk elderly. Still, practically speaking, given America’s current response capabilities, those cases will further paralyze schools and workplaces and entertainment venues. It just doesn’t seem worth it.
Even if you disagree with that judgment, the critics who emphasize lockdowns are setting up a straw man. What they’re trying to do is talk us into something more dangerous than what we ought to accept. The truth is that lockdowns are extremely unpopular, and while they may have to be reimposed in extreme circumstances, they are not the main alternative on the table in the U.S. right now.
The declaration also notes the value of reopening schools. It is an inarguable point, and Sweden seems to have made it work. But schools cannot and should not be reopened unconditionally. Amid high levels of Covid-19, a successful reopening very often will require social distancing, masks and a good system for testing and tracing. It would be better to focus on what needs to be done to make school reopenings work. Reopened schools in Israel, for instance, seem to have contributed to a significant second wave of Covid-19.
A broader worry about the declaration is that, for all the talk of science, it fails to emphasize data. The declaration is a series of static recommendations, yet the situation on the ground is evolving all the time. The best policies today are not the same as the best policies two months ago, and won’t necessarily be the best policies two months from now. This reader is also struck by the document’s frequent use of the passive voice — as if there is no choice but to let a series of inevitable events slowly unfold, albeit in a minimally painless way, and to allow the pandemic to finish its work.
Which leads to the idea of herd immunity, which has received the most fire from outside commentators. A letter published this week in the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet, signed mostly by public health experts, condemns policy based on notions of herd immunity.
Here are the key words of the Great Barrington Declaration on herd immunity:
The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.
What exactly does the word “allow” mean in this context? Again the passivity is evident, as if humans should just line up in the proper order of virus exposure and submit to nature’s will. How about instead we channel our inner Ayn Rand and stress the role of human agency? Something like: “Herd immunity will come from a combination of exposure to the virus through natural infection and the widespread use of vaccines. Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process.”
In practical terms, the most problematic paragraph in the declaration is this one:
Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.
In most parts of the Western world, normal openings for restaurants, sporting events and workplaces are likely to lead to spiraling caseloads and overloaded hospitals, as is already a risk in some of the harder-hit parts of Europe. Reopenings, to the extent they work, rely on a government that so scares people that attendance remains low even with reopening.
In that sense, as things stand, there is no “normal” to be found. An attempt to pursue it would most likely lead to panic over the numbers of cases and hospitalizations, and would almost certainly make a second lockdown more likely. There is no ideal of liberty at the end of the tunnel here.
Don’t get me wrong: The Great Barrington strategy is a tempting one. Coming out of a libertarian think tank, it tries to procure maximum liberty for commerce and daily life. It is a seductive idea. Yet consistency of message is not an unalloyed good, even when the subject is liberty. And when there is a pandemic, one of the government’s most vital roles is to secure public goods, such as vaccines.
The declaration is disappointing because it is looking for an easy way out — first by taking the best alternatives for fighting Covid off the table, then by pretending a normal state of affairs is also an optimum state of affairs.
My worldview is both more hopeful and more tragic. There is no normal here, but we can do better — with vigorous actions to combat Covid-19, including government actions. The conception of human nature evident in the Great Barrington Declaration is so passive, it raises the question of whether it even qualifies as a defense of natural liberty.-Bloomberg
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