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Right-Wing “Herd Immunity” Logic Has Infiltrated US Politics and Public Health

A toxic worldview has exploited pandemic despair to win new converts to the politics of the far right.

People who lost loved ones to COVID-19 while staying in New York nursing homes attend a protest and vigil on March 25, 2021, in New York City.

Part of the Series

When COVID-19 broke out across the world in 2020, it produced widespread support for expanded public health measures, including “lockdowns,” that are estimated to have saved up to a million lives in the U.S. and millions more worldwide. As tragic as the pandemic has been, as many mistakes were made, we should be grateful to the health care workers, public health officials and vaccine researchers who have prevented it from being far worse. And we should be very concerned at how their work continues to be undermined by the right-wing ideology of “herd immunity,” which claims that the biggest danger comes not from the virus but from these very efforts to stop its spread.

From the start of the pandemic, a vocal minority argued for letting COVID-19 rip through most of the population. These views were most famously put forward in the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), organized by the libertarian free market think tank American Institute for Economic Research and authored by Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff and Sunetra Gupta. The GBD called for a “focused protection” strategy, advocating lifting all pandemic restrictions on most of the population — along with some vague language about the need to “protect the vulnerable” — with the goal of quickly developing population-wide levels of immunity that would cause the virus to die off.

This strategy would have caused untold additional deaths. (Remember, this was before the rollout of vaccines.) We now know that COVID-19 eludes natural immunity through reinfection and the evolution of new variants. Even now, when vaccines and prior infections have substantially reduced mortality rates, the U.S. continues to see thousands of weekly deaths during COVID-19 spikes. And while rates of “Long COVID” appear to be declining, every person who is infected faces a not-insignificant risk of this debilitating syndrome.

And yet, even as they were being proven decisively wrong epidemiologically, herd immunity advocates started to win the political battle for how the pandemic would be understood — exploiting our exhaustion and grief to recast cruelty as freedom, denial as critical thinking and surrender as courage. In the lead-up to last year’s midterm elections, Republican candidates proudly campaigned on their support for herd immunity policies that would have killed millions had they been enacted, while Joe Biden and Democratic governors raced to drop any remaining public health measures over the objections of many of their supporters. Over 30 states have passed legislation restricting their public health agencies from issuing protective orders in the event of a future pandemic.

But herd immunity does not just threaten our ability to deal with new COVID-19 variants and other future public health threats. It’s a toxic worldview that has exploited the despair produced by the pandemic to win new converts to the politics of the far right. The movement against masks, vaccines, and other public health measures has been a gateway to the politics of conspiracy and authoritarian populism. Far right astroturfed “parents group” Moms for Liberty built chapters across the country by opposing school COVID-prevention measures as big government oppression of “parental rights”; it now uses the same framework to “eradicate any mention of queerness or ‘critical race theory’ in schools,” in the words of one activist writing for Truthout.

In his new book, We Want Them Infected, neurologist and public health expert Jonathan Howard examines the politics of herd immunity, offering a valuable resource to anyone alarmed at the rapid acceleration of conspiratorial far right ideas in the last few years. The book is a collection of essays that exhaustively trace herd immunity arguments since the start of the pandemic, using extensive quotes from GBD authors and co-thinkers to expose the logic (and illogic) of their arguments in disturbing detail. (The book’s title, for example, comes from an internal July 2020 email in which former Trump “science adviser” Paul Alexander pushed to accelerate the spread of COVID-19.)

Over the course of the book, there are seven qualities of the herd immunity outlook that stand out, all of which are prominent characteristics of the current broader right-wing influence in the U.S.

Estrangement

Herd immunity advocates created hard demographic distinctions between “vulnerable” and supposedly “non-vulnerable” segments of the population that took no account of the fact that young people live with older people, immunocompromised people have loved ones whom they don’t want to infect, and tens of millions have various conditions and histories that place them somewhere on the spectrum of risk. Howard writes that herd immunity proponents, upset about young people wearing masks, “rarely entertained the possibility that healthy young people weren’t trying to just protect themselves, but also to protect their community.”

Inhumanity

The pandemic normalized high mortality rates: Herd immunity seeks to make that a permanent feature of society. As a physician and longtime researcher of the anti-vaccine movement, Howard is particularly disturbed at the way herders have used indifference to death to build skepticism toward pediatric COVID-19 vaccines. Prominent herd immunity advocates like Vinay Prasad casually tweet that “only” small numbers of children die from COVID-19 when compared to the overall population. “Sometimes, the numerator matters more than the denominator,” responds Howard. “In 25 years of medicine, I’ve never seen doctors use this technique [of citing relative rarity] to minimize anything that kills young people.”

The movement against masks, vaccines, and other public health measures has been a gateway to the politics of conspiracy and authoritarian populism.

Nearly 1,000 U.S. children died of COVID-19 in the year following Prasad’s tweet. As of spring 2023, vaccination rates were at only 39 percent for children aged 5-11 and 13 percent for children between 6 months and 4 years.

Cynicism

Any sincere attempt to enact the stated goals of “focused protection” would have prioritized ensuring that the elderly and immunocompromised were protected before taking measures to lift restrictions on the rest of the population. Instead, the authors of Great Barrington Declaration put their emphasis on reopening the economy and “resume life as normal,” while their vague calls to “protect the vulnerable” offered no serious guidance for how tens of millions of elderly and immunocompromised people could be shielded from a raging airborne virus.

This wasn’t an oversight. In the years since the GBD, its authors have repeatedly praised the COVID-19 policies of Florida and Sweden, both of which enacted fewer restrictions on businesses and schools. Howard notes that the herders don’t seem troubled by the fact that Florida had an estimated 16,000 excess deaths in 2021 from its weak vaccination campaign, or that Sweden was the site of scandalous neglect in its overwhelmed nursing homes. How seriously, then, should we take their claim that “focused protection” is anything more than an empty phrase used to justify putting profits over human lives?

Arrogance

At every stage of the pandemic, herd immunity advocates have systematically underestimated how many people the virus would infect, hospitalize and kill. And at every stage, these academics, pundits and influencers have had the nerve to blame their false predictions on the failures of overstretched health care workers and public health officials. As a Bellevue Hospital doctor who worked on the front lines as COVID-19 hit New York City like a bomb, Howard is incredulous at the way armchair critics like the formerly respected John Ioannidis spread rumors about possible emergency room mistakes without ever seriously assessing their own long paper trail of disastrous advice.

Authoritarianism

If we were to take herders’ calls for “focused protection” seriously, they intended for tens of millions of “the vulnerable” to endure an indefinite lockdown more draconian than anything experienced in the U.S. at any point of the pandemic. Nor would the rest of the population have been free to do whatever they want, and here is where Howard makes a critical and often overlooked point: Herd immunity required that most people get infected quickly — otherwise tens of millions of the elderly and immunocompromised would face many years of virtual house arrest. But most people had no desire to contract a deadly virus. For at least two full years of the pandemic, most Americans did not want to “return to normal” indoor activity in movie theaters, restaurants, and, yes, even schools.

A genuine herd immunity policy could have only been carried out by a government with the kind of repressive powers seen in China — only to enact a kind of reverse lockdown that required Americans to go out maskless to bars and gyms. This would obviously be absurd, but we have seen a form of this logic play out in the way herders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have not only resisted wearing masks but scold others who do. Under the banner of “freedom,” herd immunity in fact demands that everyone live the same way.

Dishonesty

Unable to openly sell their absurd strategy of voluntarily infecting hundreds of millions with an unknown deadly disease, especially before the arrival of vaccines, herders systematically underplayed the extent of the virus in order to trick people into getting it. An explosive 2022 report in Nature found that the Swedish Public Health Agency “denied or downgraded the fact that children could be infectious, develop severe disease, or drive the spread of the infection in the population; while their internal emails indicate their aim to use children to spread the infection in society.” In the U.S., there is no equivalent written proof that herd immunity advocates deliberately lied to the public in order to more quickly spread the virus. Instead, all we have for evidence is their entire track record of wrong predictions about how much COVID-19 would spread; bad advice undermining public faith in the effectiveness of masks, testing, pediatric vaccines, social distancing, shutdowns and every other attempt to slow the virus; and public hopes that the virus would spread as quickly as possible in order to achieve a herd immunity that has never come.

Conspiracy

Herd immunity proponents, who have enjoyed regular access to the Trump White House and Republican governors, claim to be victims of a “coordinated suppression campaign,” by which they mean most of the scientific community strongly disagreeing with their ghoulish and incorrect public health strategies. Rejected by most of their peers but embraced by the right-wing media ecosystem, formerly respected academics like Bhattacharya have embraced paranoid libertarianism, warning that even mask guidelines are really “lockdown by stealth” — and writing for a site that peddles conspiracy theories about the 2020 New York City COVID-19 epidemic being a hoax.

By greatly expanding the scope of conspiratorial thinking, herd immunity has laid the groundwork for millions more people to be open to the paranoid politics of groups that claim drag shows and public schools are “grooming” kids to adopt progressive politics or question their gender identity. If anything, of course, it’s herd immunity proponents who have acted with cartoonish villainy, lying to parents about the risks of COVID-19 so that they’ll push their kids into getting infected with a dangerous disease.

The Democrats’ Turn to Herd Immunity

After Hurricane Katrina, Naomi Klein famously theorized the “shock doctrine” to describe how ruling-class interests can take advantage of moments of crisis to impose unpopular policies on a disoriented population. Herd immunity has succeeded through the opposite tack: Spontaneously rejected almost everywhere in most places in the first year of the pandemic, it has gradually imposed its anti-human logic over the succeeding years.

By dismissing the importance of death and suffering among “the vulnerable,” they are likely paving the way for more openly eugenicist policies to take hold.

There are many factors at play, from our collective exhaustion with all things COVID-related, to levels of mistrust in societal institutions that have been growing for decades. But it’s also important to identify the role that Democrats have played in bringing the herd immunity worldview across party lines. As Artie Vierkant and Beatrice Adler-Bolton carefully lay out in a three-part “timeline of COVID normalization,” from November 2021 through the midterm elections the following year, Joe Biden’s administration (along with Democratic mayors and governors across the country) dropped attempts to build stronger non-pharmaceutical anti-COVID measures such as expanding paid sick leave, and weakened existing public health measures like indoor mask recommendations and a 10-day recommended quarantine.

This shift culminated with Joe Biden’s September 2022 proclamation that, “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lotta work on it … but the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks.” As Vierkant and Adler-Bolton note, 937 COVID-19 deaths would be reported that day. But that’s not what Biden was referring to. In true herd immunity fashion, he had defined the pandemic not by how many people are dying from it, but by how many people are wearing masks to not spread it.

In order to make this shift, Democrats marginalized the left inside and outside the party as they often do, by casting themselves as the reasonable middle ground between equally irrational extremists. This played out most consequently in the 2021 debates over how and when to reopen schools. While parent activists and teachers who opposed reopening plans were widely accused of ignoring public health guidelines, they were in fact objecting to plans that didn’t follow the social distancing, ventilation and testing recommendations put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for schools to safely reopen without leading to an increase in community spread.

Yet even as the Omicron variant soon caused wave after wave of emergency school shutdowns and a spike in deaths of older Americans, the liberal consensus has become that “teachers’ unions” harmed children by keeping schools closed, while Republicans like DeSantis who opened them early and recklessly made the right call. Even as DeSantis has gone on to set Florida schools on fire with his campaign of Christian Nationalist censorship, there has been little retroactive questioning of whether his motivation was really to help children learn rather than to help them spread a virus.

This is the context in which herd immunity has achieved normality: Democrats gaslit advocates for any forms of public health measures — many of them people of color organizing in communities still dying at high rates — as wanting to return to closed schools and lockdowns. And they deemphasized the disturbing herd immunity ideology of the people pushing to end all public health guidelines to make it less obvious that they were caving in to far right extremists.

Where Do We Go From Here?

On top of the trauma of a plague that has killed a million in the U.S. and nearly 7 million worldwide, herd immunity advocates are trying to add a layer of historical amnesia. By attacking the societal structures of solidarity and trust, they are weakening our ability to respond to future pandemics. By dismissing the importance of death and suffering among “the vulnerable,” they are likely paving the way for more openly eugenicist policies to take hold on the right in the coming years.

We Want Them Infected is a valuable resource for building a counternarrative, a project that shouldn’t be necessary but is. Despite the frequent talk in 2020 among many of us on the left about how the COVID-19 crisis was exposing the evils of capitalism, it’s the right that has done a better job of incorporating the traumatic COVID experience into its politics. They have grown from despair and atomization in a way the left hasn’t managed to absorb the outpouring of solidarity and care during the pandemic’s first year. I don’t have answers to how we can reverse that, but a starting point can be naming and understanding herd immunity as the way that capitalism will inevitably seek to respond to a public health crisis.

All is far from lost. Understanding herd immunity can show us that, like so many right-wing policies being rammed through by Republicans and conceded by Democrats, it is a grotesque outlook that is still rejected by the majority — at least when it’s exposed. In fact, just like with the rest of the right-wing agenda, it’s this unpopularity that drives its proponents toward absurd conspiracies about government censorship and “stealth lockdowns.” Every time they saw someone wearing a mask, it was a reminder that people didn’t want to get a disease to serve their plan, or — even stranger to them — that we were trying to protect others in our community. This basic empathy remains, and it has to be the starting point for how we rebuild.

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