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

A part of the Sequence

Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19

When COVID-19 broke out internationally in 2020, it produced widespread help for expanded public well being measures, together with “lockdowns,” which can be estimated to have saved up to a million lives within the U.S. and thousands and thousands extra worldwide. As tragic because the pandemic has been, as many errors had been made, we must be grateful to the well being care employees, public well being officers and vaccine researchers who’ve prevented it from being far worse. And we must be very involved at how their work continues to be undermined by the right-wing ideology of “herd immunity,” which claims that the largest hazard comes not from the virus however from these very efforts to cease its unfold.

From the beginning of the pandemic, a vocal minority argued for letting COVID-19 rip by a lot of the inhabitants. These views had been most famously put ahead within the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), organized by the libertarian free market suppose tank American Institute for Economic Research and authored by Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff and Sunetra Gupta. The GBD known as for a “targeted safety” technique, advocating lifting all pandemic restrictions on a lot of the inhabitants — together with some obscure language about the necessity to “defend the susceptible” — with the purpose of shortly creating population-wide ranges of immunity that might trigger the virus to die off.

This technique would have brought about untold extra deaths. (Keep in mind, this was earlier than the rollout of vaccines.) We now know that COVID-19 eludes pure immunity by reinfection and the evolution of recent variants. Even now, when vaccines and prior infections have considerably diminished mortality charges, the U.S. continues to see 1000’s of weekly deaths throughout COVID-19 spikes. And whereas charges of “Lengthy COVID” seem like declining, each one that is contaminated faces a not-insignificant risk of this debilitating syndrome.

And but, at the same time as they had been being confirmed decisively flawed epidemiologically, herd immunity advocates began to win the political battle for the way the pandemic could be understood — exploiting our exhaustion and grief to recast cruelty as freedom, denial as crucial considering and give up as braveness. Within the lead-up to final 12 months’s midterm elections, Republican candidates proudly campaigned on their help for herd immunity insurance policies that might have killed thousands and thousands had they been enacted, whereas Joe Biden and Democratic governors raced to drop any remaining public well being measures over the objections of a lot of their supporters. Over 30 states have handed laws restricting their public health agencies from issuing protecting orders within the occasion of a future pandemic.

However herd immunity doesn’t simply threaten our potential to cope with new COVID-19 variants and different future public well being threats. It’s a poisonous worldview that has exploited the despair produced by the pandemic to win new converts to the politics of the far proper. The motion in opposition to masks, vaccines, and different public well being measures has been a gateway to the politics of conspiracy and authoritarian populism. Far proper astroturfed “mother and father group” Mothers for Liberty constructed chapters throughout the nation by opposing school COVID-prevention measures as large authorities oppression of “parental rights”; it now makes use of the identical framework to “eradicate any point out of queerness or ‘crucial race idea’ in colleges,” within the phrases of 1 activist writing for Truthout.

Banner 3

In his new ebook, We Want Them Infected, neurologist and public well being skilled Jonathan Howard examines the politics of herd immunity, providing a worthwhile useful resource to anybody alarmed on the fast acceleration of conspiratorial far proper concepts in the previous few years. The ebook is a group of essays that exhaustively hint herd immunity arguments for the reason that begin of the pandemic, utilizing intensive quotes from GBD authors and co-thinkers to reveal the logic (and illogic) of their arguments in disturbing element. (The ebook’s title, for instance, comes from an inside July 2020 e-mail through which former Trump “science adviser” Paul Alexander pushed to speed up the unfold of COVID-19.)

Over the course of the ebook, there are seven qualities of the herd immunity outlook that stand out, all of that are distinguished traits of the present broader right-wing affect within the U.S.


Herd immunity advocates created onerous demographic distinctions between “susceptible” and supposedly “non-vulnerable” segments of the inhabitants that took no account of the truth that younger folks stay with older folks, immunocompromised folks have family members whom they don’t need to infect, and tens of thousands and thousands have numerous circumstances and histories that place them someplace on the spectrum of threat. Howard writes that herd immunity proponents, upset about younger folks sporting masks, “not often entertained the likelihood that wholesome younger folks weren’t attempting to simply defend themselves, but additionally to guard their neighborhood.”


The pandemic normalized excessive mortality charges: Herd immunity seeks to make {that a} everlasting function of society. As a doctor and longtime researcher of the anti-vaccine motion, Howard is especially disturbed on the manner herders have used indifference to dying to construct skepticism towards pediatric COVID-19 vaccines. Outstanding herd immunity advocates like Vinay Prasad casually tweet that “solely” small numbers of kids die from COVID-19 when in comparison with the general inhabitants. “Typically, the numerator issues greater than the denominator,” responds Howard. “In 25 years of medication, I’ve by no means seen medical doctors use this method [of citing relative rarity] to attenuate something that kills younger folks.”

The motion in opposition to masks, vaccines, and different public well being measures has been a gateway to the politics of conspiracy and authoritarian populism.

Almost 1,000 U.S. youngsters died of COVID-19 within the 12 months following Prasad’s tweet. As of spring 2023, vaccination rates had been at solely 39 % for youngsters aged 5-11 and 13 % for youngsters between 6 months and 4 years.


Any honest try and enact the acknowledged targets of “targeted safety” would have prioritized guaranteeing that the aged and immunocompromised had been protected earlier than taking measures to raise restrictions on the remainder of the inhabitants. As an alternative, the authors of Nice Barrington Declaration put their emphasis on reopening the economic system and “resume life as regular,” whereas their obscure calls to “defend the susceptible” provided no critical steering for the way tens of thousands and thousands of aged and immunocompromised folks might be shielded from a raging airborne virus.

This wasn’t an oversight. Within the years for the reason that GBD, its authors have repeatedly praised the COVID-19 insurance policies of Florida and Sweden, each of which enacted fewer restrictions on companies and colleges. Howard notes that the herders don’t appear troubled by the truth that Florida had an estimated 16,000 excess deaths in 2021 from its weak vaccination marketing campaign, or that Sweden was the location of scandalous neglect in its overwhelmed nursing houses. How critically, then, ought to we take their declare that “targeted safety” is something greater than an empty phrase used to justify placing income over human lives?


At each stage of the pandemic, herd immunity advocates have systematically underestimated how many individuals the virus would infect, hospitalize and kill. And at each stage, these teachers, pundits and influencers have had the nerve accountable their false predictions on the failures of overstretched well being care employees and public well being officers. As a Bellevue Hospital physician who labored on the entrance traces as COVID-19 hit New York Metropolis like a bomb, Howard is incredulous on the manner armchair critics just like the formerly respected John Ioannidis unfold rumors about potential emergency room errors with out ever critically assessing their very own lengthy paper path of disastrous recommendation.


If we had been to take herders’ requires “targeted safety” critically, they supposed for tens of thousands and thousands of “the susceptible” to endure an indefinite lockdown extra draconian than something skilled within the U.S. at any level of the pandemic. Nor would the remainder of the inhabitants have been free to do no matter they need, and right here is the place Howard makes a crucial and sometimes neglected level: Herd immunity required that most individuals get contaminated shortly — in any other case tens of thousands and thousands of the aged and immunocompromised would face a few years of digital home arrest. However most individuals had no need to contract a lethal virus. For no less than two full years of the pandemic, most Individuals didn’t need to “return to regular” indoor exercise in movie theaters, restaurants, and, sure, even schools.

A real herd immunity coverage might have solely been carried out by a authorities with the sort of repressive powers seen in China — solely to enact a sort of reverse lockdown that required Individuals to exit maskless to bars and gymnasiums. This may clearly be absurd, however we now have seen a type of this logic play out in the best way herders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis haven’t solely resisted sporting masks however scold others who do. Below the banner of “freedom,” herd immunity the truth is calls for that everybody stay the identical manner.


Unable to brazenly promote their absurd technique of voluntarily infecting lots of of thousands and thousands with an unknown lethal illness, particularly earlier than the arrival of vaccines, herders systematically underplayed the extent of the virus to be able to trick folks into getting it. An explosive 2022 report in Nature discovered that the Swedish Public Well being Company “denied or downgraded the truth that youngsters might be infectious, develop extreme illness, or drive the unfold of the an infection within the inhabitants; whereas their inside emails point out their intention to make use of youngsters to unfold the an infection in society.” Within the U.S., there isn’t a equal written proof that herd immunity advocates intentionally lied to the general public to be able to extra shortly unfold the virus. As an alternative, all we now have for proof is their total observe report of flawed predictions about how a lot COVID-19 would unfold; dangerous recommendation undermining public religion within the effectiveness of masks, testing, pediatric vaccines, social distancing, shutdowns and each different try and sluggish the virus; and public hopes that the virus would unfold as shortly as potential to be able to obtain a herd immunity that has by no means come.


Herd immunity proponents, who’ve loved regular access to the Trump White House and Republican governors, declare to be victims of a “coordinated suppression campaign,” by which they imply a lot of the scientific neighborhood strongly disagreeing with their ghoulish and incorrect public well being methods. Rejected by most of their friends however embraced by the right-wing media ecosystem, previously revered teachers like Bhattacharya have embraced paranoid libertarianism, warning that even masks pointers are actually “lockdown by stealth” — and writing for a website that peddles conspiracy theories concerning the 2020 New York Metropolis COVID-19 epidemic being a hoax.

By significantly increasing the scope of conspiratorial considering, herd immunity has laid the groundwork for thousands and thousands extra folks to be open to the paranoid politics of teams that declare drag reveals and public colleges are “grooming” youngsters to undertake progressive politics or query their gender id. If something, in fact, it’s herd immunity proponents who’ve acted with cartoonish villainy, mendacity to oldsters concerning the dangers of COVID-19 in order that they’ll push their youngsters into getting contaminated with a harmful illness.

The Democrats’ Flip to Herd Immunity

After Hurricane Katrina, Naomi Klein famously theorized the “shock doctrine” to explain how ruling-class pursuits can reap the benefits of moments of disaster to impose unpopular insurance policies on a disoriented inhabitants. Herd immunity has succeeded by the alternative tack: Spontaneously rejected nearly in all places in most locations within the first 12 months of the pandemic, it has progressively imposed its anti-human logic over the succeeding years.

By dismissing the significance of dying and struggling amongst “the susceptible,” they’re doubtless paving the best way for extra brazenly eugenicist insurance policies to take maintain.

There are various components at play, from our collective exhaustion with all issues COVID-related, to ranges of distrust in societal establishments which were rising for many years. However it’s additionally essential to determine the position that Democrats have performed in bringing the herd immunity worldview throughout occasion traces. As Artie Vierkant and Beatrice Adler-Bolton rigorously lay out in a three-part “timeline of COVID normalization,” from November 2021 by the midterm elections the next 12 months, Joe Biden’s administration (together with Democratic mayors and governors throughout the nation) dropped makes an attempt to construct stronger non-pharmaceutical anti-COVID measures comparable to expanding paid sick leave, and weakened present public well being 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 nonetheless have an issue with COVID. We’re nonetheless doing a lotta work on it … however the pandemic is over. In the event you discover, nobody’s sporting masks.” As Vierkant and Adler-Bolton word, 937 COVID-19 deaths could be reported that day. However that’s not what Biden was referring to. In true herd immunity style, he had outlined the pandemic not by how many individuals are dying from it, however by how many individuals are sporting masks to not unfold it.

With the intention to make this shift, Democrats marginalized the left inside and out of doors the occasion as they usually do, by casting themselves because the affordable center floor between equally irrational extremists. This performed out most consequently within the 2021 debates over how and when to reopen colleges. Whereas mum or dad activists and lecturers who opposed reopening plans had been broadly accused of ignoring public well being pointers, they had been the truth is objecting to plans that didn’t comply with the social distancing, air flow and testing suggestions put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for colleges to securely reopen with out resulting in a rise in neighborhood unfold.

But even because the Omicron variant quickly brought about wave after wave of emergency school shutdowns and a spike in deaths of older Individuals, the liberal consensus has change into that “lecturers’ unions” harmed youngsters by protecting colleges closed, whereas Republicans like DeSantis who opened them early and recklessly made the precise name. At the same time as DeSantis has gone on to set Florida colleges on hearth along with his marketing campaign of Christian Nationalist censorship, there was little retroactive questioning of whether or not his motivation was actually to assist youngsters study reasonably than to assist them unfold a virus.

That is the context through which herd immunity has achieved normality: Democrats gaslit advocates for any types of public well being measures — a lot of them folks of colour organizing in communities nonetheless dying at excessive charges — as desirous to return to closed colleges and lockdowns. They usually deemphasized the disturbing herd immunity ideology of the folks pushing to finish all public well being pointers to make it much less apparent that they had been caving in to far proper extremists.

The place Do We Go From Right here?

On prime of the trauma of a plague that has killed one million within the U.S. and almost 7 million worldwide, herd immunity advocates are attempting so as to add a layer of historic amnesia. By attacking the societal buildings of solidarity and belief, they’re weakening our potential to answer future pandemics. By dismissing the significance of dying and struggling amongst “the susceptible,” they’re doubtless paving the best way for extra brazenly eugenicist insurance policies to take maintain on the precise within the coming years.

We Need Them Contaminated is a worthwhile useful resource for constructing a counternarrative, a mission that shouldn’t be needed however is. Regardless of the frequent speak in 2020 amongst many of us on the left about how the COVID-19 disaster was exposing the evils of capitalism, it’s the precise that has performed a greater job of incorporating the traumatic COVID expertise into its politics. They’ve grown from despair and atomization in a manner the left hasn’t managed to soak up the outpouring of solidarity and care in the course of the pandemic’s first 12 months. I don’t have solutions to how we will reverse that, however a place to begin might be naming and understanding herd immunity as the best way that capitalism will inevitably search to answer a public well being disaster.

All is way from misplaced. Understanding herd immunity can present us that, like so many right-wing insurance policies being rammed by by Republicans and conceded by Democrats, it’s a grotesque outlook that’s nonetheless rejected by the bulk — no less than when it’s uncovered. The truth is, identical to with the remainder of the right-wing agenda, it’s this unpopularity that drives its proponents towards absurd conspiracies about authorities censorship and “stealth lockdowns.” Each time they noticed somebody sporting a masks, it was a reminder that folks didn’t need to get a illness to serve their plan, or — even stranger to them — that we had been attempting to guard others in our neighborhood. This primary empathy stays, and it needs to be the place to begin for the way we rebuild.

Only one temporary message. It’s essential.

While you learn an unique Truthout piece, you recognize you’re studying non-profit, unbiased, moral journalism. We take zero company {dollars} to make sure that we will publish freely and truthfully, with no compromises.

To retain our journalistic independence, we’re funded nearly completely by reader help. That’s how we will publish work just like the piece above – by particular person donations from readers such as you.

Please, irrespective of the dimensions of your donation, make a tax-deductible present to Truthout right now. (And if you wish to present further help, contemplate making your present month-to-month.).