Herd Immunity vs. Herd Mentality

If I might adapt Keats, “much have I travell’d in the realms online, / And many goofy states and kingdoms seen.” And if my experience wasn’t quite like that of the “watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken” (or even “like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific”), still there have been discoveries that produce a little frisson of recognition.

The most recent was the distinction I saw somewhere between herd immunity, on the one hand, and herd mentality, on the other.

We’ve been hearing a lot about “herd immunity” lately. Along with the phrases “social distancing,” “flattening the curve,” and “sheltering in place,” “herd immunity” is one of the chief flecks of jargon adopted by newly minted amateur epidemiologists in this age of (new master word) coronavirus. (And it seems we’re all epidemiologists now, in more or less the same sense that the future King Edward VII was correct when he observed, in 1895, that “we’re all socialists now.”)

Herd immunity” is a settled concept in epidemiology. It occurs when “a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through previous infections or vaccination, thereby providing a measure of protection for individuals who are not immune.”

“Herd mentality,” on the contrary, provides immunity from independent thought. It protects a population from thinking clearly by spreading a spirit of conformity. It increases a people’s docility, thus rendering them more susceptible to the blandishments of usurping authority.

Herd immunity I regard as a good thing. Herd mentality, not so much.

To be “infatuated” is to be made foolish or silly by some extreme emotion. Although we do not yet know every detail of the denouement of our infatuation with the coronavirus, it is pretty clear that the historian of this episode will include a chapter called “Mistakes Were Made.”

Hardly a day goes by that I do not receive a missive from one organization or another informing me that we are in the midst of a world-historical upheaval (“unprecedented” is a favorite trope) that rivals 1,000 Pearl Harbors, 9/11s, the Black Death of the Middle Ages, if not the 10 plagues of ancient Egypt.

This morning, from a local Connecticut bureaucrat: “We are going through the most unprecedented and unimaginable series of events and many changes have occurred recently in our little town.” There follows a long list of new things we may not do, or that we must do, on pain of ostracism, a fine, or both.

As I write, fewer than 500 people have died in the state of Connecticut from the coronavirus. To put this in perspective, the most recent state statistics (2017) tells me that 7,138 people died from heart disease, 6,606 from cancer, 1,471 from chronic respiratory diseases, 675 from the flu or pneumonia. Only three states—Michigan, New Jersey, and New York—have more than 1,000 fatalities from COVID-19, and New York, with 8,600 deaths, accounts for almost half the national total of 20,000.

It would be interesting to know more about the demographic breakdown of the New York fatalities. How old were the victims? How many had been to China? In what state of health were they? How many actually died from the direct effects of the virus (mostly pneumonia), how many were sick from the virus but actually died from another illness or illnesses? The numbers we’ve seen do not carry their full meaning on their faces.

So Many Wrong Predictions

One thing you would never know from the blaring static that surrounds this epidemic is the thought-provoking observation that more people over 100 have died of the coronavirus than people under 30, more over 90 than under 50. Once upon a time, in a country far, far away, pneumonia was said to be the old person’s friend. We’re beyond all such wisdom now.

Anyway, there have been a lot of numbers flooding in. London’s Imperial College sent a thrill down the spine of every fan of The Andromeda Strain when it suggested that there might be 2.2 million deaths in the United States this year from the virus. And that was with “full mitigation.”

Another model maker in Oxford took issue with that number, and for a while we were contemplating “100,000 to 240,000” fatalities. Then we had the so-called “Murray model,” named after Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle. According to his model, this new plague was poised to sweep the country like the grim reaper. He focused less on the final death tally than a sort of medical Cloward–Piven strategy in which the entire healthcare system would be overwhelmed and we’d see patients stacked like cordwood in hospital corridors and lean-to clinics.

But that hasn’t happened. Even in New York City, where hospitals have had to scramble to keep up with the cataract of patients, there is no crisis. Told that there would be, the president had Manhattan’s Javits Center converted into a 1,000-bed hospital and brought the Navy medical ship Comfort with its 500 beds to dock in Manhattan. As I write, Comfort has a total of 60-odd cases, while the Javits Center’s impromptu hospital has only 225 patients. Both are “mostly empty.” How long will it be before both follow the lead of the Army field hospital in Seattle? It was hastily erected to deal with the predicted surge in COVID-19 patients. But the surge never came. Over the course of nine days, it never saw a patient. Now it is leaving.

Elsewhere at American Greatness, Julie Kelly provides a useful timeline of the evolution of the chief COVID models and the advice dispensed by Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. They, along with Surgeon General Jerome Adams, have been the shiny expert faces of the president’s coronavirus task force. As Kelly notes, “Fauci, Birx, and Adams have sent too many mixed messages from the start. While at first diminishing the threat of COVID-19, they now are sowing fear and panic across the country.”

Indeed. And the fruits of that fear and panic, fed by a series of speculative models whose predictions have had consistently to be adjusted downwards, “led to the swiftest and most destructive economic decline in U.S. history with no relief in sight.”

When Robespierre Met Nurse Ratched

Are you worried about human lives? Then focus your attention not on this year’s respiratory virus but on the wild, herd-like overreaction to the virus. That’s where the danger lies, as you can see by the sixteen million people who, over the course of just a few weeks, find themselves out of a job. Ponder the thousands upon thousands of businesses that have been shuttered by the draconian panic stirred by the president’s misguided counselors.

In the weeks and months ahead, you can expect to see a sharp uptick in the number of suicides, drug addictions, and all the other pathologies that follow poverty and despair. You can also expect to see many examples of petty despotism as local authorities, drunk with the liquor of sudden plenary power, discover their inner Robespierres and unacknowledged Nurse Ratcheds.

On Friday, Fauci suggested that Americans might soon be required to carry a certificate of immunity before being allowed to mingle freely among their fellows. This echoes an idea floated by Bill Gates that would require people to have “digital certificates” attesting to their status as vaccinated Americans.

Also on Friday, a video surfaced that shows no fewer than seven policemen dragging a rider off a bus in Philadelphia because he wasn’t wearing a mask. Here we are at Easter. Good luck finding an open church. If you live in Kentucky, you may wish to be particularly careful. Governor Andy Beshear (a Democrat) has ordered police to record the license plate numbers of people attending church services and to turn the numbers over to local health departments, which will, in turn, require the miscreants to be quarantined for 14 days. Kentucky has a population of 4.6 million and currently has 271 people hospitalized with COVID-19.

Clearly the sky is falling.

And let’s not forget Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, also a Democrat. Among the many things she has banned are buying baby car seats from Walmart, driving between two residences that you own, growing your own food, playing golf, or landscaping. Soon, one wag suggested, she might try banning travel between two rooms of your own house.

None of this is to minimize the severity of the flu-like disease caused by the new coronavirus. One of my best friends—now recovering—has had a nasty time with it. But it is important to put the peril it poses in perspective.

It is not, as Surgeon General Adams suggested, like a nationwide series of Pearl Harbors or 9/11s. It is not, as the president has frequently said, “unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” It is a severe seasonal respiratory ailment that will, when all is said and done, probably claim fewer lives than the flu usually does, many fewer than bad years, when upwards of 80,000 die and hundreds of thousands are hospitalized.

Neglecting Herd Immunity At Our Peril

Which brings me back to the idea of herd immunity. We early on in this panic lost sight of its benefits and strained every fiber of our strength to frustrate the development of herd immunity by closing schools and restaurants and ordering people to self-isolate and “shelter in place.” These actions have retarded the spread of the virus, and hence retarded the development of herd immunity, which in turn will make the occurrence of a second wave of sickness from the coronavirus more likely next fall.

This is the burden of a remarkable interview with Professor Knut Wittkowski, for 20 years head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design at The Rockefeller University. Lockdown and “social distancing,” he says, are absolutely the worst way of dealing with an airborne respiratory virus like COVID-19.

Yes, we must take care to protect the old and fragile. But we should have been glad to have children go to school and infect one another. The disease is almost always mild, often totally asymptomatic, in children, and spreading the virus in this benign way is the best bet to build up herd immunity.

Wittkowski’s interview, I see, has been controversial. But I am sorry President Trump did not have the benefit of the professor’s wisdom when deciding on the best course of action in confronting the virus. As usual, Calvin Coolidge’s response to a busybody aide was to the point: “Don’t just do something,” Coolidge said. “Stand there.”

As William Farr pointed out in 1840, epidemics are born, develop, and fade away along a course predicted by a bell curve. They do this naturally, with or without human intervention. Our panic has destroyed trillions of dollars of wealth, impoverished millions, and handed much of society over to the machinations of socialistically inclined bureaucrats. It has also precipitated a huge and irresponsible disgorging of federal funds, the baneful effects of which will be felt for decades if not generations.

I am glad to see that President Trump is at last convening a commission charged with restarting the economy. That should be the signal to retire the task force on the coronavirus. We will all miss Dr. Birx’s nice scarves, but all good things come to an end.

Besides, the president’s new commission will have its work cut out for it. Lord d’Abernon once observed that “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” Let’s hope that’s true of an American’s, too.

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