Focused Protection, Herd Immunity, and Other Deadly Delusions - 2020-10-08
Many readers of The Nation may also subscribe to Jacobin, as I do. I am happy to have two progressive publications appear in my mailbox regularly, one a longtime favorite and the other a more recent pleasure. A few weeks ago, as I was browsing online at Jacobin, I found an interview, headlined "We Need a Radically Different Approach to the Pandemic and Our Economy as a Whole," with Harvard professors Katherine Yih and Martin Kulldorff. I was excited to read it. My Yale colleague Amy Kapczynski and I have written about how to rethink our approach to Covid-19 in a series of articles for another great lefty journal, Boston Review, where we have called for a new politics of care to confront the neoliberalism and white supremacy baked into health care and public health in America. I was hoping to see a similar call emerge in Jacobin's pages online.
However, after some acknowledgement of the impact the pandemic has had on the poor and vulnerable in the United States, the piece makes a sharp detour into a defense of herd immunity, the very same strategy supported by Scott Atlas, President Donald Trump's most favored adviser at the moment—and roundly criticized by experts around the country, including more than 100 of Atlas's own colleagues at Stanford. Fast forward to this week, where one of the Harvard professors in question, Martin Kulldorff, along with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya from Stanford University and Sunetra Gupta from the University of Oxford, were in D.C. meeting with Scott Atlas and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to promote their new "focused protection" strategy in which "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." In the words of Donald Trump, "America will again and soon be open for business," across the board, if we follow the advice of these professors.
What has shocked and dismayed the vast majority of people working in public health and clinical medicine about this strategy is that it is heavy on the rationale for reopening or "liberating" states, cities, and towns and light on the "focused protection" part. Kulldorff, Bhattacharya, and Gupta are confident that we can sequester and protect the elderly and vulnerable from the virus, while the young and fit go about their business as usual and their getting infected is seen as their contribution to the building of herd immunity, presenting little risk to them.