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…