… Of the people infected, 29 are in ICU in hospital, 20 of them on ventilators. Two of the patients are in their 20s. …
“Herd Immunity” is Epidemiological Neoliberalism by Isabel Frey, Mar 24, 2020, Cowichan Coversations with Richard Hughes
My name is Isabel Frey, and I’m a Vienna-based millenial, writing on life and politics in times of the coronavirus. I have a background in medical anthropology and sociology, a commitment to social justice activism and a passion for Yiddish revolutionary music.
While most European countries are preparing for lock-downs to stop the spread of the coronavirus, a few countries are opting for a different strategy: herd immunity. Instead of testing as many people as possible and implementing measures to increase social distancing, they want to purposefully let the virus spread among people who are at low risk, so that a large part of the population becomes immune. This approach was first proposed by UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson, who refused to implement social distancing measures until a few days ago. While the UK has officially distanced itself from this strategy, the Netherlands and Sweden continue to hold on to this approach, despite harsh criticism by the WHO.
These countries argue that building herd immunity is the only long-term strategy for dealing with the virus, since the epidemic can no longer be contained and could always resurge again. Instead of putting the entire country under lockdown, only at-risk populations should be put into quarantine while the epidemic keeps spreading. However, countless epidemiologists and virologists have criticized the strategy for being risky, unscientific and likely to result in a high death toll. A recently published report by the Imperial College London, which led to the change in UK government policy, estimated the strategy to result in 250,000 deaths in the UK. Since it is not possible to effectively isolate at-risk populations, especially when the virus keeps spreading, the health care system is likely to become overwhelmed and at risk of completely collapsing.
Why would a country like the UK even consider such a risky strategy, and why are other countries still following this approach? The reason is neoliberalism. Since the 1980s, we have been governed by the political paradigm of neoliberalism, which has replaced state-led social policy with privatization and deregulation of the market. Its belief in the inherent justice of the market has led to a political rationale, which literally puts profit before people. And it has colonized peoples’ minds by making them believe it is their fault if they are poor, precarious or unemployed.
The irony of neoliberalism is that it creates the illusion of social mobility, while reinforcing and even deepening social inequality. It assumes that if anyone can “make it” in a free market, it must be peoples’ own fault if they are poor. But this belief is not only wrong, it is also violent. Neoliberalism has resulted in the rich getting richer, and the poor suffering more from disenfranchisement, precariousness and dependency. What might seem like laissez-faire policy, is a refined and complex system of automated structural violence against the weak, which also shatters any possibilities of resistance.
Herd immunity is epidemiological neoliberalism. Much like the unconditional belief in the free market, herd immunity relies on the assumption that an epidemic is best overcome by leaving it unregulated. But just like neoliberalism, it results in violence against the weak and the poor: elderly and disabled people, homeless people, refugees and people with severe health conditions – many of whom are likely to also have a lower socio-economic status because of the correlation between poverty and illness. These are the people, who are at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19 – especially if the healthcare system is overwhelmed and doctors have to perform triage.
Crumbling Welfare States
It is no coincidence that it was the UK and the Netherlands, two of the most neoliberal countries in Europe, which advocated for this approach. These countries have spent the past decades implementing policies that privilege economic over social interests, and systematically defunded healthcare, education and housing. Opting against economically-harmful lockdown measures fits perfectly into their political rationale. Sweden, however, is a more puzzling case: it is a country which is internationally acclaimed for its good social policy and generous welfare state. But even an archetypical social democracy like Sweden has not been immune to neoliberal policy. Like most European countries, its welfare state has systematically been dismantled in the past decades.
The biggest challenge of the corona-epidemic is “flattening the curve”, so that the capacities for critical and intensive care are not overwhelmed. But these three countries already have such low capacities for critical care, that they wouldn’t suffice even with strict lockdown measures. The UK and the Netherlands only have about half the capacity of Italy of critical care beds per capita. And Sweden, the supposedly best welfare state in Europe, has even less than half.
If these countries wanted to prevent their capacities from being overwhelmed, they would have had to act a long time ago. But that ship has already sailed. Enforcing strict lockdown measures would not only put the economy under strain, but would also expose the crumbling health system from decades of neoliberal policy. Opting for herd immunity allows governments to blame the failure of the health system on the virus, rather than on bad governance. Just like individual poor people can be blamed for not trying hard enough, individual sick people can be blamed for not following quarantine measures. It doesn’t matter whether its nature, fate, or one’s own fault – as long as it’s not the government which is held accountable for peoples’ deaths.
Herd immunity is not just bad science or bad policy. It is biological warfare. Many people will die because of it, and governments won’t take responsibility for it. But this strategy did not appear from nowhere. It is a logical continuation of the political rationale that has governed the world for the past decades, taken to an extreme as a laissez-faire social darwinism. Because people who trust in an unregulated market will also trust in an unregulated epidemic – even if it kills.
… The Ministry of Justice has also announced that 19 prisoners across 10 jails have been diagnosed with the infection, plus four prison staff across four jails and three prisoner escort and custody services staff. …
The government is still working to boost the health service’s resources as the UK prepares for a surge in serious coronavirus cases, with 250,000 volunteers being sought to help vulnerable people.
The ExCel Centre in east London is also being converted into a field hospital with 4,000 beds to cope with demand.
Military personnel have been seen at the huge exhibition centre to begin work on transforming it into NHS Nightingale, which was announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Tuesday.
Coronavirus: Briton, 21, with no pre-existing health conditions dies after contracting COVID-19, Chloe Middleton’s family has urged people to take coronavirus seriously after the young woman died by Alix Culbertson, 25 March 2020 Sky News
A 21-year-old woman is believed to be the youngest person with no pre-existing health conditions to have died after contracting coronavirus in the UK.
Chloe Middleton, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, is believed to have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, on 21 March.
Her mother, Diane Middleton, wrote on Facebook: “To all the people out there that thinks it’s just a virus please think again.
“Speaking from a personal experience this so-called virus has taken the life of my 21-year-old daughter.”
Her aunt, Emily Mistry, said Miss Middleton had “no underlying health issues”.
She wrote on social media: “My beautiful, kind-hearted niece, Chloe, has passed away from COVID-19.
“She had no underlying health issues. My loved ones are going through the most unimaginable pain. We are shattered beyond belief.
“Please, please adhere to government guidelines. The virus isn’t spreading, people are spreading the virus.”
Miss Middleton is believed to be the youngest person in the UK with no known pre-existing health conditions to have died from the virus.
An 18-year-old boy died from the virus on 23 March, but he was being treated for “significant underlying health issues”, said Professor Kiran Patel, chief medical officer for University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust.
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Miss Middleton’s sister, Amy Louise Middleton, posted pictures of Chloe and said: “My kids couldn’t have had a more loving crazy nutcase for a auntie and we wouldn’t have had it any other way!! She adored them and they certainly adored her back.”
She said Chloe went “above and beyond” for her and was her best friend, as she added: “Please don’t take this virus lightly because you never know what’s around the corner.”
About 1.5 million people across England who are considered “extremely vulnerable” have been sent letters by the NHS advising them to stay at home for at least 12 weeks to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Scientists around the world have warned elderly people, generally over the age of 70, and people of any age with pre-existing health conditions are the most at risk of getting coronavirus.
Early data from China, where the disease originated, suggested the majority of those who died from coronavirus were aged 60 and older or had serious underlying health conditions.
However, over the past two weeks, there have been more cases of younger people getting the disease.
A report from the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found 20% of those who had to be in hospital after contracting coronavirus were aged 20-44-years-old and 18% were 45-54-years-old.
Of those admitted to intensive care, 12% were in the younger age bracket while 36% were in the 45-54-year-old range.
“Clinicians who care for adults should be aware that COVID-19 can result in severe disease among persons of all ages,” said the report, published on 18 March.
“Social distancing is recommended for all ages to slow the spread of the virus.”
Refer also to:
… Public health workers are struggling to respond to the pandemic with uncertain and often incomplete information.
Nobody has a handle on real death rates because no jurisdiction actually knows how many people are getting infected.
And existing fatality rates, which range from 3.4 per cent to eight per cent, do not show the full picture because only people with severe symptoms are being tested.
But as the experiences of Iran, Italy and Spain show, the virus targets a significant portion of every society: the vulnerable, the unwell and the elderly.
It can also overwhelm hospitals faster than a terrorist attack. …
A new study in Science warns that the explosion of COVID-19 cases in China “was largely driven by individuals with mild, limited, or no symptoms who went undetected.” …