Capitalism’s natural dynamics in the midst of a global pandemic have shown it to be inept and sociopathic. How could anyone be shocked?
Today, “herd immunity” has become a household notion. Despite the abandonment of the idea by the British government, it continues to be raised in the face of the serious difficulties encountered by public health services in Western Europe and in the United States. In mid-March, according to the Guardian, the UK government was “to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity.” And the Prime Minister of that country, Boris Johnson, shamelessly warned the British people that the inevitable loss of loved ones was to be anticipated consequent to that strategy.
The basic idea of herd immunity (or herd protection), as it has come to be used in the media, is that by letting the virus pass unimpeded through the population, the greater majority of people would become immune, hopefully disabling the propagation of the virus even for those have not been infected. The problem, of course, is that in the process of passing freely, many people, particularly the elderly, the immuno-compromised, people with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, cancers and others, might succumb to the virus in large numbers. Beyond biology, the data shows that minorities (African Americans and Latinos) present higher rates of infection and fatalities, while the working class is still doing work outside the home, and the poor are often at greater risk of infection than those working from home.
The idea of herd immunity created much discomfort in the scientific community and eventually, the British government relinquished this strategy in light of its severe consequences, both economic and medical. According to D. Dowdy and G. D’Souza of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in order to reach herd immunity for the coronavirus, over 70% of the population would have to be immune. They explain, “Without a vaccine, over 200 million Americans would have to get infected before reaching this threshold. Put another way, even in the current pace of the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the United States – with over 25,000 cases a day – it will be well into 2021 before we reach herd immunity. If current death rates continue, over half a million Americans would be dead from COVID-19 by that time.”
Of course, the unethical aspect of the idea of herd immunity has not escaped many commentators as the notion of letting the weak die off in order to protect the greater numbers did not sit well with many. Not only that, but dealing concretely with urgency for those severe cases on the doorstep of death would overwhelm healthcare delivery services and result in a medical catastrophe. Moreover, the level of immunity for those surviving infection by the virus remains unclear to this day. The certainty of immunity post-infection has not been demonstrated as cases of second infections have seemingly occurred. The assumed period of immunity-post infection also remains unknown. Clearly, there are very good reasons why the British government overturned its original position towards the strategy of herd immunity.
Today, the notion of herd immunity continues to be taken out of its epidemiological and medical contexts and applied to society at large. This idea, no longer medically informed, has spread like wildfire throughout the main stream media, as well as Main Street, i.e., that there is a “possibility” of developing a “natural” immunity for the overall population. In light of the economic downturn, rising unemployment, loss of income and medical insurance, food shortages and so on, the demand for a reopening of the economy, to abort shelter-in-place, lockdown, and other quarantine measures, has been rising across states, along with the idea of herd immunity. Herd immunity remains an actual consideration, placing the economic cost of the pandemic in direct conflict with the cost of lives. The economic crisis has forced authorities and individuals into a frightening choice between losing one’s means of economic survival and risking the spread of the virus and the loss of lives associated with it. Such has been the choice confronting people and governing authorities in Western Europe and the United States, the so-called developed nations or “First World.”
Unfortunately, it appears that all the ethical issues raised by some against the idea of “natural” herd immunity have been swept under the rug of the urgent and dire economic crisis.
I would like to address some historical, ethical and political aspects of the de-medicalized notion of herd immunity. Particularly, I would like to illustrate how capitalism, when facing a situation of crisis, slips so readily towards fascism, and how easily so many people fall in line with it, not so much out of a rational choice, but out of fear, out of necessity for their “survival,” most often economic.
Taken out of its epidemiological and medical context (i.e., as associated with vaccination procedures), what we could term “natural” herd immunity is clearly an instance of social Darwinism. The latter is born from the application of Darwin’s ideas onto the social world. Accordingly, what Darwin understood about the natural world could also be applied to society. In particular, such ideas were promoted by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a British scientist and scholar who thought that human societies developed like natural organisms. According to this view, the struggle for survival witnessed in nature could be witnessed as well in society wherein, to use Spencer’s words, the law of the “survival of the fittest” could be applied to social life. As would be the case with “natural” herd immunity and the COVID-19, only the fittest individuals would survive as it would be supposedly occurring in the natural world. Frighteningly, this notion has come to be completely accepted as an appropriate and sensical topic of debate in the mainstream in light of the economic crisis consequent to the pandemic.
This is frightening because the most infamous use of social Darwinism can be found historically in the social policies of the third Reich of Nazi Germany, especially in its racial policies that lead to tragically well-known genocides. Referring to the greater “natural” order, Adolf Hitler stated in his text Mein Kampf, “whoever would live, let him fight, and he who does not want to do battle in this world of eternal struggle does not deserve life.” Following a vulgar interpretation of “natural selection,” only the fittest, the winners, deserve to live Thus, those immunologically deficient, read unfit to fight off the virus, deserve to be abandoned, read eliminated, albeit “naturally” in the case of the pandemic for the sake of allowing the greater majority to get back their economic means of survival. If the Nazi genocides of Jews, Roma, Poles, Soviets and others are well known, “natural” selective policies were entertained well before the implementation of the “Final Solution.” The righteous law of “survival of the fittest” did not apply only to “racial,” ethnic, religious and political groups. Earlier on, as of 1933, the German authorities enforced the “law for the prevention of progeny with hereditary disease.” In accordance with this law, all people suffering from hereditary diseases, including mental illnesses, learning disabilities, physical deformities, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism were to be sterilized. Such individuals were labelled as “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters,” highlighting their burden upon society. Many of such people would be terminated en masse. Furthermore, by 1939 a decree was circulated commanding physicians and other medical professionals to report newborn infants and children under the age of 3 who were exhibiting mental or physical deficiencies. If early on this only applied to infant and toddlers, it soon included all children under the age of 17. According to estimates, over 5,000 physically and mentally disabled children were murdered through starvation and over medication. All these individuals, adults as well as children were defined by the Nazi authorities as “biological enemies,” insofar as they threatened the biological strength and survival of the German “race.”
Such horrible and frightening events represent the direct and literal application of Spencer’s law of the “survival of the fittest.” The Nazi authorities of course took it upon themselves to classify and define those deemed to be fit and those deemed unfit within their “theoretical” framework; a framework that led to all the horrific murderous activities recorded by history, tragically remembered by many but seemingly forgotten by others.
Alluding to Nazi policies while addressing the human consequences of “natural” herd immunity may seem excessive. To clarify any confusion, we are not here comparing the Holocaust to the present situation. Rather we are alluding to the implementation of biological policies born from social Darwinism onto the German population at large throughout the 30s. The reason for this comparison is to illustrate how fascist constructs can become implemented, starting with the normalization of notions, which are ethically untenable and unacceptable, yet sufficiently limited and specific in scope that the majority of people, exempt of being subject to such policies, will unintentionally go along with it. And once such notions become normalized, i.e. justified and acceptable to most, intentionally or not, the slide towards more general policies, horrors like the ones perpetrated by the Nazis, become all the more too possible.
As of today, over 96,000 human beings have died in the United States from the coronavirus, over 36,000 in the UK and over 28,000 in France, many of whom would certainly not have died had there been different public health policies. Seemingly, the outrage on the part of the American, the French and the British people appear quite moderate if not reduced to the anger with authorities for imposing lockdowns and other quarantine measures and leaving people without the means of economic sustenance.
We claim that the death of so many people cannot be allowed to be treated as a simple, albeit tragic, happenstance. Given these countries’ achievements in medical sciences and technology and their economic wealth, this tragedy, is an absolute scandal, an absolute shame on a grand scale.
Nevertheless, that alone, some might say, does not justify comparing the application of social Darwinism in Nazi Germany with social Darwinism as it manifests itself in the United States and Europe today. However, the underlying conceptual structure in both cases remains the same, and the casualness with which the idea of “natural” herd immunity is mentioned certainly indicates how much of a slippery slope this is. And if the topic of herd immunity is not actively enforced, the very choice of re-opening economies independently of epidemiological and public health recommendations remains couched in the very notion of herd immunity. What then is the difference between the social Darwinism of the 30s’ and 40s’ with the one we are confronting today? We can answer this question by saying that the main difference lies in the intentionality of the perpetrators or seemingly so. Unlike the Nazi institutions which intentionally and explicitly applied social Darwinism to justify and drive policies whose goal was to eliminate biological and other enemies, i.e. those deemed weak and unfit, such is not the case in the United States and Europe. Namely, in the latter countries, there is no actual conspiracy, no explicit intent or any legal decisions on the part of the authorities in the US, France or the UK to eliminate any of those individuals deemed at risk or unable to defend themselves against the coronavirus.
However, the lack of intent does not eradicate the question of responsibility. In the face of this unprecedented (It has happened many times before) and “unexpected” (It was to be expected according to many) crisis, there seems to be, in all three countries mentioned, an absolute and unshakable faith in the abilities of societies to self-organize and to adapt efficiently in order to continue existing as they were, throughout unexpected events with their unintended consequences such as this medico-political crisis. The absolute and complete faith in the self-regulated market with minimal government intervention radically excludes the very notion of planification or planning in any ways and leaves a society’s future open and free to embrace any adaptive changes necessary within the framework of free market organization. Unfortunately, the biological aspect of this crisis introduces a variable, the virus, that cannot be taken into account by this very framework. Thus, confronting the consequences of the pandemic from the perspective of anticipation, readiness and planification is completely disparaged. It is willfully and explicitly excluded and out of the question. While planification is taken to be coercive and de facto a miscalculation, on the other hand, unanticipated consequences are completely accepted and even hailed as indices of freedom, even when paradoxically those turn out to be destructive and deadly. This kind of assumption lies in the belief that society will eventually optimize its resources in dealing with those unintended consequences. Obviously, today this belief is radically put to the test by the present crisis and its obvious contradiction and its indirect violence are clearly unveiled, although readily and chronically disavowed.
Indeed, there is an absolute refusal of accountability by these governments and governing institutions at large to accept any responsibility for their incapacity, incompetence at responding appropriately to the present crisis. This refusal to be accountable for managing the unexpected pandemic with its unintended consequences solely because the problem was unexpected and unintended, simply reflects a complete desisting from the responsibilities of democratic governance. But therein lies an ideological premise, which ought to be clarified. It is usually assumed that in a democracy, the people elect a government to serve the interest of most of the citizens, hence defining politicians as public servants; such might not be the case with French, British and US governing institutions. Indeed, this assumption might be simply wrong because it appears that governing institutions of these three nations do not take those responsibilities (i.e., anticipating, planning and managing this public health crisis) to be those of government, reflecting their relentless ideological commitment to capitalism and free market. Thus, we can understand better Mr. Trump, Mr. Macron and Mr. Johnson’s lack of clear policy and their mismanagement of the crisis. It simply does not figure on the list of their political and economic responsibilities. This was made explicit by Mr. Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, who when asked about the rise of fatalities in his country, did not cover up his response with demagogy and spin, answering, “So what? I mourn [the deaths], what do you want me to do? My name is Messiah but I cannot work miracles.” There can be little doubt that he is simply stating the truth of his ideology. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Macron and Mr. Johnson, he appears to believe that such occurrences, i.e. the death of thousands by epidemy is not his responsibility whatsoever, and his response expresses the radical ideological desisting of neoliberal governing institutions from any accountability towards the very people who voted them into office.
Thus, if social Darwinism has been implemented intentionally by Nazi authorities, social Darwinism in the United States and Europe is born from the complete abdication by governing institutions of their responsibilities to protect their respective populations. Yet, even if there are no intentions, either good or bad, by Western governments to implement explicit policies leading to the death of those unable to fight off the coronavirus, they still have to be held accountable for their abdication from implementing policies to protect their respective populations.
If the Nazis implemented deadly policies ideologically driven directly, explicitly and intentionally, the governments of the US, the UK and France implemented deadly strategies driven by an ideology of laissez faire, of minimal state intervention, or by a complete absence of clear policies. This absence of intentionality or of clear policies on the part of governments does remain ideologically based. It is based on the neoliberal and capitalist ideology of the free market as the main organizing principle of social life. Privatization, free enterprise, individual entrepreneurship, investing and consumerism, etc. must either be at most free from government regulations, or else be protected by government (bailouts subsidies, etc.). In all cases, the US, the UK or France, governments have relinquished any accountability for their complete failures in addressing the crisis. Moreover, they have completely desisted from acknowledging their responsibilities towards their respective populations. Why, one might ask, would governments abdicate their responsibilities? They did so because ideologically, they believe that it is not the government’s responsibility to address, anticipate and plan for crises like this pandemic. In consequence to such thinking, healthcare delivery (mitigation, assessments, testing, tracking, caring and curing), protections of employees, protective equipment provisions, etc. are not the responsibility of government neither in the present nor in the future. According to their ideology, the responsibilities lie with individuals, with private companies and other corporate entities, for profit or otherwise. If governing institutions are keen on protecting markets and the economies, protecting the welfare of the populations they are supposed to serve is certainly not their primary purpose. Therefore, we claim that this ideological and intentional abdication of social and political responsibility for the sake of holding ideological beliefs in private, free enterprise and free markets, does not absolve these governing institutions from responsibilities in any ways. In fact, if one remains convinced in the idea of democratic social life, the Western governing bodies abiding by this ideology must accept responsibility for the suffering and loss of life of all those unable to adapt, defend against, or fight off the threat in order to survive in the “eternal struggle” for life/economic survival.
The implementation of neoliberal ideology leads directly to a form of unintentional social Darwinism, for which governing institutions must be held accountable. Even if this social Darwinism is not the result of intentions, it remains nevertheless the result of an ideology of non-intervention, non-regulations, and non-planification, and this ideological choice on the part of governing institutions could not be any more intentional. Their abdication is the result of an ideological choice.
The social Darwinian implementation of herd immunity is the result of the government’s abandonment of its responsibility and its complete ideological embrace of the idea that a society will optimally adapt, no matter what the cost, to unintended consequences such as the spread of the coronavirus and consequential death of over 96,000 human beings in the United States, over 36,000 in the UK and over 28,000 in France.
Accordingly, governing institutions have revealed their absolute faith in “natural selection,” which is supposedly congruent with economic survival. Consequently, the death of those expendables, the unfit, those unable to fight off the virus, is the unintended yet accepted result of neoliberal ideology. Whether deaths result from ideological intent or results from ideological omission and desisting (by non-intervention, non-planification, non-anticipation), both are cases of social Darwinism resulting in the elimination of the weak unfit to live, the infected, the sick, the black and brown people, the working class and the poor, namely, those who have now become guilty of preventing the economy from reopening. They have become the unspoken “biological enemies.”
The slope is slippery indeed. Even if “natural” herd immunity is not born from an explicit ideological policy, it remains considered by the multitudes of individuals and governing authorities around the world. Those who are at risk of contracting the disease and the strategies destined to protect them and us (quarantines) become unfortunately identified as the very cause of the economic misery suffered by so many. Therefore, the protection of society paradoxically becomes the very goal of the many who are now ready to accept the loss of thousands of lives for the sake of the economy. The vulnerable and the lower classes become, as usual, expendable for the sake of the economy. Fascist principles of social Darwinism, the application of the law of “survival of the fittest,” are quick to follow and become justified without any official ideological content and policies such as those of the Nazis. We thus confront the acceptance and normalizing of a truly fascist solution to the crisis, while people face the impossible and perverse choice between their economic livelihood and survival and taking the risk of being infected as well as infecting others. These are the only choices offered to the people of the United states, Britain and France.
The frightening aspect of all this is that western societies appear mostly in acceptance of such prospects and if this may appear cruel, survival (of the fittest) seems to once again trump everything else, even, as history has shown, our basic humanity.
Despite the obvious [hostile] propaganda, it is very clear today that well-organized and well-financed public institutions with central planning committed to the welfare of people appear to be the most efficient structures in dealing constructively with events like this pandemic. Unfortunately, such notions are completely and relentlessly, despite the evidence, excluded from consideration, and an economy of survival of the fittest inescapably fills the political vacuum. If economic survival of the fittest is an unquestioned foundation of economic freedom and economic competition in capitalist economies, then the shift from the economic realm to the biological realm ends up going without saying. This shift becomes not only readily conceivable, but also the only solution to the ideological inability of neoliberal government representatives to address situations requiring planification, planning and anticipating unexpected events with unintended consequences. And this inability is presently leading these very Western nations and their terrified and desperate populations onto the inevitable path of open fascism, albeit a fascism not so much expressed through ideological constructs, but through a form that is free of content or constructs, and the foundation of which has now been laid down for an acceptance of a “natural” herd immunity. The loss of hundreds, of thousands of lives ends up being acceptable not so much for the survival of the “race” but for the so-called survival of the economy and those fit enough to survive. As many states are progressively reopening their economies, herd immunity, if unmentioned, is indirectly implemented despite the warnings of the medical, epidemiological and public health communities.
Puke if you must
This bloodsoaked monster is probably the most evil person on planet earth https://t.co/nGq2H1EPHt
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) April 9, 2020
^5000The mainstream imperialist media lie CONSTANTLY. Literally 24/7. And it's getting worse.
All of them do it: radio, tv, the newspapers, the movies. The internet. No exceptions.
The corporate Big Lie is pervasive and totalitarian. CBS does it. NBC does it. ABC does it.
CNN does it. FOX does it. NPR does it. And of course the NYTimes and WaPo do it.
Thousands of "diverse" voices telling you the same lies. Enough to convince anyone.
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ALL CAPTIONS AND PULL QUOTES BY THE EDITORS NOT THE AUTHORS