The Great Barrington Declaration
[ThTh1] A significant amount of attention has been given lately to something called the Great Barrington Declaration. This document, which you can read here, came from a meeting of AIER, a libertarian think-tank.1. It claims that our approach to the COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant economic pain and damage to public health. It further says that because COVID-19 is less harmful to young people, we should reconsider herd immunity. By using “focused protection”, we can keep the virus away from the vulnerable while the rest of society resumes normal life. This will allows us to build herd immunity with minimal pain. The declaration claims to have 560,000 signatures as of today, including 40,000 medical and health professionasl, although the veracity of that claim is very unclear.2 Whatever one thinks of the declaration, it’s clearly having an effect in some corners. The Trump Administration — and advisor Scott Atlas in particular — want to cut back on testing and encourage everyone to return to normal life. And publications as far left as Jacobin have endorsed it because of the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on the poor.
So what do I think?
First, I’ll concede a few points. Kids skipping vaccinations is a very serious concern and it is foolish for parents to be doing it. What we know about the virus indicates that vaccinations can be given very safely with minimal risk of exposure. Furthermore, children are the least vulnerable to COVID-19. So even if a child were exposed — which is very unlikely given basic precautions — the danger is less than if they were exposed to say, measles, which is significantly more lethal to children. I also share the concern about people’s mental health. I think we should be doing everything we can to create less risky ways for people to interact (e.g., open air concerts and outdoor dining). I also worry that a generation of children is going to lose a year of schooling … or, more accurately, a generation of poor children will do so. The early indications are that re-opening schools with extensive safety precautions is not causing mass outbreaks. And I also agree the economic pain of COVID-19 restrictions is both very real and very concentrated among certain populations.
But … the Declaration’s analysis and remedy to this difficult situation is simply hot garbage.
First of all, the entire point of COVID-19 restrictions was to buy enough time for vaccines and medicines to be developed to handle the disease. To abandon the current strategy, to have made all that sacrifice only to give up at the last moment is madness, as Tyler Cowen points out:
By the middle of next year, and quite possibly sooner, the world will be in a much better position to combat Covid-19. The arrival of some mix of vaccines and therapeutics will improve the situation, so it makes sense to shift cases and infection risks into the future while being somewhat protective now. To allow large numbers of people today to die of Covid, in wealthy countries, is akin to charging the hill and taking casualties two days before the end of World War I.
He also point out that Declaration badly portrays the current situation:
The claim is this: “Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.” The health problems are very real, but in most of the U.S., the lockdowns are not severe. In my home state of Virginia, there are relatively few commercial activities I cannot partake in, were I so inclined. I even can go see a live bluegrass concert in a nightclub (I won’t, not yet).
The problem is that most people don’t want to go out to such concerts, and indeed probably should not. It is this self-enforced isolation, not a government order, which screws us up, sometimes creating mental and other health problems.
You may have heard that the WHO recently “reversed” its view of lockdowns. But it has done no such thing. Lockdowns have always been seen as a last resort and the WHO has always opposed them outside of extreme circumstances, such as the early days in Wuhan and Lombardy. Restrictions on, say, restaurants, are not “lockdowns”. One can debate the wisdom of them, but we need to be clear on what is being discussed. Especially as we are having a very critical dialogue right now on what can be safely opened and what can’t be.
Moreover, Cowen says something very important in those paragraphs: most of the problem is not laws, but behavior. People are choosing not to engage in many activities that are technically allowed. Folding businesses, missed vaccinations, public health crises — these are happening even in places that have few restrictions. And when caseloads drop and people do resume normal activities, we see caseloads surge, as is happening all over Europe right now. And then, laws or no, people start to stay home again. It turns out, people don’t want to risk death for a burger.
In that light, what the Declaration is demanding is not that restrictions be lifted. That will only ease some of the pain. No, it’s demanding that people be told, maybe even lied to in order get them to resume “normal life”. That we actively encourage the infection to spread so that we can reach the glorious destiny of herd immunity.3
Am I being ungenerous? Oh, my friends, I have not even begun to get ungenerous.
I have frequently cited Orac during this pandemic and his response is a must-read. After going through the long and sordid history of such petitions (R.J. Reynolds once claimed 100,000 doctors preferred their cigarettes), he links to an analysis of herd immunity:
The main problem is something very basic — herd immunity requires IMMUNITY to the disease. When people are proposing herd immunity as an exit strategy for COVID-19, what they are implicitly arguing is that, once infected, you cannot get the disease again — you are immune.
Unfortunately, we know that this simply isn’t the case. There are already widespread reports of people getting reinfected with COVID-19, and worryingly some of these people are having MORE severe infections the second time around. This makes herd immunity in the traditional sense largely unreachable, because some people can clearly get infected and transmit the virus on to others over and over again.
We also don’t know how long the immunity will last even in people who get infected and are then immune. Some people may be immune for months, some for years, some for their entire lives — we simply have very little idea and won’t know for sure for a while yet. If large swathes of the population are infected this year but do not develop long-lasting immunity, chances are we’ll have epidemics in the future as well.
What is more likely to happen with herd immunity is not the virus disappears; it’s that it becomes endemic: returning periodically for another round of murder, just like the flu does. Now that might happen if we wait for a vaccine too. But the difference is that the current approach gets us to that state — an endemic disease mitigated by a vaccine — without a giant pile of bodies.
It’s also not clear that “focused protection” is even a thing. First of all, protect whom? Half of Americans are elderly or have pre-existing conditions. We have already seen that once the disease explodes in young people, it’s only a matter of time it trickles up to the old and vulnerable. And this especially true of the poor and minorities, who are much more likely to live in multi-generational households.
Let’s keep something else in mind: just because COVID doesn’t kill you doesn’t make it a walk in the park. Many of the people who it get are seriously ill for weeks. A significant number end up hospitalized with the massive bills that entails. Herd immunity, even assuming it can even be achieved, doesn’t just come over a pile of bodies. It comes over a pile of seriously ill people who may have long-term health consequences.
Now, I think we do need a careful re-evaluation of our strategy. Many of the mitigation methods and rules being employed seem random and arbitrary. A strategy that founds itself on wearing masks, socially distancing and avoiding mass gatherings, to my mind, serves both purposes: allowing society as function as fully as possible while still mitigating the spread of the virus until we have a vaccine. It’s one that allows everyone, not just those who aren’t vulnerable, to continue to participate in society. The price ranges from the mild inconvenience of wearing masks to the more serious problem of economic pain (which can be mitigated by more financial relief; at least for a while).
In comparison to that, I would argue that the “lock up the olds and let the young roam free” strategy is not a compassionate approach; it is a cruel one. Even if it worked, it would combine the worst of both worlds — a spreading epidemic, a massive healthcare crisis and a population of vulnerable people locked in their homes. It wouldn’t end the pain of COVID restrictions; it would concentrate them on a large group of people so that those outside the group could pretend that nothing was wrong.
In the end, I can only conclude that the philosophy of the GBD is pure selfishness. The Barrington approach won’t bring back lost jobs. It won’t restore failed businesses. It probably won’t even achieve herd immunity. What it will do is allow parts of the population to pretend they’re going back to “normal life” while everyone else has to lock down even tighter than they are now. That’s not compassion. And it’s certainly science.
[ThTh2] Speaking of COVID, a new study claims that suicides did not increase during the first few months of restrictiosn. There are a lot of assumptions going around about the effect the restrictions on mental health and well-being. It’s not clear that we have enough data to judge yet. Also, it now seems COVID was here a lot earlier than we thought.
[ThTh3] Sometimes all-sky cameras show the darndest things:
An owl took a break last night atop the automated all-sky camera at the @LowellObs Anderson Mesa telescope site, treating us to this spectacular closeup of its butt. One of our staff noted that we now had… wait for it… an owl-sky camera! #HyuckHyuckHyuck pic.twitter.com/TA9uQQO9xj
— Jeffrey Hall (@JeffreyCHall) October 19, 2020
[ThTh4] Japan is planning to release tons of radioactive water into the ocean. It’s not clear to me how dangerous this is.
[ThTh5] Our ancestors were clever:
Now, if this isn't the coolest thing you've seen today then you need to close the refrigerator. It's an animation of how bridges were built in Central Europe in the middle-ages. pic.twitter.com/FhlpwTlee5
— Gavin Shoebridge (@KiwiEV) October 14, 2020
[ThTh6] Very clever:
A mechanical musical marvel from the late 1800s. pic.twitter.com/Tgokp096pU
— Steampunk Tendencies (@Steampunk_T) October 8, 2020
[ThTh7] Heavy metal planets.
[ThTh8] Why are barns painted red? Because of dying stars.
- I’m libertarian. Ish. Sort of. But that only makes me extra weary of “scientific” declarations coming out of such things.
- A bunch of Twitter users are apparently having a whale of a time poring through the signature and finding fake names.
- Notably, the Declaration does not mention masks, which makes me think they really are talking about spreading the disease as rapidly as possible.