As two weeks to flatten the curve lumbers toward its third year, one develops a kind of natural immunity to things like theNational Post’s Nov. 5 story that “herd immunity” is impossible. I mean, you wouldn’t want an outbreak of recognition that the authorities had been making it up all along.
They have. That story began “Back in the early stages of the pandemic, when vaccines were still just a hopeful idea and variants of concern had yet to make an appearance, herd immunity was all the talk… Most researchers… figured a community would need to see 60 to 70 per cent of its population immunized (either through vaccination or catching the virus) to starve COVID-19 of new bodies to infect… But that figure seems quaint now.”
I can think of other words. But in some sense we’re not meant to keep track because it never was about consistency, let alone accuracy. It was about being soothing. Thus a note in my files has the premier of New South Wales, Australia urging his people on Nov. 8 to give it a “final push” to get to “the magic 95%”. Magic. Yay. Saved. But then came the Nov. 24 story “British scientists warn of ‘horrific’ new COVID-19 variant”, rare so far, that “carries 32 mutations, suggesting it is highly transmissible and vaccine-resistant.”
Good feeling’s gone. Who saw that coming?
OK, there’s no particular reason politicians would know what the disease was going to do. But the problem is that there is a reason they’d pretend to. There’s a wise line attributed to Donald Rumsfeld: “Learn to say ‘I don’t know’. If used when appropriate it will be often.” But what would ensue if a politician said it on an important issue?
They would be roasted. And roasting politicians for ignorance is often justified. For instance Trudeau on monetary policy. But in addition to the virtues of saying “I don’t know, let me check”, there are many things nobody can know, including what the economy is going to do. And we voters don’t want to hear it.
On COVID it would have been reasonable for medical officers of health (is there another kind?) to say, and politicians to repeat: Look, we have some idea how emergent diseases play out because humankind has been plagued by them, to coin a phrase, from time immemorial. From things like the Antonine Plague, The Plague of Cyprian, and the hey-did-everyone-just-drop-dead plague we know they generally mutate into less virulent strains because killing your host is maladaptive. Unless they don’t. Like Ebola, polio, the Black Death or smallpox. Some we can mostly prevent. Others not so much. Natural immunity is some help. We’ll have to wait and see.
There’s the real problem. The worst thing they could have said politically is the most reasonable scientifically: that they are aware of a problem but cannot entirely solve it. And the reason they can’t say such a thing is not that the opposition would swoop with bared claws. It’s that they would swoop, and successfully, because citizens would refuse to accept such an answer.
We have this illusion of technical omnipotence in modern society. And if we were to let go of it, we would feel especially naked before a pitiless fate if we are pure materialists all excited about evolution until germs do it. So a headline “COVID-19: System can deal with rising cases, Elliott says” tells you nothing about what the system can deal with, whether cases are rising or what Elliott thinks about either. Instead MRDA, because they must tell you everything is under control if you just do whatever you’re currently told, regardless of what you were told last week, will be next week, or what they really think or fear might be looming.
Thus after the initial blatherskite flopping around on don’t stay home got to a Chinese restaurant you nasty bigots, masks don’t work, what me close borders, they told us to stay home until they got effective vaccines. Which obliged them to claim whatever vaccines they got were effective. And now to say the vaccines are so effective everyone needs boosters because otherwise the unvaccinated will infect the vaccinated and vice versa and we can pump any quantity of one experimental spike protein after another into you, granny and that kid over there and nothing can possibly go wrong.
It’s bad biology. But it’s good politics. Unlike “Hey, it’s a disease, so as usual some people will get sick and some of them will die while others will recover and die later because everybody dies eventually”.
So remember: When we reach the magic number, whether 70 or 95 this week, we’ll all be protected until we’re not. And everyone must accept the next soothing tale or be thought loud and stupid.