“Herd Immunity” as Indirect Genocide

While the topic of “herd immunity” first made its way into the COVID-19 news cycle back in March 2020 in the U.K., it has been gaining traction this month in the U.S. as conservative pundits and politicians abandon whatever hope they may have had of controlling the spread of the virus. The Economist asks, “Should COVID Be Left to Spread Among the Young and Healthy?” and in the journal Nature, scientists have explained “The False Promise of Herd Immunity for COVID-19.” What much discussion on this topic is missing, though, is a basic understanding of how infectious diseases respond to and in fact thrive amid socio-economic inequities. When you pair arguments for non-action with a model of the existing structure of our society, what you get is an argument for indirect genocide.

Public discourse generally assumes a biomedical perspective on COVID-19. We know that this is a virus, we know how viruses generally infect and impact human bodies, and we now know more about how this particular virus infects and impacts human bodies. The problem is, though, that the virus doesn’t just infect human bodies. It infects people. An analogy might be helpful here. A doctor can look at a human body like a car mechanic looks at a car. This may enable the mechanic to fix the car, but will often tell us very little that is helpful for preventing car accidents. To do that, we need to understand how drivers act and interact with one another and with the car, how roads and traffic signals are designed, et cetera. To deal with the five hundred car pile-up that is COVID-19, we need to include but move beyond biomedicine.

In its kinder, gentler form, the herd immunity argument–that young and healthy people should go back to work and should gain immunity through exposure to COVID-19–is rooted in a biomedical perspective on young healthy bodies. It assumes that young healthy people will be able to separate themselves from older and unhealthy people. What does this assumption take for granted? Among other things, wealth. It is mostly rich young healthy people who live apart from their parents, or who live in large enough homes to be able to avoid infecting unhealthy, older, and immuno-compromised individuals. And it is mostly rich people who work in jobs where they are able to to stay home if they are not a young healthy person. By and large, less wealthy persons are not able to approximate these ideals. They often live in multigenerational households, work in jobs where they have to be physically present and in contact with others, and are disproportionally burdened with health problems.

In our society, statistically speaking, wealth and Whiteness are correlated. While anyone might be rich, most rich people are White, and most rich people who are not White are in greater contact with friends and relatives who are not wealthy. So when a pundit or politician advocates for young healthy people to gain herd immunity, what they are advocating for is a world in which most White people are able to go back to work, or work remotely, while most Black people, Indigenous People, and People of Color must choose between having the money to feed their family and staying safe from COVID-19. In simple terms, this would lead to, and has already effectively begun, what can be described as indirect genocide.

There’s more to this story. I could describe the history of government actions and social policy that have led to racialized inequities, or the contemporary situation in which these inequities are reinforced and reproduced. Linked to many distinct levels of causality, the complexity of the problem is immense. However, I perhaps naively think that this knowledge–that the “herd immunity” policy would lead to more deaths among people who are not White–should be enough on its own to lead the vast majority of Americans to consider it to be immoral and indefensible.