Is it realistic to expect us to eliminate Covid entirely? This seems to be the goal of government policies like mandatory masking and vaccinations.
Jay Bhattacharya and Donald J. Boudreaux give us their answer in The Wall Street Journal. Dr. Bhattacharya is a professor of medicine at Stanford and Mr. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University. They call eradicating the virus a fantasy. They say governments and compliant media have used the lure of zero-Covid to induce obedience to harsh and arbitrary lockdown policies and associated violations of civil liberties.
They tell us that countries like New Zealand, Australia, and especially China have most zealously embraced zero-Covid. China’s initial lockdown in Wuhan was the most tyrannical. It infamously locked people into their homes, forced patients to take untested medications, imposed 40-day quarantines at gunpoint, and restricted domestic travel – while still allowing international travel.
New Zealand began one of the most onerous lockdowns in the world on March 24, 2020. They sharply restricted international travel, imposed business lockdowns and closures, prohibited going outside, and officially encouraged citizens to snitch on neighbors. In May, 2020, having hit zero-Covid, New Zealand lifted lockdown restrictions except quarantines for international travelers and warrantless house searches to enforce lockdowns.
Australia banned international travel, closed schools, occasionally separated mothers from premature newborns, brutally suppressed protests, and arrested anyone for wandering more than three miles from home. New Zealand, Australia, and China celebrated their claimed success and then lifted their lockdowns.
With the return of Covid, the lockdowns also returned. Australia’s current lockdowns in Sydney are enforced by military patrols. Strict warnings are given by health officials against speaking with neighbors. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the U.K. said “The U.K. must learn to live with the virus”, New Zealand’s minister for Covid-19 response, Chris Hipkins, responded, “That’s not something that we have been willing to accept in New Zealand.”
But is this realistic thinking?
“Eradicating this virus right now from the world is a lot like trying to plan the construction of a stepping-stone pathway to the Moon. It’s unrealistic,” says Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
What is the historical record concerning eradication of infectious diseases? These authors tell us the world has successfully eradicated only two diseases in history – rinderpest and smallpox. Rinderpest is a disease found only in even-toed ungulates. That leaves smallpox as the only disease in humans ever to be fully eradicated by mankind. Even the bacterium responsible for the Black Death – the 14th century outbreak of bubonic plague – is still found in isolated places, causing infections even in the U.S.
To be sure, the eradication of smallpox was an impressive achievement. Smallpox is caused by a virus 100 times as deadly as Covid. However, SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) is carried by both humans and animals, while smallpox was only carried by humans. To eliminate Covid would also require the elimination of dogs, cats, mink, bats and other animals. The smallpox vaccine is incredibly effective at preventing infection and severe disease, even after exposure to disease, with protection lasting 5 – 10 years. The Covid vaccines appear to be far less effective at preventing spread.
The authors say smallpox eradication required a concerted global effort lasting decades and unprecedented cooperation among nations that seems unreasonable to expect today. We can’t even get full disclosure from the Chinese about the origins of the virus much less full cooperation and disclosure about the infections in their own country. The authors say, “The consistent failure of government officials to recognize the harms of lockdowns – often citing the precautionary principle – disqualifies Covid as a candidate for eradication.”
What is the alternative to zero-Covid?
The authors say the only practical course is to live with the virus in the same way that we have learned to live over millennia with countless other pathogens. What is needed is a focused protection policy to help us cope with the risk. There is a thousand-fold difference in the mortality and hospitalization risk posed by the virus when comparing the old relative to the young. Now that we have good vaccines to protect the most vulnerable, the best course of action is to offer the vaccines to the vulnerable everywhere, but not the failed lockdowns.
This should not be unfamiliar territory. We live with countless other hazards in our world and adapt to these conditions. Influenza typically claims the lives of over 40,000 Americans annually and in some years many more. Yet only 60% of the vulnerable population and less than 40% of the rest typically get vaccinated – and no politician calls for mandatory vaccinations or masking. Automobiles cause over 45,000 fatalities annually, but no one would suggest eliminating motor vehicles. Drownings and electrocutions could be eliminated by outlawing swimming and electricity – but no one would suggest such policies.
The authors conclude: “We learn to live with these risks not because we’re indifferent to suffering but because we understand that the costs of zero-drowning or zero-electrocution would be far too great. The same is true of zero-Covid.”
(Note: Dr. Bhattacharya is one of the medical experts that developed The Great Barrington Declaration which was discussed in an earlier post Epidemiologists Reject Political Correctness.)