Outrunning the Red Death
I recently mentioned the old joke about outrunning the bear, and noted that changing the bear to a pack of wolves probably makes the joke a lot less funny for the smug libertarian or survivalist prepper. Changing the bear to a community of infected people is even less funny. While I was scrambling to learn a bit about Ebola, I ran across the the concept of herd immunity. Briefly, doctors and nurses inoculate most members of the population against a virus or bacterium to protect weaker members.
This may not make sense to libertarians, who may ask, Why not just inoculate the weaker members, and leave the strong alone? In some cases the answer is simple: weaker members may not survive the inoculation. In other cases though, as with pertussis, or whooping cough, herd vaccination is attempted even when vaccination of infants is possible.
I say attempted because there is indeed a backlash against vaccination. Many science-oriented blogs chronicle the exploits of Jenny McCarthy and other minor celebrities who still campaign against some vaccination based on the claim that it leads to autism. Other parents object to all vaccination on religious grounds. Some people have simply given up trusting doctors, the medical establishment and the government. Given the efficacy and cost of US medical care I can’t blame them for that, but I’m not sure that abstaining from vaccination is the best way to protest.
There has been a local backlash against vaccination in Pakistan after the CIA used a vaccination program as a cover to collect DNA while searching for Osama bin Laden. (Some 911 truthers claim that the government already knew bin Laden was long dead, but perhaps no one told the CIA.) One result has been that in 2014 so far, 61 of the 77 documented cases of polio worldwide were in Pakistan.
In many places the medical community complains about the return of diseases that were thought to have been eradicated. I ran across a NY Times book review of On Immunity written by Eula Biss:
In “On Immunity,” [Biss] is especially exacting on the topic of what she calls “people like me,” those blazingly hygienic parents, many of them upper-middle-class, for whom organized personal purity (air filters, water filters, “natural” foods) substitutes for organized religion.
She understands this impulse toward immaculateness. She also deplores it. She observes that purity is the “innocent concept behind a number of the most sinister social actions of the past century”: eugenics movements, forced sterilizations, miscegenation and sodomy laws, and the slaughter of millions. “Quite a bit of human solidarity has been sacrificed,” she says, “in pursuit of preserving some kind of imagined purity.”
Human solidarity is, in a way, her great subject in “On Immunity.” Our children need their shots not merely for their own sake, but also for the sake of others. “Immunity,” she declares, “is a public space.”
Biss is decrying obsessive personal hygiene as a sort of go-it-alone individualist response to a herd problem. And Ebola is a perfect case whereby a lack of investment in general sanitation and medical care could be bringing the Masque of disease and death to everyone’s door, whether rich or poor.
In Buffalo Wind, the latest of his Dark Age America series on the vulnerability of the wealthy elites during a time of slow collapse, John Michael Greer has veered into discussing Ebola, but it makes general sense to me that upholding the middle class social contract was also a sort of herd immunity that ultimately protected the wealthiest. If we still had a thriving middle class, we wouldn’t have had Occupy Wall Street, and we probably wouldn’t see the Tea Party movement still affecting primary politics. If we treated our returning veterans fairly, we would have fewer people vaulting the White House fences. If we still had a growing economy, rich guys wouldn’t be writing OpEds about poor people with pitchforks. We’d also probably have fewer zombie shows on the tube.
Unfortunately we aren’t upholding that contract and I suspect the the plutocracy knows we can’t afford it anymore. Today I’m supposed to receive a copy of Laurie Garrett’s Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health and a copy of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. Instead of investing in infrastructure that might protect the middle class, it seems to me that our government has invested in spying on the middle class.