As we exit lockdown and begin to return to our normal lives, it important that we do not assume that herd immunity offers a perfect solution.Tempie Koenig,

Content Note: This article contains discussion of racism and inequality between socioeconomic groups, as well as brief mention of anti-Semitism.

Students’ varying responses to the University’s COVID-19 regulations come as no surprise, even as term draws to a close. Term amidst a global pandemic was bound to be a bizarre experience for all, sparking intense debate from all corners of the student body. However, what is often overlooked is students’ perhaps misplaced faith in herd immunity. Despite the ethical and practical issues surrounding this strategy, the phrase “let’s just all get coronavirus and get it over with!” has been more frequently heard than expected.

Herd immunity can be understood as an epidemiologist strategy that seeks to resist the spread of a virus by allowing a vast number of the population to become infected, and therefore develop immunity. This method is effective when the vast majority of a population is already vaccinated, and therefore the virus is less likely to spread. For example, herd immunity has indeed lowered the rate of infection for diseases such as measles or polio, where 95 percent and 80 percent of a population is already vaccinated.

However, according to some, not only is herd immunity a strategy that undermines and endangers specific groups of in strata of society, perhaps even as seriously as on racial grounds, there is a strong likelihood that it may be ineffective when it comes to COVID-19. Even the World Health Organisation declared that “attempts to reach ‘herd immunity’ ... are scientifically problematic and unethical. Letting COVID-19 spread through populations, of any age or health status will lead to unnecessary infections, suffering, and death.” Whilst progress in developing a vaccine is occurring at encouragingly rapid rates, the fact remains that as we move out of lockdown, and the tier system is challenged, levels of immunity in the community remain low.

“However, according to some, not only is herd immunity a strategy that undermines and endangers specific groups of in strata of society, perhaps even as seriously as on racial grounds, there is a strong likelihood that it may be ineffective when it comes to COVID-19.”

The Swedish COVID-19 story exemplifies this problematic nature of herd immunity. To contextualise, since the pandemic began, Sweden has remained lockdown free, governed by herd immunity policies. In light of global criticism, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell had adamantly rejected any association to herd immunity. Yet, leaked emails between Tegnell and Finnish epidemiologist Mika Salminen exposed the truth: that losing the elderly and the vulnerable was, indeed, “worth it”, according to Tegnell.

This language of ‘worth’, of whose lives are disposable and whose have value, is arguably indistinguishable from the language of scientific racism. From a broader point of view, herd immunity relies on sacrifice: an arguably utilitarian strategy to maximise the number of individuals benefited, but at the expense of the most vulnerable. If not able to shield, the disabled, the elderly, the immuno-compromised, the most vulnerable in society are sacrificed for ‘the greater good’. In fact, Swedish care-homes were hit the hardest during the early months of the pandemic. Back in May, care-home residents accounted for nearly half of COVID-19 deaths. Doctors and health-care services were even prevented from entering care-homes and from providing care or medication, effectively leaving the elderly to their deaths. This abandonment of the elderly, the ill, or disabled is a stark legacy of Social Darwinist notions of human worth.

Tegnell’s rhetoric further clarifies these disturbing undertones of the government’s strategy. In an interview with The Times on May 24, as the global death rate reached 340,000, he claimed that other countries simply “needed a bit more ice in their stomach” to brace the pandemic. This association between physical characteristics and strength/weakness could even be seen as reflective of the Social Darwinist belief that the white man - in this case, the Scandinavian Viking with “ice in [his] stomach” - is the unequivocal emblem of human progress. The racial undertones of the Swedish herd immunity strategy were made clear when a popular Swedish podcast branded anyone who dared criticise the Swedish herd immunity method as either a “Jew” or an “immigrant”.

Yet, unfortunately, the effects of herd immunity do not start and end with language or rhetoric. The Swedish strategy appears to have had race and socioeconomic class-dependent effects on society, disproportionately affecting non-white immigrants from low- to middle-income countries. A recent study published in October has revealed that non-white immigrants are significantly more likely to die from COVID-19 than any other group in Sweden. Linking this back to herd immunity, working-class immigrants are overrepresented in the most essential professions, such as domestic work, service work, nurses, teachers, and other hospital staff and therefore they have been subjected to the highest risk levels of infection. Although this is currently a problem in virtually every society across the world, it is made strikingly obvious in Sweden due to herd immunity policies which have inhibited all and any possibilities of protection from the virus. Whilst lockdown may be a frustrating experience, it undoubtedly has provided an additional layer of protection for the most highly exposed and therefore the most at-risk individuals.

“Yet, unfortunately, the effects of herd immunity do not start and end with language or rhetoric.”

This same phenomenon has been prevalent in countries that have undertaken similar, although not as severe, herd immunity strategies, including the United Kingdom (in its initial stages) and the United States. In both of these countries, BME people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, on social, economic, and physical levels.

In the UK, although black and Asian people constitute only 13 percent of the population, they were grossly overrepresented in COVID-19 cases and deaths. While it may be true that BME communities have a higher incidence of comorbidities (such as hypertension and type two diabetes) which can affect their vulnerability to COVID-19, there are multiple considerations to take into account: reducing all to genetics without considering the structural, environmental roots of such pathologies would give an incomplete picture of these pathologies. For example, an individual from a more economically disadvantaged position than the average may be forced to adopt a poorer quality diet, and therefore be more at risk of developing hypertension or type 2 diabetes. The current pandemic has merely revealed pre-existing inequalities in society and exacerbated what may seem as ‘natural’ inequalities in profoundly ‘unnatural’ ways.


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Some commentators have even attempted to explain these figures away by blaming individual BME communities, arguing that they are less likely to follow social distancing guidelines (which comes with its own racist implications). This may be true, but not due to some natural predisposition to disobedience: decades of housing segregation has meant that black and Asian people in the UK are left in overcrowded conditions that make it impossible to follow social distancing instructions. Moreover, considering that the study was undertaken in the early months of the pandemic, with data collected until 3 April, it is highly likely that these figures account for the UK’s early adoption of the herd immunity strategy - which, as we have observed in Sweden, would have affected BME people the most.

Similarly in some cities across the US, despite only making up small portions of the population, African Americans have represented more than half of COVID-19 deaths. This racial disparity, again, is largely caused by wider inequalities in resources, health, and access to public services; but most significantly, has been a direct result of 6-week long herd immunity policies that prevented earlier safety measures. According to a study conducted by Columbia University, 54,000 lives could have been saved had herd immunity been replaced by lockdown measures; and due to the over-representation of African Americans in COVID-19 deaths, it is safe to assume the majority of these lives would have been black.

Finally, an alarming amount of evidence seems to prove that herd immunity simply is not working. The US, UK, and Sweden have demonstrated relatively poor ability to control the spread of the virus, consistently ranking amongst the highest death rates per capita in the world, and immunity is declining at unprecedented rates. Herd immunity may be effective when the vast majority of the population is already vaccinated, but it is without a doubt a dangerous method in the case of COVID-19; where the very possibility of immunity remains questionable for the time being. Moreover, cities that enforced lock-downs report substantially higher levels of antibodies in their populations than Stockholm, where the figure remains disturbingly low.

Not only is herd immunity ineffective with COVID-19, but it could also even be said to be dehumanising: qualifying who deserves to live and who does not is ultimately a dehumanisation strategy. Herd immunity should not be accepted as the norm without consideration of its efficacy and wider effects on society.