Flattened Herds


Flattening the curve and herd immunity are terms that are being thrown around quite a bit during the last few days. The former refers to getting the number of cases down so that they do not overwhelm the carrying capacity of a given countries’ health care system while the latter refers to the notion that enough immune individuals protect the vulnerable through sheer numbers. As pointed out here the first makes dubious assumptions about what carrying capacity means as it is limited as much or more by objects (beds and ventilators) than by a general notion of how many patients can be treated by hospitals.

The notion of herd immunity has been trotted out by UK officials as a strategy to basically accept most people will get infected and that this will lead to a faster herd immunity. Of course, as many others have pointed out, this means risking the lives of all of those more susceptible until immunity occurs (and no one seems to be able to say how long that takes though adaptive immunity can occur in weeks). The phrase herd immunity usually refers to a population’s collective immunity post-vaccine not acquired by immune systems alone. In addition, viruses mutate faster then immune systems adapt (hence why flu shots have to be consistently re-engineered).

Obviously these dovetail in the event that you need humans to adjust and expand the carrying capacity of hospitals and produce and distribute the devices required (Germany for instance is utilizing the military to gather and distribute ventilators). And if you let 60-70% of a population get sick who is going to be able to isolate and protect the elderly, immuno-deficient etc.?


So even a short dip into the concept of herd immunity shows the UK proposed policy (which perhaps they are already backing away from) as woefully ignorant (to say nothing of its cruelty). Yet, on the other side, so many critical responses to the proposed measures to contain Corona have been imbecilic to put it lightly. Others have celebrated the ecological respite that the disease has caused (less production, less pollution) or emphasizing the connection between industrial agricultural the spread of diseases. This last point is the punchline of Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) where deforestation leads to wild animal interactions (like a bat) with homogeneous industrial farm animals (like pigs) which then jumps to humans. But this quickly tips over into a glee about the virus being nature’s revenge or taps into someone like Haraway’s Malthusianism.

Films like Contagion or Outbreak tend to de-emphasize incompetence (it’s not surprising since it is not cinematically engaging other than to make a human villain) and this is what is difficult to ignore – this and the economic stakes of things being privileged over stopping the spread of the virus (why are the airlines cutting prices and not simply shut down?) To call the herd immunity strategy of the UK eugenics is off only that eugenics is better organized but is at least openly racist about its goals. Contagion does address big pharma and hucksterism but it pales in comparison to what Gilead is currently suspected of doing – blocking Chinese attempts to release a vaccine at cost. This is also suspected to be part of the slow testing rates in places like the USA – the rejection of the WHO tests so that local pharma can make big money producing their own.

Thus the fact that some can dismiss self-quarantine as bio-politics has very little understanding of the constructive uses of the term and that the distribution of resources is a problem of capitalism and that all biologically centered measures of control cannot be equated with fascism. If what Taiwan did was about political ideology and not a virus (scanning everyone who entered the country, quarantining quickly etc) then yes it would look like a totalitarian nightmare but public healthy cannot be collapsed with public health. Freedom loving libertarians could complain sewage systems and hospitals are communist are socialist but they would be idiots to do so.

It seems obvious that one has to understand the constructive aspects of biology as they are twisted but at times positively magnified by governmental structure. It’s the ways in which liberal democracy cows to the markets that is the real villainy – Trump attempting to buy exclusive rights to a vaccine or propping up markets but refusing to give sick pay or cover treatment or make testing readily available. This is part of a longer work to really get at the bio- in biopolitics that is not overcoded by lebensphilosophie or phenomenology.

One Response to “Flattened Herds”

  1. 1 What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics? (pt 1) | Naught Thought

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