Until recently, progressive elites had cornered the market in COVID irrationality. They shut down society to prevent one particular threat to human health, oblivious to the costs of that shutdown on the rest of human flourishing. They used a zero-tolerance approach to COVID risk, arguing that if lockdowns prevented just one death from COVID, as New York governor Andrew Cuomo insisted early on, the destruction of social and economic capital would be worth it. They inflated the toll that COVID was allegedly taking on human life, counting hospital admissions and deaths with COVID as hospital admissions and deaths from COVID. They hyped case counts as tantamount to death counts and refused to compare COVID deaths with other sources of human mortality.
Progressive safetyism reached its reductio ab absurdum when COVID vaccines appeared on the scene. European and American authorities halted vaccine campaigns upon the discovery of a small number of blood clots among the vaccinated and an even smaller number of blood-clot related deaths. No causal connection between the blood clots and the vaccines had been established; indeed, in the EU and UK, the incidence of blood clots among the vaccinated population — a rate of 0.00023 percent —was lower than that among the unvaccinated population. Even assuming arguendo that the vaccines were causal in the handful of post-vaccine blood clot deaths, halting vaccinations would be justified only if the post-vaccine blood clot death risk — a rate of 0.000095 percent in Europe and 0.000014 percent in the US — was greater than the unvaccinated COVID death risk.
We had been told that the COVID death risk was enormous; either that was not true or the vaccination pauses represented knee-jerk policing-making at its worst.
Now the progressive elites are caught again between two tempting sources of hysteria, like a donkey caught between two bales of hay: should they flog the threat from the allegedly dread Delta variant, or from breakthrough infections among the vaccinated? Focusing on the first threat should diminish the significance of the second, as the lesser of two evils. But the virus hysterics are having it both ways, in order to rekindle peak COVID terror.
The Delta fearmonger’s playbook is already familiar: suppress all facts that would work against that fear. Those facts include the innocuousness of a Delta infection’s average symptoms: a runny nose, a sore throat and a headache; more than adequate hospital capacity; and the negligible number of COVID deaths. Those deaths, currently about 400 a day in the US (including deaths with as well as from COVID), represent a sixth of the daily mortalities from heart disease and cancer in the US, and are concentrated, as ever, among the obese, the diabetic and the hypertensive. In New York City, three people a day are dying of COVID, a trivial amount.
Breakthrough infections among the vaccinated are an equally tempting source of fear-mongering, however, since they seem to strip the public of a safe harbor from COVID risk. COVID cases among the vaccinated are even milder than usual and are virtually never lethal. Nevertheless, the CDC and the media pounced on several hundred breakthrough infections following a 60,000-strong Fourth of July gathering in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in order to justify renewed mask mandates. Almost none of the infected got seriously ill; there were no deaths. We are supposed to view the Provincetown outbreak not just as alarming but as an augury for us all, even though a population of disproportionately gay men engaging in heavy partying and likely frequent sex, with a higher than average rate of compromised immune systems, is not representative of the national population.
Hyping the breakthrough infection ‘problem’ works against the legitimate goal of widespread vaccination, but setting priorities and contextualizing risk is beyond the capacities of the media and the public health establishment.
Now, however, safetyism and irrationality are proving contagious even among conservatives. An acquaintance justified her opposition to vaccination on the grounds that a vaccinated friend died of a heart attack. Anti-vax websites throb with reports of post-vaccine calamities, even though causation is never established. One site notes that there have been 11,000 deaths between December 14, 2020, and July 9, 2021, reported on a database for adverse events following all vaccines, not just anti-COVID vaccines. Assuming again for the sake of argument that vaccination prompted those deaths (and that COVID vaccines were exclusively responsible), they represent 0.0067 of the 164 million people who have been vaccinated as of July 30.
The CDC, by contrast, reports 1,263 deaths among the COVID-vaccinated as of July 26, or 0.00077 percent of the vaccinated population. Many of these casualties would have died anyway. Though conservatives are right to point out the high survival rate for COVID, it is lower than the survival rate following COVID vaccines.
Conservative and libertarian skeptics are also seizing on breakthrough infections to justify vaccine opposition. Dave Rubin tweeted that breakthrough infections show that the vaccines were ‘clearly not working as promised’. But they are working. Close to 99 percent of new COVID cases are among the unvaccinated. No medical treatment will ever be 100 percent effective.
When Donald Trump was in the White House, conservatives lauded Operation Warp Speed. They viewed Pfizer’s decision not to seek emergency authorization for its COVID vaccine until after the November 2020 election as an attempt to deny Trump a much-needed and deserved boost at the ballot box. Liberals, meanwhile, from Kamala Harris to Andrew Cuomo, expressed skepticism about the safety of a Trump-overseen vaccine. Now that Joe Biden is president, the conservative outer fringes are portraying COVID vaccines as bioweapons designed by ‘globalist psychopaths’, while liberals are decrying vaccine hesitancy as a pathology of right-wingers, ignoring the even higher rate of skepticism among blacks.
Many conservatives would insist that their opposition focuses on vaccine mandates, rather than on the vaccines themselves. But the distinction is not sharply drawn. The media and the numerous Democratic interest groups will never stop hyping COVID case counts as a way to keep society in lockdown or its next best alternatives: universal masking and crippling social distancing rules. If the last year and a half has taught anything, it is that no amount of rational argument can counter the siren song of fear. The only way to defeat the case count racket and return human life to some semblance of normalcy is to eliminate rising case counts entirely. Vaccines are a proven way of doing so, whose risks at this point pale in comparison with the destructiveness of COVID hysteria. Conservatives should be promoting their use, including mandates for healthcare workers, once the object of saccharine nightly tributes of horn blowing and pot banging, now among the staunchest of vax-resisters.