If there’s one historical event to which antivaxxers and COVID-19 cranks and contrarians love to compare public health interventions to mitigate the harms of the current pandemic, it’s the Holocaust, which, of course, makes public health officials, governments, and the medial professionals Nazis promoting incipient fascism. Conveniently, such analogies also allow cranks to falsely don the mantle of oppressed people, like Jews during the Holocaust, Blacks during slavery and Jim Crow, and all manner of other oppressed people, even other victims of genocide, letting them believe themselves in their minds to be heroic freedom fighters standing up for the oppressed people who are required to mask up indoors or show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to go to a restaurant, and only then in vanishing small parts of the country. Given the far rightward shift of the antivaccine movement politically, which facilitated its merger it with the always right wing contingent of COVID-19 antimaskers and “anti-lockdown” protesters, I had always wondered why one particular incident of oppression from history had been left out, particularly given that the same group has likened COVID-19 science to a cult, a classic antiscience crank move! Well, I wonder no more. Now antivaxxers are co-opting the Communist Chinese Cultural Revolution, because of course they are!
A couple of days ago, I wrote about how the “spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration,” the Brownstone Institute, has fully embraced its inner antivaxxer and is now happily spreading antivaccine misinformation in Africa and all over the world. I notice these things, because a while back I added the RSS feed for the Brownstone Institute website to my Feedly, which means that I at least see what’s being published every day by Jeffrey Tucker, Martin Kulldorff, and their merry band of COVID
freedom fighters propagandists, which led me to a howler of an article yesterday by an anonymous graduate student at Brown University and entitled The Covid Response Brought the Cultural Revolution to the West. Now we’re talking! I wondered why the right wing flacks there hadn’t tried to demonize COVID-19 public health responses with an analogy to the crimes of Communism before! As far as I can remember, only the Association of American Physicians and Scientists (AAPS, or, as I like to call them, the John Birch Society of medicine) has already gone there, comparing the Federation of State Medical Boards to the NKVD, the precursor to the Soviet KGB.
So who is this graduate student? The Brownstone Institute says simply:
The author is a PhD student at Brown University who, regrettably, must remain anonymous for now.
“Must remain anonymous”? Or: “chooses to remain anonymous”? Far be it from me to criticize someone for remaining anonymous, given my history of using a pseudonym early in my blogging career (which I continue to use now as a nom de blog of sorts, a pen name, because I like it, even though everyone who takes a few seconds to look can find my real name). However, reading this student’s ahistorical and unscientific takes tells me that there’s probably a very good reason for remaining anonymous, and it’s not fear of “persecution” or “being canceled,” but of very justified criticism and even outright mockery for spewing nonsense.
The Great Barrington Declaration’s eugenicist herd immunity approach
I could tell immediately from this article that this “anonymous Brown University graduate student” must not be studying infectious disease or epidemiology, given assertions like this:
Herd immunity is probably the most misunderstood word during the pandemic. Here, I am going to restate what Professor Sunetra Gupta, an Oxford epidemiology professor, has said [17,18,21]. When a new disease emerges, it ravages through the whole population because there is no immunity. But infection and vaccination will build herd immunity and eventually the pandemic will become endemic. An endemic state is not the same as a zero-case state. It simply means the rate of immunity (from vaccination or infection) loss equals the rate of infection. A zero-case state will never happen, at least in our lifetime. Herd immunity has been misinterpreted as a “let-it-rip strategy” by many people.
It was suggested that this student might be an economics major. That would certainly track, but I also thought that political science was a possibility. I certainly hope it isn’t history! Certainly, there is much projection here, given how bad the misunderstanding of basic epidemiological concepts like herd immunity on display is!
Whatever this student’s area of study, you might think from this statement that he or she is not antivaccine. You’d be wrong, as I will show before moving on to the spurious analogies to the Cultural Revolution. First, however, while this is is a simplistic statement of the definition of herd immunity and endemicity, let me just point out something about the term “endemic.” In brief, contrary to the assumption frequently made by those claiming that COVID-19 is nearly endemic now and use that as an excuse to do nothing, “endemic” does not equal harmless. As epidemiologist Aris Katzourakis put it:
Stating that an infection will become endemic says nothing about how long it might take to reach stasis, what the case rates, morbidity levels or death rates will be or, crucially, how much of a population — and which sectors — will be susceptible. Nor does it suggest guaranteed stability: there can still be disruptive waves from endemic infections, as seen with the US measles outbreak in 2019. Health policies and individual behaviour will determine what form — out of many possibilities — endemic COVID-19 takes.
In Brownstone-speak (and COVID-19 contrarian-speak), “endemic” means, “shrug our shoulders and do nothing and, yes, let ‘er rip,” no matter how much Brownstone denies it while comparing public health to the Cultural Revolution, even as they deny that it’s a “let ‘er rip” strategy.” After all, if you, like Jeffrey Tucker and everyone at the Brownstone Institute including Great Barrington Declaration signatory Martin Kulldorff, oppose mask mandates, vaccine mandates, and any other public health interventions to slow the spread of an infectious disease while advocating a “natural herd immunity” approach to the pandemic, even going so far as to portray masking and vaccines as basically useless, what is that other than a “let ‘er rip strategy”? You can deny that as much as you like by claiming that you advocate “focused protection” for those most vulnerable to severe disease and death, but your resistance to vaccine and mask mandates, as well as pretty much every other public health intervention, tells me that you’re all about letting COVID-19 rip through the population to reach herd immunity, damn the death toll.
Now here’s the “tell” about where this graduate student is really coming from:
The reality is, herd immunity is something that exists and will be reached no matter what we do. This is a scientific fact. The question is, how do we get there safely and ethically? The most ideal way is to build immunity via effective vaccination. By effective, I mean vaccination that can stop the transmission in the long term. Unfortunately, we do not have such a vaccine. Even before the Omicron variant, the best vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) were known to be effective at blocking the virus for less than 6 months [1,6]. Their effectiveness in preventing serious illnesses lasts longer, but this has nothing to do with herd immunity. Eventually, a certain amount of people will be infected no matter what we do. We also knew that natural immunity is stronger and lasts longer than vaccine-induced immunity since July 2021 . Unfortunately, the CDC demonized natural immunity and refused to acknowledge its durability until January 2022. And when it did acknowledge that, enormous confusion was caused among the American people.
As has been noted from time to time, any time someone so confidently declares a prediction like to be a “scientific fact” in this manner, they’re probably full of…well, you know what. (Ah, the unbridled and unjustified confidence of youth!) Next, notice the comment about vaccination. This student quite consciously restricts the definition of a vaccine that can result in herd immunity to only a vaccine that “can stop transmission in the long term,” citing the Omicron variant. Never mind that nothing in medicine is 100% and that few vaccines block transmission even close to 100%, a characteristic known as producing sterilizing immunity, which is immunity that stops the virus cold so that it can’t infect the vaccinated or be passed on by them. (Examples of long-used vaccines that don’t produce sterilizing immunity include the pertussis and hepatitis B vaccines.) Indeed, it was recognized very early on that vaccines need not completely stop transmission to curb the pandemic. Moreover, current evidence strongly suggests that hybrid immunity (from prior infection and having been vaccinated) is the most robust and that, at least as of now, boosters can restore much of the immunity evaded by the Omicron variant.
Also conveniently left out is the observation that “natural immunity” hasn’t done so well against COVID-19 either, given the rate of reinfection observed for the Omicron variant in people infected with the original COVID-19 strain or the Delta variant. What this graduate student neglects to consider is that, in the absence of long-lived immunity, whether that immunity is due to infection or vaccines, herd immunity can never be reached. If continued widespread circulation of the virus results in a situation in which new variants that can evade the immune responses to prior infection or vaccines, keep popping up, herd immunity can never be reached. Unfortunately, this is exactly the situation that we still have right now, in no small part thanks to “natural herd immunity” advocates who claim not to be antivaccine but parrot antivaccine talking points. In such a situation, as we see with influenza, to keep the disease under control could well require regular boosters, which, apparently, Brownstone Institute views as either incipient fascism or Communism, depending on the day and the particular author.
In any case, there is a huge difference between achieving herd immunity (if that’s even possible) through vaccination compared to letting a disease rip through the population that this student overlooks. Vaccination doesn’t require that huge numbers of the population get the disease and suffer the complications up to and including death from it to reach herd immunity. Or, as it was put here:
After trotting out the standard Great Barrington Declaration eugenicist talking points emphasizing how low the risk of serious disease and death from COVID-19 is in children and young adults—or, as I like to characterize them, “screw the elderly and those with chronic health conditions that predispose them to serious disease and death from the disease”—and how “lockdowns” and vaccine mandates won’t prevent us eventually reaching herd immunity from widespread infection, this foolish student argues:
From January 2020 to January 2022, only around 6,000 people aged 0-29 in the United States have died from Covid-19. It is lower than that of homicide in normal years. For people aged 0-17, only 700 have died of the disease in the past two years. In addition, studies have shown that children COVID hospitalizations are significantly overestimated . If more young people get infected, less old people will be infected. According to experts, this will result in less deaths . You may or may not support a policy that encourages young people to get infected. But you definitely should not prefer a policy that encourages young people to stay at home (unless you think older people should be used as shields because they have lived longer). Unfortunately, such a policy is exactly what the U.S. government imposed in 2020. Schools were closed. Vulnerable people were not protected. Cases and deaths soared to the sky right after the lockdowns were lifted.
“Only.” How many deaths of children are too many? For example, according to the CDC, before the measles vaccine around 400-500 people died of measles every year; 48,000 were hospitalized; and 1,000 suffered encephalitis from measles. Interestingly, that death toll is right around the pediatric toll per year so far from COVID-19 (which, is incorrect, by the way). One wonders if this student thinks we should stop requiring MMR vaccines for children, which, by the way, require at least two(!) doses! On second thought, I wonder if I should have written that. It might give the Brownstone Institute ideas.
Then the student says:
What about vaccine mandates? I have mentioned that the protection against infection only lasts for a short amount of time. Furthermore, most people in this world will eventually get infected. Is it still meaningful to have vaccine mandates to reduce hospital capacity?
Why do anything for anyone, right? I mean, every single one of us who is alive now is going to die someday anyway, no matter what we do. So what’s the point, given that everything medicine does only serves to delay the inevitable? Also, who cares if a few hundred children die every year from COVID-19, right? No, that’s exactly what this fool is arguing, whether he realizes it or not, whether he admits it or not:
Thinking a 12-year-old kid should be vaccinated in order to take the subway or go to restaurants is an insult to human intelligence. Recall that the risk of dying to Covid-19 for a young kid is almost zero. Therefore, we do not even need to consider personal preferences, freedom and philosophy, because there is almost zero benefit for them to take the vaccine. Not to mention that there are risks. Just like we should not prescribe feces or human flesh to cure diseases , this argument does not involve freedom of choice. It can’t even survive the test of basic logic.
Vaccines do not stop transmission in the long run. You may or may not agree that vaccines should be mandatory for vulnerable people. I can understand both sides. Other than that, no further discussion is meaningful.
Likening vaccinating children against COVID-19 to traditional Chinese medicine (which, obviously, I agree is quackery) that involves the use of feces or human flesh (e.g., human placenta) to cure diseases sure sounds antivaccine to me! It’s also rather clever how the student got a dig in at the Chinese just with a link. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long criticized TCM as quackery and pointed out how Chairman Mao promoted this quackery first to his people and then to the world, a legacy that the current Chinese government has continued, but to compare vaccinating children with such pre-scientific quackery gives away the game. This student is antivaccine, period. Those who are provaccine do not compare vaccines to quackery..
Enter the Cultural Revolution.
Criticism of the Great Barrington Declaration is just like the Cultural Revolution?
I started by showing how little this student knows about the science of COVID-19, infectious disease, epidemiology, and vaccines, but the article actually started with the comparison:
However, in the United States, serious scientists who are opposed to those mandates are often labeled as “Trump supporters,” “anti-vaccine,” “reckless” and “conservative.” They were silenced and maliciously attacked by the government . Their Wikipedia pages were falsely edited to mislead readers .
This level of hysteria reminds me of China’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. During the Cultural Revolution, factory workers, farmers and even middle school students had a common hobby: criticizing general relativity . General relativity was considered capitalism and “counterrevolutionary” (I know you are confused, but this word “反革命” does not make any sense in Chinese, either). Of course, none of them knew what relativity is. Universities were effectively shut down for ten years. Many scientists were beaten to death by Red Guards. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was considered “determinism.” A “red book” was carried by everyone to show loyalty to the government [36,37]. You don’t have a red book? I am sorry, you are a counterrevolutionist. Even in recent days, Chinese people are still haunted by this madness. In 2001, quantum mechanics was used to prove the correctness of the Communist Party’s ideology .
So apparently criticizing antivaxxers and advocates of a “let ‘er rip” approach to herd immunity—and, make no mistake, that’s exactly what the Great Barrington Declaration advocated before there were even vaccines—is the same as the persecution of scientists during the Cultural Revolution. Also, emails among high ranking public health officials expressing alarm at the eugenicist “herd immunity” approach to the pandemic advocated by the Great Barrington Declaration and seeking to counter its dangerous message (even more dangerous in October 2020, when it was published, than now) are also apparently like, well:
The NIH director Francis Collins wrote an email to NIAID director Anthony Fauci and said, “This proposal from the three fringe epidemiologists . . . seems to be getting a lot of attention – and even a co-signature from Nobel Prize winner Mike Leavitt at Stanford. There needs to be a quick and devastating published take down (sic) of its premises. Is it underway?” 
In a December 2021 TV interview, Collins admitted that the email is real . Not surprisingly, the declaration immediately drew criticism and was given a nickname: “let-it-rip.” The New York Timesoften puts quote marks on the term herd immunity and falsely claims that those scientists “rely on” herd immunity . Herd immunity suddenly went the same way general relativity did during the Cultural Revolution . American people started to criticize a strategy that does not even exist: “herd immunity strategy.” The facts are, the three scientists are not “fringe scientists,” they don’t rely on herd immunity; herd immunity is an inevitable equilibrium state and the real name of their strategy is focused protection, which aims to minimize death. Countless experts have signed on the Declaration . Many governments have since adopted what the Declaration proposed.
Again, did this fool of a student even ready the Great Barrington Declaration? It mentions herd immunity five times in a short document. True, it says that we “know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity,” and claims to want to minimize suffering and death until herd immunity is reached, but then it proposes a strategy that would produce the exact opposite result. Worse, herd immunity, as we are seeing, is clearly not an “inevitable equilibrium state” if the virus keeps circulating widely enough to pick up mutations periodically that produce new variants that can evade immunity from infection by previous variants of itself given that long-lived immunity due to infection and/or vaccines is a prerequisite for herd immunity. Even back in October 2020 an argument that herd immunity was inevitable regardless 0f what we do was not defensible. After the experience of the last year, with the Delta and Omicron variants showing that “natural immunity” is not necessarily long lasting, proclaiming herd immunity as inevitable is as delusional as the Chinese denying general relativity during the Cultural Revolution.
Indeed, I sense…projection:
During the Cultural Revolution, scientists were officially ranked “inferior” (臭老九). Everyone in China thought he/she was smart enough to judge scientific issues. I saw the same in the U.S. during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. I have talked to many people. But for most of them, when I mentioned professor Sunetra Gupta or Martin Kulldorff or other real epidemiologists, they often immediately argue that those professors don’t know what they are talking about. They often feel angry and offended when hearing the term herd immunity or natural immunity. They accused those professors as Trump’s loyal supporters without carefully reading anything.
This student owes me a new irony meter, because my current one is a molten pile of wires pathetically sparking. After all, who thinks they’re smart enough to judge scientific issues better than actual scientists and experts more than antivaxxers, antimaskers, and anti-“lockdown” advocates? I have a hard time thinking of anyone more guilty of this charge. Similarly, I can’t help but note that Martin Kulldorff, by resigning a cushy tenured professorship at Harvard University to join the Brownstone Institute as its scientific advisor, did rather effectively demonstrate quite conclusively how the Great Barrington Declaration is more about politics than science, particularly given the sorts of articles his institute is publishing these days—articles like this one.
Also, criticizing fringe scientists promoting bad epidemiological science like Great Barrington Declaration signatories Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta were, as the student puts it, “exactly what happened in the Cultural Revolution, you know, just like revolutionary committees holding violent denunciation rallies against “counterrevolutionaries,” persecuting scientists, and marching young urban intellectuals down to the countryside. Seriously, if you view the belief by so many that they can judge science better than the experts and the criticism of bad science as being “exactly what happened during the Cultural Revolution,” you only have a point if the understanding of the Cultural Revolution that exists in your mind is so open that your brain falls out.
Here’s the closest this article comes to “nuance”:
The Cultural Revolution was initiated by Mao Zedong as an attempt to regain political power. It ended when Mao died in 1976. The American one has a much more complicated background. You may or may not agree that the Democratic Party initiated this to gain power and Trump’s historical anti-science actions fueled it. But I think it is unfair to attribute everything to them. News agencies like CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and Fox News are also part of the problem. Those agencies have a large audience base and have turned news reporting to video games, in which people feel the need to play it every day and feel good about themselves.
How nice. According to our intrepid Brown University graduate student, wasn’t just the Democratic Party at fault for “persecuting” Brownstone’s brave maverick scientists. The Democrats had help from the mainstream media. The “nuance” we see here amounts to, “It was just left’s fault. It had the help of the
lügenpresse mainstream media.”
Too bad the student couldn’t resist:
When will the American cultural revolution end? I hope it will not take too long. China learned an important lesson from the Cultural Revolution: respect and listen to experts, not politicians. It seems the American people have yet to learn that. But one thing is true: China just won an important war. They have successfully shown that cultural revolution can happen in the “best” country in the world. And more importantly, having freedom of the press doesn’t mean people are going to read real news. If we truly believe in freedom and democracy, rationality must be restored.
Funny, but that respect doesn’t appear to include listening to experts who criticize TCM as quackery. The Chinese government has a distressing tendency to prosecute and jail critics of this quackery, rather than listen to them. As for “restoring rationality,” I would agree, but “rationality” and science don’t mean what this fool—yes, fool—apparently thinks that they do. (Nor does the Cultural Revolution, apparently.)
The Cultural Revolution? Why not also Lysenkoism?
In the end, I must admit a grudging gratefulness that this Brown University graduate student flack for the Brownstone Institute resisted the temptation to invoke Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet scientist who rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of his own ideas. After he became director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR‘s Academy of Sciences, Lysenko used his political power to suppress dissent, discrediting, marginalizing, and imprisoning his critics while elevating his anti-Mendelian theories to state-sanctioned doctrine. The analogy is custom-made for cranks like this, given that the Soviet embrace of Lysenkoism greatly exacerbated and prolonged the famine and mass starvation in the USSR that resulted from Stalin’s policies in the 1930s. An attractive false historical analogy for right wing cranks like those at the Brownstone Institute, complete with mass death, is right there, waiting to be weaponized. I’m surprised that it wasn’t included in this article.
Maybe we’ll see a followup article. After all, thus far Brownstone propagandists have only briefly likened COVID-19 public health responses to Lysenkoism. A much fuller exploration of this false historical and scientific analogy is just begging for someone like this ignoramus of a graduate student to make it. I can hardly wait.