The focus on eradicating COVID-19 is a subspecies of a particularly modern phenomenon called “safetyism”
I decided against a fourth Covid vaccine when Israel made them available to those over 60 a few months ago. For one thing, despite the above-the-fold headlines every day about the dramatic increase in cases due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the numbers of those requiring hospitalization were by no means commensurate. Most of my children and grandchildren have tested positive, and not one had more than a bad cold or flu-like symptoms for a few days.
And though I qualified for the vaccine by age, I’m healthy.
Finally, it seemed clear that a fourth vaccine would lead, in quick order, to a fifth, sixth, and beyond. And such a regimen of repeated vaccines at six-month intervals or so has never been tested before, and thus the long-range effects cannot be known. Regulators in the UK have recommended against a fourth vaccine, and the World Health Organization has termed a strategy of repeated vaccinations “unsustainable.”
The WHO’s pronouncement may have been primarily driven by a desire to deliver more vaccines to underdeveloped countries prior to offering a fourth vaccine to those who have already had two or three, rather than by a fear of spurring a weakening of the immune system in recurrent recipients — “vaccine tiredness.” But regardless, we will not know the impact of repeated vaccinations at short intervals for some time. All vaccines carry some risk, which is why vaccine manufacturers routinely demand and receive immunity from tort actions from the government, just in case adverse effects come to the fore over time.
Thus, I felt vindicated this week when the first Israeli study of 150 health care workers who had received a fourth vaccination, conducted at the Sheba Medical Center, revealed that the level of antibodies produced is insufficient to offer protection from Omicron.
IT IS LONG PAST TIME to recognize that COVID-19 cannot be “shut down,” as candidate Joe Biden repeatedly promised to do. Vaccines have unquestionably dramatically reduced the likelihood of serious infection and death. But even in the most highly vaccinated country in the world, Omicron cases now exceed two million, and continue to spread like wildfire. Most of those contracting Omicron have been fully vaccinated.
The focus on eradicating COVID-19 is a subspecies of a particularly modern phenomenon called “safetyism” — the belief that we can eliminate all dangers from life and are duty bound as a society or as parents to do so. My late brother once described a certain family member as one for whom a one-in-a-billion chance — e.g., drowning in a bean bag chair — was a near certainty in her mind’s eye. We have all become anti-bean-bag fanatics.
It is said in the name of the Vilna Gaon that if parents seek to eliminate any theoretically possible danger, Hashem may leave the parents completely to their own devices, with disastrous results. (I’m not referring to efforts to protect against recurrent and obvious dangers — making sure hot water urns are not left on the blech within the reach of children, circuit breakers to protect against keys stuck in electric sockets, devices to warn that a child has been left in the car.)
In a scathing public letter to Israeli health authorities, Dr. Ehud Qimron, head of the department of microbiology and immunology at Tel Aviv University, listed at the top of multiple errors in the country’s response to Covid the initial failure to recognize that a respiratory tract virus cannot be defeated, any more than a common cold or flu.
The initial focus on eradication resulted in multiple adverse effects. One was the reliance on vaccines as the paramount focus of government efforts, as opposed to efforts to develop treatment regimes between the time of the first diagnosis and being put on a respirator. Over the past two years, we have read frequently of new medicines that performed well on hospital tests of affected patients. But few, if any, have become routinely used. And there has been virtually no public health messaging on the steps that can be taken in advance to avoid severe infection — e.g., taking vitamin D and C, and zinc.
In trying to eradicate all Covid, Qimron argues, our health policies have taken far too little note of the huge differences in mortality between vulnerable groups —the elderly, and those in particular high-risk categories — and everyone else. Those policies therefore failed to protect those in the former group or reduce the burden of restrictions that have fallen disproportionately on school-age children.
The quest for total elimination has further led health authorities to stress the wrong measures. By continuing to highlight the number of “cases,” after it became clear that the overwhelming majority of those cases were comparable to seasonal flu at worst, the Israeli government has sown unnecessary panic, including among policymakers themselves.
That panic has led to unnecessary restrictions, such as requiring children exposed to Omicron to remain home, even if they themselves show no symptoms, which can result in weeks of disrupted schooling and parental work schedules.
Dr. Vinay Prasad, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at University of California–San Francisco, describes such misguided thinking in a Tablet piece titled “The Cult of Masked Schoolchildren.” “U.S. masking policies,” he writes, “are largely forms of virtue-signaling” — visible symbols of our commitment to averting the pandemic’s damage — and as such are “often blatantly self-contradictory and absurd.” An example: requiring toddlers to wear masks, except when they nap, sleeping side-by-side with their peers.
Given that vaccines do not prevent Omicron infections, even Dr. Anthony Fauci concedes that everyone will be infected. At that point, even the most effective masks are only delaying the inevitable.
Hysteria about the number of cases, in turn, renders policymakers unable to engage in balancing the desire to bring the Covid caseload down against the attendant costs, both short and long range. Among those costs across the world are the loss of education or the benefits of in-school learning. That loss has been most sharply felt by those at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole, who may not be able to access distance learning and for whom the possibilities of parental supplementing of missed learning are greatly reduced.
Besides the lost learning, there are the psychological costs on children and teenagers of prolonged social isolation — depression, addictions, increased time on social media, itself a form of addiction and source of unhappiness.
Center for Disease Control director Rochelle Walensky asserts that “any mask is better than no mask.” Actually, studies of cloth masks show no benefit whatsoever. But in any event, “better” requires ignoring all the educational and psychological harms to masked children. Stacey Lance, a veteran teacher, writes at Bari Weiss’s Common Sense, “the kids aren’t alright.” Rather, they are anxious and depressed. They have been taught to see schools as hubs of infection — despite a total lack of evidence that school closures slowed Covid’s spread — and themselves as “vectors of disease.”
Safetyism ramps up anxiety and hysteria, one consequence of which is to cause people to view one another with suspicion, if not as direct mortal threats. If the vaccines work as well as advertised with respect to the most serious forms of Covid, then the principal threat from the unvaccinated is not to those who are vaccinated, but to themselves.
Yet according to a Rasmussen poll, 59 percent of Democrats surveyed would confine those who are unvaccinated to their homes, except in case of emergency; 48 percent would support fines or even prison terms for anyone who questions the efficacy of any existing vaccines on social media: 45 percent would be supportive of gathering the unvaccinated in designated locations; and 47 percent would make them wear digital tracking devices to ensure that they are properly quarantining.
SAFETYISM DID NOT BEGIN with COVID-19. For decades, American children have been less and less likely to ride a bike or walk to school, or play sports after school unsupervised by adults. As a consequence, they grow ever more fragile, and less resilient and independent.
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote an entire book, The Coddling of the American Mind, which links safetyism to the sad spectacle of university students pronouncing themselves “threatened” by anything and everything, especially anyone expressing ideas that do not comport with their own.
But COVID-19 has greatly accelerated safetyism and the anxiety and desire for authoritarian protection that goes with it.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 896. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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