The Great Barrington is a place name in Massachusetts. It is the home of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which describes itself on its website as: “Founded in 1933, American Institute for Economic Research educates Americans on the value of personal freedom, free enterprise, property rights, limited government and sound money.” It has the aim of promoting its ideas through the Bastiat Society, targeting specifically the business community throughout the world.
The Great Barrington has come to prominence in the UK suddenly, following the delivery of the Great Barrington Declaration on COVID-19, signed by three epidemiologists, and supported by other specialists. The Great Barrington thesis is not advocating orthodoxy, at least as currently interpreted by mainstream epidemiology to most governments throughout the world. The Declaration is here. Much of it seems eminently reasonable, and probably easily reconciled with conventional opinion. Yet it is unquestionably radical, and this comes to the surface here in its change of focus on the problem of solving the coronavirus conundrum for nation states throughout the world: “The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”
This policy is not pursued by most governments throughout the world. It is striking that the unstated sub-text of the Declaration to achieve these aims is implicitly to open up the economy fully, and return to ‘normal’ business, work and activity, without mentioning either the economy very explicitly in the Declaration, or providing a statement of the fundamental principles of the AIER that sponsors the Declaration.
The Great Barrington Declaration has been challenged by mainstream scientific and medical opinion. C4 News interviewed Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh on its proposals, and her response was to say she did not agree with the Declaration, and did not believe it was “scientific” or “accurate”. Matt Frei, who conducted this interview with Professor Sridhar went on to interview an advocate of the Declaration, Professor Livermore; who did mention the economy. The problem came with Professor Livermore’s reply to Matt Frei’s striking and telling observation; “…the problem surely is that the path to this ‘herd immunity’ is just paved with too many corpses?”. Livermore hesitated, then said he wasn’t “convinced” by the current policy. Lack of conviction is one thing, but convincing the public requires a great deal more than subjective conviction and sweeping Declarations.
I am not an epidemiologist, but I am affected by such policies, just like everyone else. I need to see the substance, not the rhetoric. The Declaration does not provide detailed evidence, or circulate comprehensive research. It is a statement of policy. The problem is threefold: first, if the prevailing view in epidemiology is wrong we will all certainly suffer further hardship in the struggle to protect life, but if the Great Barrington thesis is adopted and subsequently found to be wrong the result, as far as I can see is utterly catastrophic for human life. There were around 65,000 excess deaths in the UK following the initial wave of coronavirus; that is excess deaths above the five year average of all UK deaths in the relevant months taking into account all the flus, cancers etc., combined. There, is the real balance of risk. This is what it means to face a real pandemic in our lifetime.
Second, the Great Barrington thesis presents the dichotomy as a choice between the economy and the health of the vulnerable or elderly. This is a false distinction. As the countries who have tackled this problem best (principally in the far east, like Taiwan; and with a functioning, highly efficient public health Test and Trace system that is not merely an exercise in rent-seeking neoliberal opportunism, as in Westminster), have shown; success for both public health and the economy appears to depend rather on rigorous application of the current prevailing principles as the only realistic way to ensure a prospering economy can be recovered in time. The problem here in the UK that makes this especially difficult, is the end of furlough and the lack of adequate financial support; combined with a Test and Trace system that is fit for purpose. Test and Trace should never have been privatised. Local Public Health operations was always the only reliable, proven solution. For example, the best way to ensure that everyone self-isolates after a positive test, is to ensure there is an immediate, favourable, emergency financial package of publicly funded support for the individual/family through the seven or fourteen days of self-isolation. In national economic terms that is cheaper than the alternative.
Third, the Great Barrington thesis presents the concept of ‘protecting the vulnerable’ as if this was deliverable in a society rife with coronavirus. They explain how this is to be done only in very general terms, without working out the implications of the consequences of their own proposals on these aspirations: “By way of example, nursing homes should use staff with acquired immunity”. How do we do that if there are not enough staff who meet the criterion; and what evidence do we have that anybody has definitely acquired “immunity” from COVID-19? What is the time scale for the achievement of this outcome? How de we arrive at this outcome without disaster before it works, if it ever works? It seems that the Declaration assumes it has achieved its goal, before it has even begun.
The outcome of separating off the vulnerable from society is simply to exclude them. Their fate is the fate of care homes at the beginning of the pandemic; they are separated in order to be forgotten. The ‘protection’ is simply another word for exclusion; an opportunity to leave people to their fate. We have a long history of failure to attend to people put in care in this country; over generations. We have been ‘found out’ time after time; by Charles Dickens, to look no further back. Need I cite the tragedies that have affected the infirm, children or the elderly as exposed by harrowing accounts of the abused in Britain, over decades? We produce reports and hand-wringing, but we have never shown in Britain the least capacity or even the real wish, to learn anything at all. I would sup on such claims to special protection, with a very long spoon.
The ‘protected’ over time will be treated as an irritant, then they will become pariahs; the untouchables. The Great Barrington thesis is not an advocacy of individual liberty, but rather, far more the promotion of tyranny; consciously, or more likely unconsciously. The road to hell provides the paradigm. The liberty of the vulnerable depends on the close support of those who are younger, healthy and able. The vulnerable will otherwise be left to their own devices, and they have none.
Humanity is not a herd; that is the first principle of liberty.