Located halfway between London’s posh Barbican theater district and the famed Smithfield Market is a plot of land with a gruesome past. Excavation in the 1980s revealed bodies – loads and loads of bodies. So far, 600 bodies have been catalogued, but there are probably at least 2,400 total.
The year was 1348, and after devastating the continent, the Black Death had arrived in England. By 1350, one-third of Britain was dead of plague.
At the height of the plague in London, 200 people per day were buried in the mass grave known as “East Smithfield”. London’s churchyards could not accommodate such a colossal demand, so the city created the five-acre burial pit. Hastily, the dead were buried en masse, some neatly lined up, others tossed in haphazardly.
The plague struck hard and fast in Britain and across Europe, and in a short time decimated the population.
Prevention measures (as best as possible in the pre-scientific, pre-modern epidemiology days of the fourteenth century) were practiced. In order to avoid the “bad air” thought to spread plague, doors and windows were shuttered, suspending easy access to family, friends, and neighbors. Households with plague were quarantined.
But for the survivors, the story took a bit of an uptick.
For generations after the plague years, survivors were generally healthier and lived longer than did the general population pre-plague.
Interestingly, modern genetic studies suggest that some survivors had innate genetic resistance to the plague or to its fatality.
However, there was probably an additional environmental factor.
As much as half the population died in some areas. With the weak winnowed out, survivors had access to more food, more meat, more and better bread. After four years of lockdowns and quarantines, survivors were ready to return to life as usual.
Blinking in the plague-free sunlight, survivors emerged, ready to get on with life, with socialization, with commerce.
Centuries later, we, too, are weary of lockdowns. Our modern plague is world-wide, and the death and damage rates are frightening. Thankfully due to modern therapeutics, we are not looking at a death rate of one-third of our population.
Still, we are tired of it all. In the decade (it seems) of 2020, we have endured multiple claims of those who offer shortcuts to our misery: the “Plandemic” video, America’s Frontline Doctors’ white-coated press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court, and the Yale doctor with his hydroxychloroquine conspiracy.
After their fifteen minutes of fame, each faded, answered by evidence and the scientific method.
Enter the ostentatiously titled “Great Barrington Declaration”, signed on October 4 and currently muscling its way into the headlines.
The document argues that Covid-19 should be allowed to spread uncontrolled among the healthy, while presumably protecting the vulnerable. The result of such a strategy (according to the document) would be “herd immunity” without the use of a vaccine.
In the last few days, heavy hitters in the field of epidemiology and infectious disease have weighed in, including Anthony Fauci (“total nonsense”) and the prestigious Lancet medical journal (“a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.”) The director of the World Health Organization called the plan “scientifically and ethically problematic.”
Sponsored by a Libertarian think tank, The Great Barrington Declaration is penned by three scientists associated with big-name universities. The Declaration’s website claims tens of thousands of online signatures from medical practitioners and public health scientists, but the signees were recently made anonymous after too many Fakey McFakenames were found on the rolls.
In cases of viral diseases for which we have a vaccine (like measles), it’s true: we rely on herd immunity to protect the very young, the immunocompromised, and the few who (unknowingly) do not mount an immune response following a vaccine. But in the case of measles, herd immunity is not achieved by deadly disease sweeping through an entire population, killing and maiming many but leaving a few survivors with resistance. With measles, herd immunity is achieved without the devasting effects of the actual disease.
The Great Barrington Declaration is problematic scientifically:
- A pandemic control strategy that relies on herd immunity is seriously flawed and is not supported in scientific literature.
- Uncontrolled spread of Covid-19, even in a young population, increases the risk of death and long-term damage.
- At this point, we do not know how long natural immunity to Covid-19 lasts. Relying on natural herd immunity could result in repeated epidemics, as we saw before the advent of vaccination.
The Great Barrington Declaration is problematic ethically:
- Uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 increases the risk to frontline health workers, already at a heightened risk.
- The Great Barrington Declaration advocates protecting vulnerable populations, but how do we define “vulnerable”? So, we isolate all the sick and elderly in nursing homes. What about people with unhealthy BMIs? What about people living in crowded homes with multiple generations of family? What about people with limited access to healthcare? That’s a lot of people to isolate while we let a virus run free.
- Marginalized communities are at a higher risk, and many are young, the demographic in which The Great Barrington Declaration would allow the virus to run rampant. Are we willing to winnow the marginalized in pursuit of a shortcut to social normalcy?
No one wants endless lockdowns and the destruction of the economy. Social safety, common sense, increased and affordable testing, contact tracing, and mask-wearing are not draconian.
It’s not all or nothing.
I visited East Smithfield in London in 2016. Our “London Plague” tour guide lead us through the city with a rat on a stick.
Seen this weekend in my local Kroger: A Covid-19 mask, plague-style.
And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I
(Hillsong United So Will I)