Plagueherding For Fun and Profit

Scott Atlas pushes a dangerous narrative because it's one Trump wants to hear.

Washington Post ran a profile of Scott Atlas, a “rising star” in the Trump administration who is pushing for what is commonly called the “herd immunity” response to covid-19, also known as the “let the virus run wild and kill as many people as it can” response.

The herd immunity argument is appealing to a lot of people because it hits three important points for them:

1. It asks nothing of them.

2. It vaguely matches to the science they vaguely know.

3. It allows them to mentally separate the world into two piles of people, one strong and fit and the other weak and doomed.

This third point is important because the people embracing it always assume they will be in the good group, which makes them feel both virtuous and invulnerable. It allows them to feel like they will survive an essentially random event on their own merits, even as they have been asked to do nothing about it.

Now, the plagueherders always emphasize that they don’t want to leave any people to die but we can isolate “the vulnerable” but this obscures the fact that we don’t know who the vulnerable are. We know groups who are vulnerable, but a virus with as wide-ranging effects and angles of attack as the novel coronavirus has is essentially a system-wide stress test for the human body and the medical institution. It exposes vulnerabilities. It shows us where vulnerabilities are.

The herders love to point out statistics that show that most of the people who have died so far have been older people, in nursing homes and hospitals, with known vulnerabilities. Here’s the thing: the plan we’re following now is not the exact opposite of theirs. The plan we’re following now is not: isolate everybody but those particularly vulnerable older populations. The plan we’re following now is already attempting to do the things they say they can do to protect the vulnerable populations and then some. If we’ve got outbreaks in senior populations when we’re trying to protect everyone from getting and spreading the infection, how much worse is it going to be when we eliminate most of the lines of defense around them?

And there have been fewer deaths in the non-susceptible populations… who are not immune, but have had fewer chances to catch it and are exposed to lower viral loads when they do because of the precautions we’re taking. If we turn cities and schools and offices into pseudo-Darwinian petri dishes under the idea that it’s good to maximize the exposure of healthy people so they can become immune, a lot of them are going to become sick. And some of them will be hospitalized. And some of them will die. And if more become hospitalized at once than we have personnel, beds, and material to treat them? More will die.

There is nothing about the herd immunity plan that actually works even before we get into the question of whether or not long-term immunity is a normal result of infection.

But the Post’s profile gets at the dynamic of why this is happening:

“Atlas, who does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, has expanded his influence inside the White House by advocating policies that appeal to Trump’s desire to move past the pandemic and get the economy going, distressing health officials on the White House coronavirus task force and throughout the administration who worry that their advice is being followed less and less.”

“Atlas has fashioned himself as the “anti-Dr. Fauci,” one senior administration official said, referring to Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease official, who has repeatedly been at odds with the president over his public comments about the threat posed by the virus.”

It’s the “audience of one” principle. In Trump’s White House, you win influence by scoring points with the only person whose opinion counts, and what Trump cares about regarding the virus isn’t saving lives or even especially saving the economy, it’s moving on, which he takes for granted will save the economy.

It’s why he’s listening to someone who tells him they can just pretend the virus doesn’t exist at the same time that he’s also pushing for a vaccine to be approved just in time for election day. Very early on in Trump’s tenure, we learned from leaky aides that all he cares about is counting “Ws” – wins – and that the person brings him a W, wins.

What we’re seeing here is that not only is there no floor on atrocity and corruption when it comes to the Trump regime, there’s also no ceiling on the amount of harm its clingers and climbers are willing to inflict on the country if it means getting Trump’s favor and having his ear.

But that’s the pernicious and persistent danger of this form of perverse meritocracy. We all have seen instances of Dr. Fauci and more especially Dr. Birx shading their delivery of the facts, if not the facts themselves, to try to keep Trump listening to them, but as they both have aims that are more specific and higher than consolidating their own power under him, neither one was willing to go as far in flattering him as Atlas, so they gradually lose out to him.

It’s not that everybody under a boss like Trump will wind up going as far as Atlas does. It’s that people who don’t, won’t go as far under him.

So while it’s not inevitable that it would have been Atlas and it’s not inevitable that it would have been plagueherding, it is inevitable that we’ll see atrocious ideas like this being championed from within the administration, regardless of the damage or cost.