From Sword to Syringe
June 28, 2021

Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya, Oxford’s Sunetra Gupta, and Harvard’s Martin Kulldorff are heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last October, they teamed up to write the Great Barrington Declaration that advocated “focused protection” of the vulnerable as an alternative to generalized lockdowns.

They’ve faced relentless scorn, slander, and censorship ever since, yet they’ve stuck it out, presenting their case with preternatural calm. In a year when “Science” turned into a wagging finger, Bhattacharya, Gupta, and Kulldorff are old-fashioned empiricists who speak in the courage of evidence.

“We have been stunned,” the three write in their latest essay, “to witness many strange scientific claims made during this pandemic, often by scientists.” None is “more surprising” than the idea that “there is no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 following natural infection.”

The authors admit we don’t know if natural immunity is permanent, but we do know “it offers anti-disease immunity against severe disease and death” and there is good reason to believe it’s permanent. Millions have recovered from COVID-19. Very, very few have contracted the disease again.

Because natural immunity is ignored, vaccination becomes a passport, even in the absence of vaccine passports. Vaccinated tourists will be able to enter the EU in June; the CDC allows vaccinated people to show their unveiled faces; only vaccinated students and faculty are allowed onto the campuses of Cornell, Stanford, and other universities. My brother can’t attend lunch meetings at his own firm because he’s not vaccinated.

There’s no reason, the three scientists argue, for someone who has recovered from COVID to get the jab. They gain nothing, and run a risk – statistically small, but real – of serious adverse reactions. The calculus is the same for young people. Their chance of having a serious case of COVID-19 is vanishingly small, but some have had a fatal reaction to the vaccine. All cost, no benefit: What physician would recommend such a procedure?

Bhattacharya, Gupta, and Kulldorff aren’t anti-vaxxers. In their view, vaccines should be saved for people who need them. With vaccines in short supply, especially in poor countries, “vaccinating those who have been sick with COVID-19 is not only unnecessary but immoral. By giving vaccines to the already immune, we are withholding life-saving vaccines for older high-risk persons who have not had the disease.”

Ignoring natural immunity isn’t an oversight. Last fall, WHO quietly changed its official definition of herd immunity to claim it’s achieved only by mass vaccination. In January 2021, following a public backlash, they restored the old definition of herd immunity as a combination of natural and vaccine immunity.

How did this happen? Are other scientists so deeply influenced by groupthink, so fearful of bucking the apparent consensus, that they keep quiet? Are scientists so reluctant to be labeled “anti-vaxxers” or (horrors!) “Trumpists” that they deliberately forget what was common knowledge until 2020? Why the obsession with vaccines?

In general, today’s vaccine push reflects the “biopolitical” turn of modern politics. As Roberto Esposito puts it (Biopolitics, ch. 16), political authority was once the authority to kill. Under the reign of biopolitics, rulers care for and manage life. Once upon a time, the ruler bore a sword; now, a syringe.

“Biopolitics” involves a transformation of political imagination. From the sixteenth century on, medical categories and metaphors infiltrated political theory. This political imaginary shaped public discourse throughout 2020. While dealing with an actual pandemic, we’ve also been warned about epidemics of racism, white supremacism, climate change, whatever. Some of this is opportunistic, but it also reflects the fusion of medicine and politics in the depths of the biopolitical imagination.

Shifts in political imagination have real-life political effects. “Body politic” is an ancient metaphor, but in biopolitical regimes the body becomes the real place “where the exercise of power was concentrated” (340). Public health takes center stage in a “limitless process of medicalization.” Health care is “superimposed” on politics (342). It’s now the government’s job – its primary job – to keep us healthy. “Life becomes government business” and “government becomes first and foremost the governance of life” (340).

To govern life, governments have to exercise social control, keep populations under surveillance, maintain constantly-updated databases, and, as necessary, isolate and separate populations that are dangerous to the corporate body (341). As your personal physician writ large, the state subjects you to regular check-ups and maintains accurate records. Like an imperious physician, the government expects you to follow orders.

For decades, China has been an exemplary biopolity. The Chinese government takes direct responsibility for reproduction, decreeing how many children each family may have. Brutal suppression of dissident minorities is justified as therapeutic treatment for mental illness or social infection. China’s “social credit system” provides the information the state needs to identify, isolate, treat and/or eliminate outbreaks of political pathogens.

To wind this back to my starting point: Vaccination and immunization programs have always loomed large in biopolitical regimes. As the metaphor of “body politic” became literal management of bodies, as public health became the pivot of state administration, immunization came to exemplify “the symbiotic relationship between hygiene and social control” (Mass Vaccination, 14).

In China, “Large-scale immunization, sitting at the nexus of individual bodily politics and the governance of populations, was one of the earliest and most important programs that laid the foundations for extensive state control over individual bodies.” Mandatory vaccination builds state power because it binds “more and more people into increasingly strong obligations to submit to the orders of the central government” (14).

To implement the mass vaccination program, China developed technologies to develop and distribute vaccines. Mass immunization thus facilitated the creation of “a new, modern medical infrastructure that could contribute to the power of the state over life” (14), an infrastructure that could be deployed for other political purposes.

As a result, Chinese citizenship is defined biologically. Vaccination status has “dictated the ability to travel outside his or her work,” and state propaganda portrays compliant citizens as model comrades. Anti-vaxxers, if such existed in China, were outsiders who posed both biological and political threats (15).

Today’s mania for vaccines isn’t science-driven. Universal vaccination isn’t about health. If science or health were guiding policy, natural immunity would be fully acknowledged. Governments and their cultural allies promote universal vaccination for political reasons. It’s about control.

And the politics has a religious-liturgical overlay. Vaccination is a sacrament, a baptismal purification and a Eucharistic emblem of belonging. For the righteous are justified by their jab.

After all, you can't mix the pure and the impure. You can’t have unregistered people running around during a pandemic, acting like they’re immune just because they’ve recovered from the disease, just as you can’t have unregistered parents or schools or churches spreading the virus of fundamentalist Christianity and making everyone feel unsafe.

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