Covid: in the rearview mirror

Three years ago life was in the process of rapidly shutting down. First large gatherings, then schools, then restaurants, then even (for a brief time) parks and beaches and national forests.

Two-and-a-half years ago the shell-shocked world was waiting with bated breath for much-ballyhooed experimental vaccines which would surely end the pandemic.

Two years ago there was a sense of hope as the shots initially appeared to be highly effective, and the most vulnerable groups were first in line to receive them.

Eighteen months ago this hope had turned to frustration as “breakthrough” infections became common. Rather than accept the limitations of the vaccines, society chose instead to blame those who chose not to take them and to ramp up coercion and discrimination.

One year ago, vaccine mania was in rapid retreat as the new Omicron variant of the virus had infected nearly everyone – vaccinated and unvaccinated alike – and reports of severe adverse reactions to the shots were circulating widely around social media and dinner tables even if they seldom made it on the news.

Six months ago, the news cycle and conversations had mostly moved on from covid, while those still afraid pinned their hopes on the new “bivalent booster” – hopes that were quickly dashed as it became evident that it offered no greater efficacy and that being “up-to-date” with shots provided little to no protection against infection.

At the moment I am getting the sense that the world has moved on entirely. People regularly use the phrase “during covid” to refer to a time in past, as folks might say “during the war” or “last winter”. We have rising inflation, a looming economic crisis, and geopolitical tensions with a side of nuclear brinkmanship – all within the pressure cooker of a world facing resource shortages, ecological overshoot, and climate disruptions. Those who still wear masks everywhere and support vaccination mandates are a small and ever-shrinking minority.

As covid fades into the rear-view mirror, a particular story is crystallizing within the dominant collective consciousness. According to that story, a new and dangerous virus spread rapidly in early 2020 and we necessarily locked down and closed schools and businesses to save lives. Then safe and effective vaccines were rolled out and allowed society to reopen and restrictions to be eased. Vaccination mandates and entry requirements were useful for a time in terms of increasing vaccination rates and decreasing the spread of illness, but now that the pandemic is effectively over they can be relaxed. Covid is still spreading, but thanks to widespread vaccination it is now a much milder disease akin to the flu that we can live with.

All major events of history end up with stories written about them, and those stories are often incomplete, one-sided, or even outright false. From “manifest destiny” and colonial expansion through slavery and lingering racism, the history books have been written and rewritten several times.

Perhaps, given the desire to put all of this behind us, it will now be years or decades or centuries before the covid saga is given a thorough objective analysis – and perhaps it will simply fade into the past to become a topic only of interest to scholars with the record never officially corrected. Before I stop writing about it, though, I’d like to take one more look back at what actually happened over the last three years.

Were lockdowns and masks and school closures necessary?

These measures were supported based on a great deal of confounded and cherry-picked studies. The most significant confounding factor was that these “non-pharmaceutical interventions” or NPIs tended to be implemented near the peak of infection waves and then to be given credit for the trend reversal that was about to occur anyway. On a broader scale, when comparing states (e.g. California vs. Florida) or countries (e.g. UK vs. Sweden) that either did or did not implement these measures, there were no consistent differences in infection or death rates. At best, the measures only delayed infections by a few months, and at worst they were security theater that greatly disrupted society in exchange for no health benefit whatsoever.

Were the vaccines safe and effective?

The effectiveness question is easier to answer. By and large the vaccines were effective *at preventing severe covid illness* **in vulnerable populations** ***who had not previously been infected***. Given that a person was a) at risk of a serious or fatal infection due to age or health conditions and b) had not yet been infected with and recovered from covid, then the choice to get vaccinated carried a net benefit *with respect to hospitalization or death from covid*. Whether it carried a net benefit overall – even in the most vulnerable groups – was never conclusively established.

The idea that the vaccines would somehow by more effective than natural immunity following infection was always wishful immunological thinking and unsupported by science, though this has only been recently and quietly acknowledged by mainstream sources. Furthermore, the idea that vaccination would reduce transmission and that vaccinated people would thereby be safer companions and care providers – the core justification for mandates and discrimination – was never proven by any reasonable standard of evidence.

Claims of vaccine safety were always suspect, given the very limited period of clinical testing, the lack of clinical testing on particular groups (e.g. pregnant women or people with autoimmune conditions), and the novel mRNA technologies being used. It rapidly became apparent that a significant number of people were suffering severe and debilitating reactions immediately following vaccination and that these reactions were being dismissed or ignored by doctors.

Furthermore, three alarming trends have arisen since the mass deployment of mRNA covid vaccines. The first is a marked increase in sudden cardiac death and other cardiovascular problems in adolescents and younger adults. The second is a persistent rise in all-cause mortality – around 10% – that is broadly shared among countries that injected mRNA vaccines into a majority of their population but not among the rest of the world. The third is persistently high levels of covid infection, coupled with high incidence and severity of other seasonal illnesses – again present in nations that encouraged widespread and repeated use of mRNA vaccines but not in other nations. Coupled with scientific evidence that repeated genetic vaccination may well induce immune tolerance to the virus’ spike protein, this is certainly concerning.

Pinning the cause of these trends on the vaccines – as opposed to the virus itself or social stress or some other modern environmental toxin – will prove difficult or impossible particularly in the absence of large-scale controlled trials. (The original clinical trials were effectively destroyed when the control group was offered the vaccine after six months.) It certainly does not help that many among the vocal opposition were expecting some sort of mass casualty event as a result of vaccination, and that this has thankfully not come to pass and seems unlikely to occur moving forward.

That said, it remains my educated perspective that mRNA covid vaccines (and mRNA vaccines in general) are inherently unsafe and that any further booster injection at this point offers a negative risk/benefit proposition. I expect that an understanding of these hazards will finally break through to mainstream awareness at some point – along the lines of lead poisoning or smoking or asbestos or thalidomide – but with billions of dollars and career/political reputations on the line, I’m no longer holding out hope that these revelations will happen soon.

Were vaccination mandates useful or beneficial?

The mainstream version of the story is that these mandates were useful when they were implemented, but that they are no longer needed and so can be relaxed now. That’s a long ways from the truth.

Any protection that vaccination may have offered against infection and transmission was always quite limited and disappeared entirely with the arrival of the Omicron-family variants. It is certainly possible that – for a limited time during the summer and fall of 2021 – the incidence of infection in fully-vaccinated environments was lower than in fully-unvaccinated environments. That said, no one ever managed to craft a solid scientific argument that unvaccinated people posed an undue risk to vaccinated people (who, after all, were well-protected from severe illness by their shots) or that universal vaccination would somehow eradicate the virus and end the pandemic (as opposed to simply losing effectiveness in the face of new variants as happens annually with the flu).

Firing nurses and teachers who had already gained immunity from natural infection was clearly counterproductive to public health and collective well-being, as was the choice to demonize and discriminate against those who chose to remain unvaccinated. Encouraging families to ban their children or brothers or grandparents from holiday gatherings created lasting trauma that will take time to heal – and for no good reason whatsoever.

Plenty of comparisons to Nazi Germany have been floated, and as is generally the case with such analogies they proved to be overblown. There were no executions, no death camps, no genocide – nor were these ideas ever floated outside of a fringe minority. Perhaps a better parallel would be the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Even that is pushing it a bit far, although during the peak of vaccine mania in late 2021/early 2022 a poll did find that 58% of Democrats wanted to confine unvaccinated people to their homes and 45% supported shipping them off to “designated facilities.”

The Japanese-American internment fiasco also ended abruptly, with citizens returning home to reopen restaurants and serve those who had just months earlier supported their imprisonment. It took decades in that case for any formal apology to be issued, so perhaps I am premature in wishing for reconciliation. I am hopeful, however, that such a reckoning might be possible – at least on a local and familial level if not nationally and globally.

Do we owe our current “post-pandemic” position to widespread vaccination?

Conventional wisdom says something like “now that most people have been vaccinated, covid no longer poses a serious risk.”

In reality, the declining severity and fatality rate of covid infection from 2020 to present is due to three factors, of which vaccination may well be the least important. The most significant factor is likely the rise of Omicron-family variants of the virus, which were both significantly more infectious and substantially less virulent than the earlier variants. It’s probably fair to say that if Omicron had been the first variant to circle the world, countries would never have panicked and locked down. Respiratory viruses generally evolve to become more infectious but less dangerous over time (since sicker people stay home and are less effective spreaders), and this one proved to be no exception.

The second factor is the development of natural immunity, which was well underway prior to the release of the vaccines and which ultimately provided a level of protection to nearly everyone regardless of vaccination status.

The third factor is of course vaccination, which clearly played a role in training the immune system to recognize and clear the virus without severe illness. Modeling studies which claim that the vaccines saved millions of lives in the US alone are based on highly flawed assumptions, but I do not doubt that the shots saved some lives and that getting them was the right decision for some people.

It’s worth noting, though, that covid infection rates are currently higher in nations with high mRNA vaccination rates, suggesting potential longer-term negative efficacy likely due to induced tolerance.

Finally, it should not be necessary to point out that the pandemic is also effectively over (in terms of causing excess deaths) everywhere in the world, including in countries that did very little vaccination. The simplest interpretation is that the pandemic is effectively over because several years have passed, and that’s about how much time a new respiratory bug takes to circle the world and mutate a few times and reach an equilibrium with the human population. The same was true of the “Spanish Flu” that caused waves of infection and death from 1918-1920. Our interventions probably made some things better and other things worse and overall didn’t change the weaving of the pattern all that much, because we are not as all-powerful as we would like to believe.

Where are we now?

Barring some unexpected new variant, or revelations of vaccine harms finally reaching mainstream awareness, this is probably the last I will write about the whole covid and vaccine saga on this blog. Over the past three years I have written about choosing life in the face of death, proposed forming a “Coalition of the Unafraid”, framed the pandemic overreaction in terms of a crisis of faith in the Religion of Progress, envisioned vaccination as a “Sacrament of Progress”, and attempted to follow the evolving science of vaccine benefits, harms and risks.

It would seem that we are moving into a period of history in which our lives will be disrupted multiple times in multiple ways – akin to the period from 1916-1946 that included two world wars, a major pandemic, a great depression, and a dust bowl mega-drought. Given our impending collision with limits to growth and energy, the years ahead will likely be even more tumultuous than the early 20th century. I did not have a pandemic, overreaction, and vaccination mania on my bingo card, but as Yogi Berra says, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” I am hopeful though that when the next storm hits it will bring communities together in response, rather than tearing us apart through fear and scapegoating. We shall see…

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