Opinion | The Dangerous History of Immunoprivilege - The New York Times
The Dangerous History of Immunoprivilege
We’ve seen what happens when people with immunity to a deadly disease are given special treatment. It isn’t pretty.
By Kathryn Olivarius
Ms. Olivarius is an assistant professor of history at Stanford University.
April 12, 2020
The article was widely discredited by public health experts and economists, as both logically dubious and ethically specious, but such thinking has already metastasized. The likes of Glenn Beck and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas have fashioned the willingness to endure a bout with coronavirus as a patriotic, pro-economy act; Germany, Italy, and Britain are all toying with notions of “immunity passports” — proof that a person has beaten Covid-19 — that would allow people with antibodies to go back to work faster.
That people could wield their hard-earned “immunocapital” to save the economy sounds like science fiction. But as we wait months or years for a viable vaccine, leveraging peoples’ antibodies may well be part of our economic strategy. If so, we should heed lessons from the past and beware of the potential social perils. As a historian, my research has focused on a time and place — the 19th-century Deep South — that once operated by a very similar logic, only with a far more lethal and fearsome virus: yellow fever. Immunity on a case-by-case basis did permit the economy to expand, but it did so unevenly: to the benefit of those already atop the social ladder, and at the expense of everyone else. When a raging virus collided with the forces of capitalism, immunological discrimination became just one more form of bias in a region already premised on racial, ethnic, gender and financial inequality.
We know that epidemics and pandemics exacerbate existing inequalities. In the last three weeks, more than 16 million Americans — many of them waiters, Uber drivers, cleaners, cooks, caretakers — have filed for unemployment insurance. Meanwhile, tech executives, lawyers, and university professors like myself can sequester at home, work online, and still take home a paycheck and retain health insurance. Already, richer and poorer Americans are experiencing corona-capitalism differently.
Once again, American politicians are arguing that viral immunity could be mobilized for economic benefit. While some version of this strategy seems possible, perhaps even likely, we should not allow an official stamp of immunity to Covid-19, or personal willingness to risk the disease, to become a prerequisite for employment. Nor should immunity be used to double down on our pre-existing social inequalities. There is already racial and geographic inequality in exposure to and testing for this virus. The most vulnerable people in our society cannot be punished twice over: first by their circumstance and then by the disease. We have been here before and we do not want to go back.