From COVID to Climate Change: Herd Immunity vs. Institutional Distrust

There is no shortage of comparisons between the dual crises of COVID-19 and climate change. Many people see COVID, and the patchwork and highly inconsistent global response to it as analogous to and also predictive of how we might handle the climate crisis. Some trace their analysis, rightly, to the origin of both crises: the ravages of capitalism — the 500 year problem — which has caused systematic and persistent destruction for both people and planet. While I do not have much to contribute to the conversation by way of expertise or sophisticated analysis, recent experiences have brought to mind an interesting analogy, which may at least offer perspective on mustering the mass mobilization we know is necessary to stall, if not prevent climate catastrophe.

As the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed at an increasing rate, there remains a significant portion of the population who are agnostic, or worse, completely refuse to be vaccinated. Putting aside the absurdity of vaccination being a political wedge issue, much like the challenge of getting people to wear masks, there is a fundamental misunderstanding among many people about the role they play in public health — that is to say, the health of other people. If you — anyone — choose not to wear a mask or to get a vaccine, because you do not feel you are at risk for COVID, you miss the point that you may in turn be a carrier for the virus and pass it onto someone who is higher risk, maybe even someone in your own family. We’ll never know how many of the 500+ thousand people who died were infected by those closest to them, but for anyone who has lost someone to the disease, it should inspire some reflection about how our own actions or inaction render us complicit in the spread.

The hope now seems to be that if we can vaccinate a significant portion of the population, that everyone will be protected through “herd immunity“, the idea being that all the vaccinated people effectively form a barrier that prevents the virus from spreading so wildly. This only works, however, if a high percentage of the population is vaccinated. The threshold varies by pathogen, and we do not have enough data on COVID yet, but it stands to reason that the vast majority of people will need to be vaccinated.

Diagram of Herd Immunity

Diagram of “herd immunity” shows how high percentage of vaccinated people insulate unvaccinated people against the virus

Even in that situation, people will still catch it, and some of these will die, but the global crisis will become manageable. There is a question of how much of a loss of life is considered within the parameters of a “managed” crisis, but that’s a topic for another day.

Just as vaccination has a society wide impact on health, so will the systems-change work we need to do in order to address climate change. And just like there are people who “do not believe” in COVID, or who refuse to be vaccinated, there are and will continue to be people who deny the realities of climate, and who refuse to make any changes to our social and economic systems in order to prevent its worst impacts. Even as evidence points to the climate crisis already being underway, as with the uncharacteristic snowstorms across the country, urban heat islands in cities, or the tornadoes that somehow got lost in Georgia on their way to Oklahoma.

The vaccine refusers and climate deniers — and by these I mean the regular citizens, not the ultrawealthy with a financial stake in denial — have one crucial thing in common. While both may be susceptible to conspiracy theory, or lack adequate education on either subject, or have been encapsulated by filter bubbles generated by Youtube or Facebook algorithms, none of these are the most important. The critical commonality instead is a deep — and justifiable — distrust of institutions.

Just as there are people unable or unwilling to get vaccinated, they may also be skeptical of systems change efforts around climate, or have some other barrier to engagement. This resistance is particularly powerful for people whose immediate needs are so urgent that adopting a systems lens, or looking ahead five or ten years is outside their capacity, or beyond the vanishing point.

It is important to note here that while some people in the United States are choosing not to get the COVID vaccine when it’s available, there are many countries around the world which simply do not have access to it. This, of course, is analogous to the reality of the U.S being as the second highest volume carbon emitter, at the same time as too many of its citizens choose to ignore the global impact, which will fall disproportionately on countries contributing much less to the problem.

Also important is the fact that the overwhelming bulk of the responsibility for carbon emissions and other forms of environmental degradation lies with industry. In spite of their attempts — echoing conservative talking points for the past half a century — to convince the general public that it’s an issue of “personal responsibility”. That the environmental costs of production — particularly waste and pollution — are externalized to vulnerable communities within the United States, is a microcosm for how the United States, in turn, exports that same waste to the two-thirds world.

So I am not writing this to join the chorus of people excoriating the vaccine avoiders and climate deniers. Because, in truth, I feel the blame lies with the institutions — governments and corporations mostly — which have betrayed the public trust, and grievously failed in any stated commitment to public health or well-being. Instead I want to make the case that as we attempt the greatest mobilization in human history to address the climate crisis, we — the big, global we — need to protect everyone, even the deniers, and more importantly, those who for whatever reason remain skeptical of our efforts, or lack the means or capacity to participate.

Whatever technologies, models, and organizational structures we develop, to orient ourselves toward social and economic justice, we must also make space for the unwilling and the unable to be independent, self-determined, and safe. This means insulating them against the violent death throes of our system of capitalism, white supremacy, and imperialism, as we replace it with something better. Many things better. Institutions and new relationships at the local, regional, national, and global levels that cultivate enough trust and build enough capacity for everyone to participate equitably. This could function much like “herd immunity”, while we do the more difficult work of education and rebuilding trust.

Maybe eventually we can get to a point where we are all willing — and able — to do our part, for each other, for all life, and for the planet we share.

By Kermit O

Former teacher turned school abolitionist. Working at the intersection of land, food, and climate justice. Light brown. Unapologetically Black. Punches up.