One in your body and one outside
Each of us has two immune systems. One inside our bodies, and the other inside our body politic. This is important to understand, because we have no biological defenses against COVID-19. We do, however, have political defenses.
Countries like Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam have evolved political immune systems. These are institutions that do basic public health work very well. Even the least advanced nation is capable of running a lockdown fever and at least slowing this thing down.
There’s a lot to learn from this analogy, so let’s get into it.
This is a tale of two immunities. One at the microscopic level, and one stretching across the globe.
I’m quite familiar with my immune system because it’s broken.
I have a peanut allergy. If I eat the wrong dip at an Indian restaurant I spend the rest of the night hugging the toilet bowl. When I was younger my throat would close up and I could pass out.
The important thing to understand is that it’s not the peanut killing me, it’s my own immune response. Peanut isn’t a disease and it doesn’t cause me any physical damage.
This is important to understand, because we tend to mix up diseases and immune responses. What we call symptoms, for example, are often immune responses. Diseases don’t cause fevers, for example. That’s your body fighting off a pathogen. Diseases hate a fever more than you do.
When your body finds a virus or bacteria, it reacts by causing a fever or inflammation. Something to slow the pathogen down or even kill it. At the least, these symptoms buy time for the rest of your immune response to kick in.
Like a lockdown, our body is shutting everything down (specifically you). This is why we end up on our backs during an illness. We’re in personal lockdown. This is your main immune response, what’s roughly called your innate response. It’s blunt, brutal, and effective, but only part of the puzzle.
Your second immune response is more surgical. In fact, if it’s well trained, you might not notice this response at all.
Search & Destroy
Imagine that you walk into your bloodstream. It looks like an old Western Town, tumbleweeds, and an old saloon. You walk in, and a bunch of mean-looking white blood cells are sitting around. They look at you, they look at the WANTED posters on the wall and then go back to their game.
Next, a scraggly Rabies Virus walks in, and the white blood cells immediately start shooting.
This is a good, vaccinated immune response. Your immune system is identifying and killing a virus before it goes viral. At the same time, it’s not attacking innocuous particles, like your lunch.
However, we are not vaccinated against COVID-19 and our immune system has never seen it before. We just let it in, and by the time the alarm goes off, the thing has already replicated a billion times and we’re really sick. Our immune system can even overreact and kill us. Even in the best case (for us and the virus) we’re infectious for a long time.
That’s our biological problem, which is surprisingly similar on a political level as well.
Sometimes we face a contagious pathogen that we have no biological protection against. Our bodies cannot defend us, in fact, they betray us. At times like this, only the body politic can save us. In a phrase, public health.
Public health is remarkably similar to a human immune system. It recognizes pathogens and eliminates them. However, instead of fevers and white blood cells, its weapons are lockdowns and human teams. Interestingly, public health also suffers from the same flaws, namely that it’s slow to respond to something new.
At a political level, you can make an entire city or nation isolate and take bed rest through a lockdown. Technically, if everyone freezes in place for 14 days and stays two meters apart, COVID-19 would stop in its tracks. Practically, of course, this doesn’t work, and like a high fever, it feels like hell.
In reality, a lockdown isn’t going to kill a strong pathogen any more than a fever will. It just buys you time to mount a more targeted immune response. This time, instead of white blood cells learning and fighting the disease, you need people and institutions to do it. And they can.
Search & Destroy
Advanced countries (like South Korea and Taiwan) have had pandemic institutions for years. They suffered from MERS and SARS and evolved institutions in response. Instead of white blood cells, these institutions have teams of people that test, isolate, and trace.
This is the basic playbook of public health and it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. The only major difference is that we have access to testing and PPE, but even that has to be organized by people.
I won’t get into the daily work of these institutions, which is vaccinations and managing known threats. These political antibodies are also designed to respond to novel threats fast. In practice, they can actually beat epidemics like COVID-19 if they’re fast enough.
Like in the human body, if the political immune system can stop the virus before it replicates a million times, then it can effectively kill it. The institutions have to remain eternally vigilant, but it is possible.
Vietnam, for example, was able to follow WHO guidance, assess the threat, and rapidly spin out their own tests and a massive quarantining program. They closed borders and ran a little fever, but overall their human antibodies were fast enough that the country now has zero deaths. Zero. That’s the power of their political immune system.
Less advanced countries like America, however, dismantled their immune systems due to political foolishness, and general structural rot. All they could do was run a terrible fever, and complain that it was hot. Their tests came too late, their institutions are decrepit, and their political leadership is worse than the virus.
That just goes to show you what it’s like if you have no immunity at all. It’s bad.
The Two Immunities
These two immunities, the political and biological, work hand in hand. It’s quite elegant really. Our political institutions can decode a virus, create a vaccine, and then inject that information back into our bodies. It’s a bio-political system, stretching across the Earth.
Everyone has two immune systems. So yes, sleep, eat well, wear a mask, and wash your hands, but also elect decent leaders, and protect international organizations like the WHO. Our health is in our bodies, but also in each other's hands. We need to keep our institutions healthy as well. For this and the next pandemic, political immunity is the only protection we have.