We’re all in this together. But what happens when we’re not?
Earlier this week I posted a tweet that got plenty of attention.
I really think there is a story to be written about the unintended consequences of the antibody test. It will create two classes of citizen – those who are immune and those who are not – with different rules for each. I think it might become incredibly divisive.
— Robert Sharp रोबर्ट शार्प (@robertsharp59) April 1, 2020
When the COVID-19 antibody test becomes available, it will split the country – and the world – into two types of person: those who are immune to the virus, and those who are still susceptible.
In the long term, when we have established ‘herd immunity,’ this won’t matter.1 But in the short term it could prove incredibly divisive, and cause the disintegration of solidarity and co-operation that our country has demonstrated so far.
As a couple of people pointed out, we could unwittingly be walking into a Gattaca society. If people have wristbands, passports or phone apps that prove their immunity to the virus, then what is to stop companies and individuals discriminating on that basis?
Venues and shops might begin setting their own terms of entry, requiring a certificate of immunity before you are able to book a cinema ticket or enter Tesco Extra. In ‘normal’ times we would never allow such discrimination. But when there is an imperative to get the economy moving again, and when there is an assumption that such discrimination is temporary, the government and the public might concede to such conditions.
Possibly – but without the immune continuing to work – how will we drag ourselves out of recession? The immune could support those who aren’t – in potentially yet unforeseen ways… you might get some ppl trained up to visit the sickest ppl. Way better than the alternative.— FreesiaB (@Sar14990492) April 2, 2020
And what about those who are hiring new workers? Given a choice of two prospective employees, a many business owners would probably choose the one who will not be prone to bouts of self-isolation. Many employers already discriminate against women, due to their potential to get pregnant. So it’s highly likely that they will discriminate against those susceptible to COVID-19 too.
Immunity passports will also cause the breakdown of the lockdown. If you are immune and cannot pass on the virus, then why bother? How could the government credibly enforce it on those with the antibodies? If they are well enough to go back to work, many people will make the rhetorically unassailable point that they are well enough to go to the pub.
The worry at that point will be whether lifting the lockdown is desirable for all the people who have still not yet contracted the virus… including the many thousands of our particularly vulnerable neighbours.
One side effect of *that* is that people might start becoming desperate to catch Covid-19 in order to get the antibodies in order to move on with life. (or death, as it may turn out.)— Ian Harris #StayTheFuckHome (@biscuitsgod) April 1, 2020
If having the antibodies confers normality and economic advantage, then many people not yet in that category would seek membership. Young people will almost certainly take a risk and actively seek out infection, to ‘get it over with’ and move on. Some of those people will die as a result.
A small number of individuals will seek to fraudulently obtain the immunity certificates or wristbands. Fake immunity will of course mean such people spread the disease further, causing needless illness and death.
As I write, there are still plenty of crucial things we do not know. Can you spread the virus even if you’re not infected with it? Will the virus mutate in a way that means those who had it before can catch it again? And how long does immunity last? The answers to these questions will affect the dynamic.
But if the antibody test is developed and rolled out before we achieve ‘herd immunity’ and before a vaccine is discovered, then I predict some difficult choices will present themselves.
1. Or rather, it will matter, but in the same way that the needs of people with other kinds of disability matter. We will need to make certain accommodations to our lifestyle and work practices for those who do not have immunity. Just like with other disabilities, there will be debate over whether we make enough accommodation.