There are many conspiracy theories centered on the coronavirus. Some of these would seem mutually exclusive but all are still bandied about by believers. For example, the suspicion that China developed it as a bioweapon is at odds with the idea that COVID-19 is mostly innocuous and being greatly overblown by leftists hoping to wreck the economy. Harmless chemical warfare does seem a tad contradictory. Yet this position, at least when broken into two separate charges, is a regular feature of the conspiracy crowd, whose members make appearances on my news feed with annoying regularity.
While there are many COVID conspiracy theories, our focus today is the narrow idea that being mostly homebound damages our immune system. In short, proponents feel that social distancing harms, not helps, the situation. Similar attempts to invert the normal order pop up frequently among conspiracy theorists: Excess carbon dioxide is good for the environment; insulin causes diabetes; vaccines are worse than what they prevent.
In Mother Jones, Keira Butler wrote of three persons who have posted claims about the putative immune system damage that social distancing is causing. She referenced two physicians and one engineer, who made separate videos outlining their positions.
It is telling that these claims were pitched to a sympathetic audience on YouTube and not submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. Alas, we will still assess the legitimacy of their assertions, not where they aired them.
The gist of their argument is that the lockdown is harming the immune system. They base this on the notion that germs and disinfectants are in constant battle, both evolving and adapting as they try to get the upper microscopic hand. Without exposure to enough germs, the trio argue, the immune system may grow lax and put up too feeble a fight. In some cases, there is merit to this idea, which is why some immunologists argue against trying to develop ultra-germ killers since it opens the chance that the germs which survive will further adapt and form a superbug, which is impervious to all treatments.
But this does not apply here since COVID-19 is not a chronic immune condition, but rather a novel virus that attacks the afflicted in ways immunologists don’t fully understand. As a novel virus, our immune system has no defense in place for it.
Moreover, isolated persons are still exposed to germs at home, which is another strike against the notion.
Social distancing helps to slow the spread of the virus and the anti-lockdown fervor, which is based not on the rate of infection or any projections, but on livid persons wanting a haircut and dine-in pizza, figures to be a public health disaster.
I miss the park, PTA meetings, and arcades, but not more than I value the health of my children, myself, and everyone else. A nationwide commitment to social distancing and pursuit of a vaccine would have solved this problem.
But selfishness and the ignoring of science are winning. A virus has no idea nor concern if its host is a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or independent, so this should have been the ultimate non-partisan issue. Instead, it is highly divisive and shows how dangerously close to the mainstream anti-science tropes and conspiracy theories are becoming.
Rather than isolation and inoculations, the other side embraces the naturalistic fallacy, where it is assumed that whatever is natural is good and whatever is artificial is bad. Butler cited one error-laden anti-vax group post, which claimed that masks, gloves, vaccines, and synthetic soap damage the immune system. This is another example a topsy-turvy belief where the prevention is labeled as the cause. They also claimed that fear damages the immune system. There is no truth to this, a good thing for the bazooka-toting Subway patron.
Enter the Hygiene Hypothesis.
Anyone worried about not being exposed to sufficient numbers of microbes has several easy remedies: 1) Get a dog. Every lick is a broad-spectrum inoculation. 2) Take up gardening or roll around in the dirt a bit. Most live, not desert or ice, soils are alive with literal billions of microbes. 3) Next time you get a cut or scrape rub some dirt into it. Another broad-spectrum inoculation.
We live in a world crawling and alive with billions of microbes of various description.
“Bacteria are tiny, one-celled organisms – generally 4/100,000 of an inch wide (1 µm) and somewhat longer in length. What bacteria lack in size, they make up in numbers. A teaspoon of productive soil generally contains between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria. That is as much mass as two cows per acre.”
And where you have bacteria you have viruses. Viruses that live on bacteria. Viruses that live on viruses. And nematodes, worms, and other critters by the millions. It’s a jungle out there.