Herd Immunity – is this a risky phrase to use right now?

Keith Richards
20 Mar 2020
Agile Metaphor

I remember in the early days of Agile software development a framework called eXtreme Programming (XP) used ‘Metaphor’ as one of its 12 practices.

I always liked it as it helped with the visioning and the understanding of a situation.

However, in the current coronavirus outbreak I feel that there is a phrase that is possibly creating the opposite effect.

I am referring to ‘Herd Immunity’.

Although most scientists will understanding this phrase, I am not sure that the public at large all see it in the same way.

Giving off the wrong signals

Personally, in terms of analogy or metaphor, I am very uncomfortable with both of the words: ‘herd’ and ‘immunity’.

The public are not particularly analogous to a ‘herd’ of animals (humans are much more complex than this) and being in a herd does not give you ‘immunity’, it just REDUCES your chances of getting or spreading the virus if the others have it.

My biggest concern is the imagery. For me it conjures up an African wildlife scene where a herd of animals are grouping together to protect the old, young or injured from a predator. The strongest animals stay on the outside to facedown the predator whilst the vulnerable stay in the centre being protected.

…but this is not how humans protect the vulnerable and this not how a virus attacks people.

If a pride of lions attack a herd of wildebeest and kills one of the wildebeest, this does not result in 2 or 3 other wildebeest also being attacked and then, like the domino effect, the attack passes on to other wildebeest. The attack stops after the first kill.

The wrong image?

With COVID-19 we are not surrounding the vulnerable (like a herd would do) – we are isolating the vulnerable (which a herd would not do).

With COVID-19 we are not catching the disease (or ‘taking the hit’) to protect the vulnerable (like the stronger wildebeest would do) - we are avoiding the disease and running away from it in order to avoid spreading it (which the stronger wildebeest would not do).

Remember, the public has built up very little immunity so far and we do not have a vaccine. The image of strong wildebeest protecting the smaller and weaker is not the correct image. Try replacing that image, with hundreds of newly born, weak or very old wildebeest ...surrounded by several lions!

That is a more accurate image.

You may see it differently!

This is just my view as this is how the phrase looks to me. You may see a field of cows and no lions! You may automatically view it like a scientist would. However, my fear is that the phrase ‘herd immunity’ may have caused more harm than good.

There is nothing good about catching and spreading the virus in the short term. It only increases the pressure on the NHS in the coming weeks ahead.

The public will need high levels of immunity (60%?) in the longer term, but in the short term, social distancing and hand washing will reduce the size of the imminent peak. Building herd immunity will not.



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