December 6, 2022 - 3:11pm

Yesterday morning, Slate published an article by a paediatric doctor about ‘immunity debt’. In the piece, the writer explains how hospitals like his are struggling to deal with an influx of children suffering from respiratory viruses: 

Infants and toddlers, unable to catch their breath from pneumonia or bronchiolitis (an infection of the small airways in the lung), are filling America’s pediatric emergency departments, hospital beds, and intensive care units. Where I work, sick kids have filled our waiting rooms, then filled our makeshift second waiting rooms, and finally filled the emergency medical tents we erected outside.
- Michael Rose, Slate

The language is emphatic, even apocalyptic, with the author warning that ‘the usual winter wave of viruses has become a tsunami’. No wonder, then, that Slate went for a suitably solemn headline:

Slate’s original headline

But look just below the title and readers are presented with a slightly different picture. Despite the sick children filling up waiting rooms and makeshift emergency tents outside, we are reassured in the article’s standfirst that ‘COVID restrictions were worth it’. The piece itself, however, doesn’t appear to be quite so confident in that assessment. Indeed, if anything, the writer argues the opposite:

While fewer viral infections are good, so is hugging grandma, in-person school, and play dates with friends. Permanently suppressing respiratory viruses is nothing like eliminating foodborne illness, diarrheal disease, or malaria. Pasteurization, sewage systems, water purification, and mosquito control require minimal behavior change and have mostly positive side effects easing uptake, whereas masks are uncomfortable, social distancing is a drag, and wanderlust is widespread. Hope remains for lasting improvements in ventilation, sick-leave policies and culture, and hand hygiene, but it is clear the suite of interventions which were required for sustained community suppression of respiratory viruses has proved both prohibitively painful and politically unpalatable. Respiratory viruses are here to stay.
- Michael Rose, Slate

Further down the piece, there is a tacit acknowledgement that this debt ‘may be worthwhile’ if healthcare systems are becoming overwhelmed. But in order to prevent another outbreak of other respiratory viruses, ranging from pneumonia to bronchiolitis, the author also recommends that, going forward, we should employ nonpharmaceutical interventions ‘more strategically’:

Some interventions, such as improved ventilation, might sustainably reduce the total number of infections. Other strategies, like masking, travel restrictions, and social distancing, are, as we’ve seen firsthand, unlikely to last. Using interventions in this second category therefore accrues immunity debt (during a period of wide uptake), which will be painfully paid off with widespread surges (when these measures are inevitably dropped).
- Michael Rose, Slate

All these points seem to build up to a conclusion about the damaging consequences of lockdown. And yet, the author abruptly changes course, ending with a vague conclusion: ‘Our collective efforts to stem the tide of the pandemic saved countless lives; it was ultimately good debt’.

Stranger still is the number of headline iterations the piece went through after publication. In the space of 48 hours, the title evolved from the original (above) to ‘Immunity debt: what is it, and why it was worth it’ before finally landing on ‘immunity debt was worth it’.

The second Slate headline
Slate’s third and final headline

There is nothing wrong with changing a headline after publication so long as it is for accuracy rather than political ends. It is never easy capturing all the nuance of a piece in a single title, but the way in which each one was watered down to fit a more pro-lockdown narrative is striking. By repeating the rote line about the ‘collective effort’ of lockdown and ‘stemming the tide’, it is as if Slate is trying to ward off any hint of scepticism about this apparently good and just cause.

As more reports come out each week about the negative downstream effects of lockdown, it will become increasingly difficult for liberal publications like Slate, who beat the lockdown drum so loudly during the pandemic, to straddle between the two positions. Rather than couching every Covid-related piece in service of lockdown, it would be better off — and much easier — dealing with each story on a case-by-case merit.

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.