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“Immunoprivilege” During a Pandemic Is As Dangerous As the Disease

Vincent Nolte, 19th-century German immigrant and cotton merchant, made millions after he survived a bout of yellow fever and went on to prosper in New Orleans. As historian Kathryn Olivarius writes, Nolte benefited from “immunoprivilege”: Since he had made it through the sickness, he became credit-worthy and found himself accepted in elite society. His experience did not, however, endow him with much sympathy for his fellow victims of yellow fever. He believed both that God had blessed him and that he had saved himself, having “not at all fe[lt] like dying.”

Olivarius wrote about New Orleans’ 19th-century culture of immunoprivilege in the New York Times way back in April, when we didn’t yet know how complicated the question of coronavirus antibodies was going to be. Back then, some were floating the idea of asking young people to deliberately infect themselves with the coronavirus so they could, brimming in antibodies, spearhead the “reopening” of the economy. Reading Olivarius’ work—an article in the American Historical Review, her dissertation—in the more uncertain month of August, I felt a violent shock of recognition at the social phenomena she chronicles.

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