Desperate times call for desperate measures; the trick is to ensure that the side effects of the measures taken do not worsen the original predicament. There is now a strong sense of understandable desperation among societies and governments in their wish to see off COVID-19, to the extent that the idea of compulsory vaccination, which only a few months ago would have been considered taboo in any free society, has increasingly spread into mainstream discourse.
The guiding principle is surely that no one should be physically forced to be inoculated and that we recognize that the right to health includes the right to be free from nonconsensual medical treatment. If society diverges from this principle, we might end up with totalitarianism.
However, this has to be balanced with the universal right to “the health and well-being of (a person) and of (their) family,” as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This right is now being compromised by those opposed to vaccines, in all their shades of populism, paranoia and pernicious influence, and against all scientific advice.
If the opposition to being vaccinated affected only those who refuse the COVID-19 jabs, their decision might be respected with no misgivings, although with deep regret should they fall ill, suffer from long-term illness or, heaven forbid, die as a result.
However, we are not dealing with a case of mere self-harm, since COVID-19 vaccines are effective not only in reducing the risk of contracting the virus, but also of spreading it. In other words, being inoculated protects others, including our loved ones, as well as ourselves. Hence, in light of the overwhelming scientific evidence on the safety of the vaccines, the refusal to be vaccinated is a serious form of antisocial behavior, often instigated by rebels with confused, cynical motives who effectively disrupt society by exploiting the dark side of social media, as well as inherent human fears and distrust in government.
But preventing human suffering through vaccination is only part of the story. There is also the need to avoid pressure on national health systems that have been working flat-out for the past two years beyond their maximum organizational and, more importantly, human capacity. Medical staff who are stretched at the best of times have been placed under unbelievably stressful conditions that put their patients’ and their own lives at risk. Avoiding further waves of outbreaks is essential for health systems everywhere, so that they may once more provide treatments, including lifesaving procedures, that have been postponed due to the pandemic.
Beyond the straightforward health implications caused by those who are anti-vaccines, there are wider issues for economies and societies. Increasing cases of coronavirus will inevitably cause more restrictions on businesses that have already suffered enormously; and there is the devastating impact on the education of future generations, not to mention the mental impact on the young, who have lost precious time in their youth that they will never be able to reclaim.
Repeated lockdowns are bound to have an impact on our social interactions, economic conditions and our well-being — and this is where the development of new, more efficient vaccines that are better adaptable to new variants of the virus, along with better vaccination campaigns, must play a crucial role.
Despite being vocal and persistent, those who are against vaccines are a minority, while the vast majority of people everywhere are complying with the calls for them to vaccinate. Still, since “no one is safe until everyone is safe,” we are left with the question of how to address the phenomenon of people refusing to be vaccinated. The first port of call must be an unwavering and relentless campaign to counter all unsubstantiated “arguments” that undermine the drive to vaccinate the entire population, supported by complete and transparent scientific evidence.
Second, there must be pressure on social media providers to curtail the harmful anti-vaccine propaganda, not as a matter of curbing legitimate debate or concerns, but of stopping the spread of baseless conspiracy theories. Third, and more controversially, action must be taken against those who continue to refuse to be inoculated.
Admittedly, they are not a monolithic group. Some are afraid of any medical treatment, while others refuse to let needles come close to them, and these people require more care than sanctions. But the conspiracists and the careless require a more proactive and assertive approach to encourage them to vaccinate.
Compulsory vaccination does not mean medical staff, with the help of police, pinning down vaccine mutineers and administering the vaccine against their will. It is more a case of imposing sanctions, such as stopping them from participating in social activities in which they would engage in a manner that puts other people in danger.
Consequently, making vaccine “passports” a condition for attending public gatherings is not an unreasonable requirement in times of such a severe health crisis; nor is making such passports a condition for employment in hospitals, care homes, schools or any other environment that would put other people at risk an undemocratic act, but simply one of social responsibility toward others.
Fining those who oppose vaccination might be a more problematic measure, especially if it is not a progressive fine, as has been suggested in some countries. Many of those who fall victim to the anti-vaccine untruths come from the poorer parts of our societies and any suggestion of monetary penalty should be proportioned and be more heavily imposed on those who spread the lies, rather than on the gullible who fall for them.
However, for those who are unvaccinated and break the rules regarding wearing masks or attending public spaces that are assigned to those who are vaccinated or exempted, society should show less consideration.
This pandemic is causing a warlike situation. It is killing millions of people and causing huge and widespread suffering. Its legacy will reverberate for decades to come throughout almost all aspects of our existence. It is, therefore, inconceivable that societies should allow people opposed to vaccines to hinder the colossal and excruciating battle to restore normal life after all the pain and sacrifice that has already been conceded to this terrible disease.
This is why some difficult decisions have to be taken on how to encourage those who oppose vaccinations to revise their approach, without causing long-term harm to our basic liberties.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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