Across the globe, countless millions of people have placed their hope in the Coronavirus vaccine as the fastest plausible path back to normalcy for families, businesses, and societies in 2021.
If the vaccines work as expected, and can be delivered in a timely manner, they are expected to herald the end of the symphony of lockdowns, restrictions, social distancing, facemasks, close contacts, and all of the other unpleasant new facets of life delivered by the Covid era.
But while hundreds of millions will line up to be vaccinated next year, there are a considerable number – many tens of millions, globally – of people who have reservations; or who will hesitate; or who object on grounds of conscience to the vaccine. Then there are others whose objections are based less on fact or conscience, and more on fear.
Fears may be well founded, and legitimate, or they may be ill-founded, and baseless. To the person with those fears, it makes little difference which they are. It is ultimately the job of Governments, vaccine manufacturers, and public health officials to convince the public that a vaccine is safe. Sceptical citizens should not be berated, or cajoled, or threatened for their scepticism. When it comes to politicians, and corporations, a state of scepticism has been richly earned over the past several decades.
On Wednesday, the Irish Government indicated that rather than persuade people to take the vaccine, it would rather cajole, and bully. Speaking to RTE News, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly announced that he was exploring the idea of a “vaccine certificate” – a document people would receive confirming that they had been vaccinated. Such a certificate is not without purpose. The Minister went on to link it directly to efforts by some airlines to make being vaccinated mandatory if you wish to avail of their services.
This is an attempt to introduce compulsory vaccination, but via the back door. The message is very simple: Either you submit, and receive the vaccine, or you find yourself excluded from a whole range of activities that you used to take for granted.
Many people in society will argue that those who decline to be vaccinated are behaving recklessly, and without responsibility. That argument may well be correct – but what it ignores is that the primary casualties of such alleged recklessness and irresponsibility will be the unvaccinated themselves, rather than anybody else.
Vaccines, after all, principally provide individual immunity. If the vaccines work, as we expect they will, then a vaccinated person has nothing to fear from sharing an airline journey, or a bus journey, or a supermarket queue, with somebody who has yet to be vaccinated. John Stuart Mill’s timeless harm principle – that a person’s actions should be judged harmful only if they are likely to negatively impact on others – clearly does not apply in this instance.
And if the Government wanted to make a case, for example, that a large number of unvaccinated people posed a threat to the healthcare system, then it should be arguing directly for compulsory vaccination, not a kind of passive harassment of individuals, organised with big business as subcontracted heavies.
Opening the door on compulsory vaccination, however, would be a very destructive, and dangerous precedent. If Government, for example, can demand that you be vaccinated in order to prevent strain on the healthcare system, then what principled argument exists against the Government’s right to demand that those who have already borne two children be sterilised, in order to prevent strain on the childcare system? Once we accept that bodily integrity can be compromised, and violated, in the name of the collective good, then almost all individual rights are forfeit, and your body is no longer your own, but simply a regulated tool of the national collective.
This is a tempting path, and many are drawn to it. Many problems could be solved, after all, if we simply abolished people’s rights over their own bodies. Compulsory organ and blood donation would improve the chances of many patients. Diabetes and heart disease could be reduced if we forcibly regulated people’s diets. Sex offenders could be targeted with compulsory castrations.
Authoritarians from all wings of the political spectrum will find one, or more, of those ideas tempting, but only because they are authoritarians. History tells us that if you like one authoritarian, you may not be quite as happy with the next one.
None of this is, or should be, necessary. For tens of millions of people, the vaccine is an attractive option, and demand will, without a doubt, exceed supply for most of the coming year. Almost every vaccine candidate presently being considered has passed through trials, without any major or disqualifying safety issues being uncovered. As the numbers taking the vaccine rise, without incident, the number of those with reservations will, naturally, fall.
There is no harm principle case for making this vaccine compulsory, either directly, or, as in the Irish case, indirectly. Doing so will not build trust amongst those with reservations, but will exacerbate fears, and suspicions, and opposition. In layman’s terms, a person who believes that COVID-19 was a conspiracy to introduce mandatory vaccination is hardly likely to be convinced that they were wrong by a programme that makes vaccinations practically mandatory. If anything, such an act would increase the appeal of such theories, and undermine public trust.
If the vaccine is a good product, then demand for it will rise. Government has no need to use a stick, here. What’s more, they have no right to do so, either.