METERAnyone will have heard of Typhoid Mary, but few will know her full story, or her real name. That was Mary mallon, an Irish-born cook who worked for wealthy families in the New York City area in the early 1900s. He worked in eight homes, seven of which contracted typhoid, a nasty bacterial infection that can be fatal. Whenever an outbreak started, she usually left without giving a forwarding address, not believing that she might be spreading an infection because she was never sick herself. The idea that people could carry a disease without showing any symptoms was a first for medical science at the time. So it took a lot of detective work and a long time before she was identified as what we might now call an asymptomatic superpropagator.
When she was finally located in 1907, she was arrested as a threat to public health, forced into an ambulance by five police officers and sentenced to a forced quarantine. Doctors discovered massive amounts of typhoid bacteria in his gallbladder. She rejected the suggestion that the infected organ be removed, the only operation that could have cured her. It was a risky procedure and Mary could not be convinced that she was a carrier.
Authorities at the time were divided on the ethics of incarcerating her. She was released after three years on the condition that she no longer work as a cook and take reasonable steps to avoid infecting other people with typhoid fever. He broke that promise by accepting a job, under false identities, in various restaurant and hotel kitchens and, ultimately, in a hospital. It is believed to have infected more than 100 people, but it cannot be said precisely how many deaths it caused. Estimates range from three to 50. Retained in 1915, she was again forcibly quarantined on a small island in New York’s East River. And that’s where he spent the rest of a miserable life until he died 23 years later.
I begin with the story of Typhoid Mary because it is a vivid example of how the freedom of an individual conflicts with the security of society when that individual poses a deadly threat to public health. The way you react to their story can reveal your preferences when it comes to the vaccine passport discussion. If you think it was gruesome to force this woman into involuntary isolation, I suspect you are reacting negatively to the idea of placing restrictions on people who have refused to fully vaccinate against Covid. If your condolences are with the authorities who locked her up for the protection of the public, then I suppose you will not argue with demanding that people be beaten if they want to go places and participate in activities where others will be present.
Some governments have already made a decision and are legislating for vaccine passports. One of the stricter versions has just passed through the French legislature. Requires proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test to access a wide spectrum of locations. Since the beginning of August, those who do not have a pass sanitary they will be excluded from trains, airplanes, workplaces, restaurants, museums, cinemas and swimming pools. Protesters yelling “Freedom!” have been on the streets. Emmanuel macron answered: “What is your freedom worth if you tell me: ‘I don’t want to be vaccinated’, but tomorrow you infect your father, your mother or myself?”
There is the debate in a nutshell. One interpretation of freedom, which focuses solely on the rights of the individual, versus another, which respects the rights of others not to have a disease inflicted by an unvaccinated carrier. To date, 13 European governments have already introduced, or soon will, a “green pass“Of some kind. In all cases, the plans have been followed by protests.
Britain is different. Opposition to the idea raged before the government came up with something like an argument in favor of passports or a plan to introduce them. After initially dismissing them, ministers have reached out to embrace them in a hesitant, random, and rather stealthy manner. On “freedom day,” Boris Johnson announced that people would have to prove their vaccination status to enter nightclubs starting in September. Soon after, Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine minister, suggested that the requirement would be expanded to cover a wider range venues, including sporting events, music festivals and major exhibitions. Those attending this fall’s Conservative Party conference, which is not an event known for its youth, will need to prove their Covid status.
The ministerial announcements have created swirls of suspicion about his motives because the government has never consistently articulated his case. Do you believe in passports as an effective tool to prevent infection and allow the widest possible opening? Or are ministers using them as a coercive stick to push more people to get vaccinated? Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, suggested it was the latter when he commented: “It’s a bit persuasive and cajoling.”
Ministers have also been exposed to charges of cunning. The NHS app recently received an unannounced adjustment to include a Covid national passport section. Trying to sneak up on them gives opponents more ammunition to complain that the whole idea is sinister.
On some of the more sensitive passport issues, the government is outsourcing decisions to others. On Friday, Grant Shapps, the transportation secretary, said he supported companies that force staff to get vaccinated to return to the workplace. It was “a good idea,” but not one that the government was going to turn into legislation. Strident opposition from a sizable chunk of Tory MPs means the government will fight for parliament to pass any passport laws without Labor support. Without any laws, what employers require of their employees could vary greatly. The “no punch, no work” rule that some companies are implementing, with government encouragement, has yet to be tested, as it surely will be, in the labor courts.
One of the reasons for the instability of the government’s approach is that ministers are divided among themselves. Another is opposition from the noisy libertarian right wing and the right wing media, which exert a strong gravitational pull on Johnson. Libertarians argue that vaccine passports will fundamentally compromise the freedom of the individual. They do raise ethical questions, which require proper discussion, but libertarians are wrong to suggest that the idea is so unthinkable that it shouldn’t even be up for debate. As the challenges and concerns of societies change, there is a constant adjustment of the border between individual freedoms and the responsibilities of the individual towards the community in which they live. It used to be the case that you could drive without a seatbelt and while intoxicated. It used to be the case that you could smoke cigarettes in the office and in the pub. When these harmful activities were first outlawed, there was fierce opposition from libertarians arguing that the ban was an unconscionable assault on individual freedom. Now no one seriously argues that you should be free to risk the lives of others by driving under the influence of alcohol or inhaling toxic fumes in a shared environment. Libertarian opposition to vaccine passports demands a fundamental right to endanger others. They want John’s freedom to refuse a vaccine to triumph over Joanna’s freedom to travel, work, or enjoy her free time safely.
As for Labor, its MPs are divided and its position is unclear. Sir Keir Starmer has said that the question is “really difficult” and has pointed out that “british instinct“He will be against passports, although polls actually suggest majority public support for them. Union leaders strongly oppose the “no punches, no work” rules in the workplace. Many union members may have a different opinion about being forced to work alongside those who reject vaccines.
Skeptics ask good questions. What rules will apply to those who cannot get vaccinated for health reasons? Will the surveillance be effective and consistent? How vulnerable will passports be to cheating? There are legitimate concerns, to which the government has yet to respond.
The wrong way to try to introduce vaccine passports is in the inconsistent and stealthy way that ministers have recently shown. The correct way is to clearly articulate your case and show that the effort is worth the reward because they will make it safer to reopen and save lives.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism