IIn France, in recent weeks, the issue of vaccine passports has sparked an avalanche of outrage. Opposition to the move has united both the far left and the right, with more than 200,000 people taking to the streets to express their contempt. In the kaleidoscope of disparate groups involved, the only unifying flag is the claim that Emmanuel Macron’s policy is a violation of the French principle of Liberty.
Nor is France the only one facing such resistance. In the United States, the mask and vaccine mandates have generated passionate shame and legal action.
Those who strongly oppose anything called a vaccination passport tend to frame the problem as an exclusively personal choice. That may seem superficially reasonable, but it highlights a crucial misunderstanding: the assumption that vaccination is solely an individual blessing. On the contrary; Immunization is, at heart, a public health measure, implemented to reduce the incidence and burden of disease at the population level. It is undeniable that it has enormous individual benefit, but viewing vaccination through this narrow, individualistic lens fundamentally distorts the reality that it is about much more than protecting oneself.
Immunization collectively reduces disease reservoirs, providing a firewall that protects vulnerable members of society. While a Covid infection may not cause lasting harm to a healthy young person, its transmission could inflict substantial, even fatal, harm to vulnerable individuals.
This is a consideration that is often overlooked in arguments about proof of vaccination in public spaces. Those who report it as a violation of their freedoms fail to realize that others have a reasonable expectation that they should not be unnecessarily exposed to a potentially deadly virus if it can be avoided.
The libertarian argument also fails on another level: unvaccinated populations still pose a threat even to the vaccinated. Apart from the fact that vaccines are not perfectly effective, viruses mutate with reproduction. The non-immunized, in effect, constitute a mass of human Petri dishes, where mutations rapidly emerge, endowed with the ability to evade the protection afforded by vaccination. The reduced efficacy of vaccination against the Delta variant is a telling reminder of this reality.
So how we proceed is a challenging question. We can simultaneously recognize that individual rights exist, but also recognize that rights are not absolute and must be balanced with the freedoms of others. Very few of us would object to the imposition of speed limits on a shared public road or restrictions on smoking in public places, given the recognition that these activities can harm others.
The concept of community vaccination is based on the same principle. It is worth noting that these debates are certainly not new. In England and Wales, the Vaccination Act of 1853 mandated universal vaccination against smallpox, with fines imposed on those who chose not to comply. Such was the virulence of smallpox that as early as 1827 vaccination mandates for schools were introduced in several US states.
It’s also worth noting that while these measures were extraordinarily effective in reducing infection, they were also criticized by opponents as medical despotism. Such accusations have modern echoes in the myriad of recent legal challenges against vaccine mandates. In a US case last week, Judge Frank H. Easterbrook upheld Indiana University’s right to require vaccination for returning students. In ruling that a university has the right to decide the measures necessary to keep other students safe in congregated settings, Easterbrook noted: “Vaccination protects not only vaccinated people but also those who come into contact with them and in a university the close contact is unavoidable. “
In particular, this judgment was based on a 1905 supreme court decision, Jacobson v Massachusetts, which found that states can require members of the public to be vaccinated against smallpox or risk fines, a case motivated by the very hoax of “freedom.”
The context is also critical. Even before the advent of Covid, online anti-vaccine propaganda had led to a deadly renaissance of diseases that were once virtually eradicated around the world. Vaccine vacillation is a spectrum, and anti-vaccine activists have proven adept at weaponizing social media to terrorize parents. In 2019, the endemic resurgence of measles forced the World Health Organization to declare vaccine hesitancy one of the top 10 threats to public health.
Anti-vaccine activists, galvanized by the pandemic, have made the invocation of freedom a central theme of their messages. One especially ugly and historically illiterate stunt is his appropriation of the yellow star used to stigmatize Jews under Nazi Germany, claiming that they are being similarly segregated from society for their beliefs. Aside from being astonishingly deaf, it is a deplorable false equivalence.
Vaccine certification seems like a reasonable requirement for community activities and one with a long history, especially when the only barrier is the wrong ideological opposition. But perhaps the most pertinent question is whether vaccine passports can help banish the specter of the pandemic.
Despite the noise and fury, the data for France is extremely promising. The government’s announcement that full vaccination would be required to enter public spaces prompted a massive increase in uptake of vaccination in the previously vaccine-skeptical nation. This is a vital observation, as it suggests that much of the apathy was due to complacency and laissez-faire contrarianism rather than deep-rooted opposition. While those who protest may speak, they are a minority. Macron’s move, despite all the vitriol against it, was probably well judged.
Vaccines remain our best hope, and important conversations remain about how to more effectively and fairly maximize buy-in for all and what form mandates and incentives should take. However, one thing is for sure: vaccination goes far beyond the individual and the decisions made have an inescapable social impact. Ultimately, those who would invoke the Liberty French national motto as their anti-vaccination mantra are betrayed when they omit the equally vital fraternity.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism