By Christian Lowry, September 22 2021—
The successful development of a number of different COVID-19 vaccines was greeted with celebration throughout the world, which lost 4.5 million lives and saw at least 218 million contract the disease between Jan. 28, 2020 and Sept. 1, 2021. In Canada alone, COVID-19 has caused the deaths of 27,020 people over the same period, making it a tragedy unparalleled in our country’s peacetime history. 72 per cent of Canadians have fulfilled their civic duties and received at least one vaccine dose and 65 per cent have received a full vaccination of two doses.
Unfortunately, there is still a great distance to go in overcoming the catastrophe of the coronavirus. A nationally representative survey conducted in June found that 18 per cent of Canadians were “vaccine-hesitant,” and 10 per cent were opposed to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at all. While the size of this demographic has decreased over time, it represents a fertile breeding ground for vaccine-resistant variants of coronavirus and an ominous liability to public health — both for the unvaccinated and those in their path. There is no reason for such a situation to continue. As with all other vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccines have proven their safety and effectiveness and both the side-effects and extremely rare adverse effects experienced are dwarfed by those resulting from the novel coronavirus itself. Of 53,559,981 vaccine doses given prior to Sept. 3, 2021, only 2,656 — 0.004 per cent — resulted in serious complications, or “adverse events of special interest.” The longevity of COVID-19 in Canada now owes itself almost entirely to the unvaccinated. Of all new confirmed cases reported between Dec. 14, 2020 and July 26, 2021, 90 per cent were among unvaccinated people, along with 85 per cent of hospitalizations and 82 per cent of deaths.
The result has been a shower of proposals aimed at compelling the vaccine-hesitant — also referred to as anti-vaccine or “anti-vax” — population to become immunized against COVID-19, known as vaccine mandates. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to require vaccines for public servants as well as travellers using ships, planes and trains. British Columbia will soon require proof of vaccination to access sporting events, restaurants, gyms, weddings and other venues, and many other provinces are following suit. In anticipation of these regulations, protests have formed in Vancouver, Calgary, Victoria, Kamloops, Montreal, Kelowna and elsewhere. In addition to the existential threat they pose to others, anti-vaccine protesters at these gatherings risk blocking ambulances and have harassed health workers going to and from their jobs, proving the necessity of tougher penalties to ensure public safety.
Paradoxically, some major anti-vaccine personalities don’t seem to know what vaccines are or what they do, but have devoted their waking hours to opposing their use in society nevertheless. Thus, on Dec. 17, 2020, far-right provocateur and Human Events senior editor Jack Posobiec tweeted to his 1 million followers, “What if instead of a vaccine[,] we just were able to get exposed to a weak version of the virus that enabled us to build the antibodies we need to fight the real thing[?]” Of course, anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of medicine knows that a vaccine is the “weak version” of a virus that builds “the antibodies we need to fight the real thing.” For these and other reasons, vaccine mandates are becoming increasingly necessary because there are no equally compelling alternatives to them, and, contrary to popular belief, they are the best means for guaranteeing both security and liberty in a pandemic.
One frequently-invoked, hands-off alternative to vaccination is herd immunity. But proposals to allow natural “herd immunity” are particularly galling, offering neither immunity nor protection for the “herd” while the endless wait for immunity drags on. While some natural immunity does exist for COVID-19 survivors, the very idea is inherently self-contradictory and counterproductive. The basic idea is to prevent sickness by allowing as many people as possible to get sick, consequently defeating the purpose of the resulting immunity. Such an approach is like fighting a fire by allowing it to burn out of control in order to leave nothing for future fires to burn when the entire point is to prevent people and things from being burned to begin with.
Herd immunity proposals are also perverse because they create a false equivalence between the immediate pursuit of luxuries and the saving of human lives through immunization. The implication is that life is not worthy enough of saving to sacrifice personal desires long enough to safeguard the population through vaccination. There is no excuse for pursuing such a policy when well-tested alternatives such as “Zero COVID” lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccination drives and social distancing are ready for use, requiring only patience and discipline to work. Since a small but active minority of malcontents continue to sabotage public health efforts, vaccine mandates are required to ensure that existing vaccinations are not rendered ineffective by coronavirus variants, that further infections are prevented, and to end the constant flip-flopping of easing and tightening restrictions. If society desires immunity from COVID-19, it must be sought rather than awaited. Vaccine mandates promise to deliver that solution by removing the incentives for the unvaccinated to avoid getting the shots they need.
It has been frequently stated that mandating a vaccine violates the human rights of those receiving them, and the same has been claimed of other pandemic responses such as masking requirements, social distancing, isolation and others. However, the consequences of lifting these restrictions are far worse than those of keeping them, and as a result, so are the violations of human liberty that comes with sudden sickness. In the absence of these widely-supported constraints, the carelessness of the vaccine-hesitant threatens themselves and others with COVID-19, including weeks of unpleasant symptoms, the drastic worsening of widespread pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, cancer and hypertension, the outright decimation of the elderly population and immunocompromised, increasingly transmissible and deadly coronavirus variants, hospital overcrowding — along with all the implications that entails for victims of other illnesses — burnout of healthcare workers and, for sufferers of “Long COVID,” various forms of lifelong disability. Such cavalier disregard for human well-being on a global scale deserves at least as much recognition as a foregone patio dinner, a lost gym exercise, or the pain of a needle. Rights are not merely declarations of things that one wants — they are social conventions dictating what basic calamities should be avoided by a collective human effort. Premature mass death from infectious disease is one such calamity.
In this case, the alleged dilemma between freedom and security is little more than a long-settled moral debate whose verdict we constantly acknowledge when we conduct our daily affairs in peace. The choice is not so much between freedom and tyranny as it is between two competing concepts of freedom, as outlined by Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762. The first freedom, which most people are familiar with, is “civil freedom,” in which each person only has the rights and liberties of everyone else -— life, security of the person, mobility, assembly, thought, the press, speech and worship among other things, and everyone is free to do what they please as long as they do not harm someone else. The other freedom, which is pleaded by the vaccine-hesitant, is “natural freedom,” in which no established authority of any kind can restrain a person’s actions in any circumstance, and which was practiced in its purest form by prehistoric human ancestors and relatives. It is total, uncompromising and utterly Darwinian in its extent, and its credentials as a worthwhile doctrine for human society are unimpressive since virtually every imaginable evildoer in history has subscribed to its one-sided view of liberty.
If all people have “natural freedom,” then no person actually has freedom, because any person can violate the rights of another at any time for any reason and with no sure hope of punishment. Of such a brutal, terrifying and desperate world, the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a century before Rousseau, “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth […] no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
While there are numerous maladies in all human societies, humanity generally doesn’t fit Hobbes’ description of a world dominated by “natural freedom.” Since such a world is horrifying to each person, “civil freedom” has generally replaced “natural freedom” throughout the world. The emergence of liberal society, in which people trade their “natural freedom” for “civil freedom,” is arguably humanity’s crowning achievement and remains the foundation for all of its subsequent leaps and bounds. The “civil freedom” of sedentary society is the result of people refusing to live with the terror of natural freedom as the grounding fact of their lives.
Moreover, not all rights of “civil freedom” are of equal value. Some of those previously mentioned can be divided into what philosopher Henry Shue calls “basic rights,” which are required for the exercise of all other liberties — a right to food, shelter, medical care and clean water — and “non-basic rights,” which include everything from civil liberties to property rights. Some aspects of civil freedom are pleaded by apologists for the vaccine-hesitant, such as mobility and assembly rights, which are partially compromised by some of the regulations of vaccine mandates. However, bioethicist Samuel Gorovitz accurately responds that “rights are of value only to the living.” Consequently, those who endanger the lives of others must be made to remedy their ways before they can fully enjoy their non-basic rights. Because vaccine mandates soften the impact of novel diseases on tens of millions of people in Canada alone, they will substantially expand the freedoms of its people.
If receiving an extensively tested vaccine from trained professionals violates the personal liberty of a few holdouts, then deliberately spreading an extremely contagious and unpleasant virus certainly violates the personal liberty of the majority, whom they place in constant danger of catching it. Viewed this way, vaccine mandates do not stand in opposition to human rights — they are the majority’s way of invoking their rights to life, physical security and self-defense against the unvaccinated. If the government did not try to vaccinate its citizens and allowed the unvaccinated to pillage the health of the public with wanton abandon, then it would effectively be commanding the majority of society to sicken or die without complaint. This truth becomes more grave when we realize that the coronavirus plague is not the world’s first pandemic, and will almost certainly not be its last.
I should note that vaccine mandates will not only rescue many people from this preventable infection and death but also that they stand no danger of introducing tyranny to Canada. Arguably, the tyranny that vaccine skeptics fearmonger about has long since arrived, though perhaps not in the way they imagined. Instead of its victims, they are both its enforcers and its beneficiaries. With their fingers in their ears and voices raised, they insist that they can do whatever they wish at the expense of everyone else. Invoking one’s human rights is meaningless if the right in question is not compatible with everybody else having it.
When their hyper-individualist outlook is taken in isolation from any other beliefs they hold, a tiny minority of militantly vaccine-hesitant people expect the exhausted remnants of society to wait on them, never considering the human cost, in a relationship more akin to that of masters and slaves than ordinary people inhabiting a liberal society on equal terms. In fact, this is what the term “authoritarian” describes — the manner in which a person or group of people with little to no popular support forces their will on everyone else. The presence of an actual dictator, clique of shadowy leaders, or other examples of blatant coercion are not required for an authoritarian system to exist. What matters is that a tiny but extremely vocal minority meets its antisocial goals by using force and power instead of consent and rationality. Instead of bemoaning their lost concerts and banquets — which they can regain if they choose — they should be thankful that those are the only things they stood to lose in humanity’s most recent pandemic. Many others have lost much more.
This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.