bookmark_borderOn “politicizing” the response to Covid

I often hear the claim that the response to the Covid-19 pandemic is being “politicized.” Almost always, this claim has been made by those who support authoritarian restrictions on people’s freedom to slow the spread of the virus. And now this claim is being made by those who support the authoritarian position of pressuring, requiring, mandating, and/or forcing people to get the Covid-19 vaccine.

According to Dictionary.com, political means “of, relating to, or involving the state or its government.”

Therefore, it seems to me that the question of what policies the government should adopt with regards to the virus (or any topic for that matter) is inherently a political question. Which rights people have, to what extent (if any) freedom should be sacrificed for safety, and what types of restrictions the government has the right to enact, are all political topics. When those who argue (correctly, in my opinion) that restrictions violate individual rights are told to “stop politicizing the virus,” they are essentially being told that the concept of individual rights should be ignored. Authoritarian-leaning people urge governments to adopt whatever policies are likely to produce the best public health outcomes, while ignoring the fact that the decision to prioritize public health outcomes over individual liberty is itself a political judgment. 

Accusing your opponents of politicizing an issue is a form of presuming the truth of what you are trying to prove. To equate caring about liberty and individual rights with “politicizing” an issue is to presume that liberty and individual rights do not matter. This is arrogant and intellectually dishonest, not to mention deeply wrong.

For the government to impose authoritarian measures such as stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and vaccination requirements is inherently a political act. Given the definition of “political” that I cited above, one could actually argue that the people urging coercive state or governmental actions are those who are truly politicizing the virus. If either side is treating the virus as a non-political issue, it is the side that is advocating for the state to stay out and allow people to make their own decisions.

bookmark_borderThe distinction between action and omission

In the seemingly never-ending debate about Covid-19 and which regulations (if any) are appropriate to combat it, many people make the mistake of erasing the distinction between action and omission. Far too often, I see tweets, comments, and editorials that equate refraining from taking a helpful action with actively taking a harmful action. 

For example, I have seen numerous people equating the decision not to receive a vaccine with “spreading disease,” and derisively characterizing the right not to get a vaccine as “the right to spread germs.” I have read editorials accusing a hypothetical person who gets on a bus while having an asymptomatic case of the virus of “killing” a hypothetical elderly person who subsequently gets on the bus and contracts the virus. I have seen tweets accusing governors of “killing” their states’ residents by lifting restrictions. 

Statements like these are based on a fundamental error in logic. People are not morally obligated to take any action; they are morally obligated only to refrain from harming others. In other words, as long as someone’s actions are not actively and directly harming others, they are doing nothing wrong. Failing to take an action that would benefit others, failing to actively help one’s community, these things are perfectly okay. People have the right to do their own thing and pursue their own goals; they are not required to contribute to the greater good.

Therefore, refraining from getting a vaccine is not the same thing as spreading disease. Nor, for that matter, is refraining from taking other risk-mitigation measures such as staying home or wearing masks. Spreading disease means deliberately infecting others with germs, on purpose. Failing to actively stop the spread is not the same as actively spreading. Diseases spread from person to person. People are not to blame for the transmission of a virus; the virus itself is.

It’s even more ridiculous to accuse leaders of killing people when they lift restrictions. Doing so presumes that restrictions are morally required, which is as far from the truth as it is possible to get. Taking away people’s freedoms for the sake of fighting a virus is morally impermissible, and therefore the restrictions never should have been enacted in the first place. To equate respect for fundamental rights with “killing” is preposterous. 

It’s understandable that proponents of mandatory vaccination, mandatory wearing of masks, and mandatory staying at home would conflate the failure to take these actions with taking a harmful action. It’s a lot easier to argue that a harmful action should be banned than it is to argue that people should be compelled to do something. Banning the spreading of disease and the killing of people sounds a lot more reasonable than banning minding one’s own business. But these attempts to justify totalitarianism are based on faulty logic. They erase the fundamental moral distinction between action and omission.

bookmark_borderPeople who do not get the vaccine are not “moochers”

A recent editorial in the L.A. Times claims that people who choose not to receive the Covid-19 vaccine are “mooching off the rest of us.” I strongly disagree with this idea. 

First of all, the editorial repeatedly uses the verb “refuse” to characterize the decision not to get a vaccine. I disagree with this word choice, as it implies that the decision not to get a vaccine is a bad thing. In my opinion, it is not. People have a fundamental right to decide for themselves whether or not to get a vaccine (or any medical procedure, for that matter). Both options are equally valid and acceptable. 

The editorial criticizes Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Sen. Rand Paul, who have (in the author’s words) “defended the right not to be immunized as an exercise in individual freedom” and are “casting themselves as courageous individualists.” These two gentlemen are 100% correct. The right not to be immunized is an exercise in individual freedom, and those who defend this right are courageous individualists. 

The editorial tries to debunk Cawthorn’s and Paul’s arguments as follows: “The hazards of refusing the vaccine don’t confine themselves to the individual refuser. Vaccine resisters are putting the rest of us in danger, too. Unvaccinated people who contract COVID-19, even if they don’t become seriously ill, can pass the virus to family and friends.”

It is true that not getting a vaccine can have indirect effects on other people. But this is no reason to take away people’s freedom to choice. Every decision that a person makes has the potential to indirectly affect other people, but no sane person would argue that people shouldn’t have the freedom to decide on anything. The deciding factor is not whether a decision carries risks for other people but whether a decision violates others’ rights. In aggregate, the choice not to get the vaccine does increase the odds of catching Covid-19 for everyone in the community. But this choice does not violate the rights of anyone. There is no right to live in a world without infections diseases, or a world where one’s risk of catching any particular disease is below any particular threshold. The demand that the vaccine be made mandatory does violate people’s rights, however. Those who make this demand are essentially attempting to force medical procedures on other people, something that blatantly and unquestionably violates rights. They are arguing that the ability to live in a community with low rates of Covid transmission is more important than the ability to make one’s own medical decisions. I vehemently disagree with this claim. People have the right to make their own medical decisions regardless of what effect this has on the community’s risk level. In other words, no one has the right to demand that people be made to get medical procedures against their will for the sake of reducing their own risk or that of others.

The editorial goes on to insult Cawthorn, Paul, and others who think like them (including myself): “In fact, they’re acting as epidemiological moochers. They’re free riders, relying on the rest of us to protect them by helping the country reach herd immunity. Their relatives and friends, especially those 65 or older, should give them a wide berth. And their voters should treat them as what they are: dangerous to the health of their communities.”

I disagree with this characterization as well. No one is morally obligated to undergo any medical procedure, even if doing so would have indirect benefits to others, and no one who opts out of a medical procedure is a “moocher.” It is true that Covid-19 vaccination has what is called “positive externalities” – meaning that in aggregate it does tend to benefit society as a whole by reducing the overall amount Covid transmission. But there is no rule that if an activity has positive externalities, then everyone should be required to do it. I would be perfectly happy to live in a world where no one got the vaccine, but given that a lot of people are choosing to get it, there is no way for me to avoid the positive externalities. A moocher is someone who deliberately obtains a benefit without paying for it; therefore it is not accurate to describe people who do not get the vaccine as “moochers.” 

Additionally, although each person has the right to make his or her own decisions about who to associate with, it is intolerant, mean-spirited, controlling, and nosy to take another person’s medical decisions into account when deciding whether or not to spend time with them. I would never make a friend or relative’s vaccination status a factor in whether or not to associate with them, because it is none of my business. 

It may be true that Cawthorn and Paul are infinitesimally contributing to their communities’ virus risk. They are also bravely standing up for individual rights at a time when doing so is unpopular, and therefore desperately needed. That is far more important. 

bookmark_borderLawsuit planned against MA flu shot mandate

A group of over 5,000 people are planning to file a lawsuit challenging Massachusetts’s new requirement that all children and teens get a flu vaccine in order to attend school. The group, called Flu You Baker, is gathering signatures for a class action lawsuit that it plans to file next month.

Governor Charlie Baker implemented the requirement in August in an attempt to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Department of Public Health website, everyone who will be going to a day care or school, from 6 months old to high school seniors, is required to get a flu shot, even if they are planning on attending school remotely. Additionally, college and grad school students under age 30 are required to get a flu shot if they are attending classes on campus.

Dr. Larry Madoff of the Department of Public Health explained: “It is more important now than ever to get a flu vaccine because flu symptoms are very similar to those of Covid-19 and preventing the flu will save lives and preserve health care resources.”

“I don’t believe in government overreach,” Vincent Delaney, and organizer of the lawsuit, said to NBC Boston. “I believe it should be between a parent, their child, and the doctor.”

Renee Viens, a mother who signed onto the lawsuit, told the station: “This should be a parental choice because this can become a very slippery slope. If people are forced to take the vaccine, then what’s next? Is it the Covid vaccine that’s going to be forced on us? I just don’t think this is good precedent to set.”

I support this lawsuit 100%. Just as the government does not have a right to take away people’s freedom of movement and association in order to prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed, it does not have the right to invade people’s bodies in order to prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed. Nor do people have the right to have the bodies of other people invaded in order to reduce their own risk of catching the flu. What is particularly disturbing about this flu shot requirement is that it applies to students attending private schools as well as public, and even more bizarrely, applies to students who will be learning online. Plus, this requirement is more onerous than the already existing requirement that public school students receive vaccines for hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox. Unlike these vaccines, which a person generally only needs to get once and then never needs to worry about again, the flu vaccine only lasts for a year, so students will need to get it every year. This is a significant quality of life issue and a clear case of government overreach. Like with any medical procedure, whether or not to get a flu shot should be an individual choice.

bookmark_borderCoronavirus vaccine should not be mandatory

When a vaccine for the coronavirus is eventually developed, it will be a huge benefit to those who want the protection and peace of mind that it brings. There will also almost certainly be a minority of people who – for one reason or another – would prefer not to receive the vaccine.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

That’s why it’s disturbing that Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz said in an interview:

If a safe vaccine is to be developed for Covid-19, I hope it’s mandated, and I will defend it… Let me put it very clearly, you have no constitutional right to endanger the public and spread the disease, even if you disagree. You have no right not to be vaccinated, you have no right not to wear a mask, you have no right to open up your business… And if you refuse to be vaccinated, the state has the power to literally take you to a doctor’s office and plunge a needle into your arm.

Like most proponents of forcing people to undergo medial procedures against their will, Dershowitz points to the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), in which the court ruled that states may require people to be vaccinated if their boards of health deem it necessary for public health or safety. As World Net Daily puts it: “If any individual is allowed to act without regard to the welfare of others, true liberty does not exist, the court argued.”

I strongly disagree with this school of thought. Each person has a right to do anything he or she wishes, as long as those actions do not violate the rights of anyone else. What determines whether an action violates someone’s rights? One must compare the effect of the action on other people against the effect of banning the action on the person or people who wish to do the action.

In the case of vaccines, the question is: Which has a more direct impact on a person, having other people existing in the world who have not been vaccinated, or being forced to be vaccinated against one’s will?

As Dershowitz and the Jacobson court note, people are affected somewhat by the existence of other people who do not get vaccines. The percentage of people in a community who have or have not been vaccinated does affect each individual’s risk of catching a disease. People who are not able to get vaccines for medical reasons can catch illnesses from those who have chosen not to get the vaccine.

However, this impact is indirect. Actually getting sick has a large and direct impact on someone’s life, but a person who hasn’t gotten a vaccine does not cause anyone to become sick. The disease does. The presence of unvaccinated people merely affects a person’s risk of catching a disease; it does not cause a person to catch a disease.

On the other hand, being required to undergo a medical procedure such as vaccination affects a person directly. It involves a person’s skin being pierced by a needle and a substance being injected into his or her body.

A person’s right to make decisions about his/her own body outweighs any supposed right to make decisions about the bodies of other people in order to manage one’s own disease risk. In other words, the importance of being able to decide for oneself whether or not to get vaccines outweighs the importance of being able to decide whether or not the people around you get vaccines.

A country in which the government has the power to take someone to a doctor’s office and plunge a needle into their arm is a country without liberty in any meaningful sense of the word. To claim, as the Jacobson court did, that there is no true liberty without being able to control other people’s actions that might have an indirect impact on you, is ridiculous.

I would likely choose to get the coronavirus vaccine when it comes out. But it should be my choice.

bookmark_borderCovid vaccine should not be mandatory

As Covid-19 vaccines gradually roll out, it’s a good time to revisit the topic of whether or not they should be mandatory. As someone who believes in individual rights and liberty, it is my opinion that they absolutely should not. Like any medical procedure, whether or not to get a Covid-19 vaccine should be a personal choice.

In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe Magazine a while back, Tom Keane argued that the government should require the Covid vaccine. “There’s a powerful moral argument that needs to be made,” he writes. “The vaccine isn’t about you. It’s about everyone else. Those who refuse to get the vaccine will in effect be imperiling the health and lives of their relatives, friends, and fellow citizens.” Keane personally criticizes those who oppose mandatory vaccination, calling them “cranky” and describing their position as “against all reason and morality.” He suggests that, as opposed to forcibly sticking needles into people’s arms, the government require the vaccine in order for people to go to work, go shopping, go to restaurants, or board planes.

“Indeed, the simple requirement can be that if you want to leave your house, you must get vaccinated,” he writes. “Maybe that seems intrusive. But it’s actually far less so than what we endured at the height of the lockdown from mid-March through mid-May, when the state shut down its entire economy. Maybe a few diehard anti-vaxxers will resist and simply stay forever in their homes. Fine by me. As long as they can’t mix with the general population, they won’t pose any threat. While normalcy returns for the rest of us, and we work and play as we used to, they can stay stuck inside, isolated and alone, glaring out their windows as life passes them by.”

There are numerous problems with this. First of all, I really don’t appreciate the negative characterizations of people who oppose mandatory vaccination. People with different opinions than Keane’s are not necessarily any more cranky, angry, or resentful than he is; they just have different opinions. Second, the proposed requirement that people receive a vaccine as a condition of being allowed to leave their house is, for all practical purposes, just as coercive as forcibly sticking a needle into someone’s arm. Keane makes it sound easy for someone to simply choose never to leave his or her home, but doing so is essentially impossible. Unless a person has enough money to last for the rest of his or her life, he or she must work. Even for someone who has the good fortune not to need employment, it will still be necessary to purchase groceries and other necessities, or perhaps to go to doctor’s offices occasionally. Not to mention the fact that psychologically, it would be impossible for all but the most avid homebodies to have an acceptable quality of life without being allowed even to take a walk down the street.

Which brings me to my main point: contrary to Keane’s contention that opposing mandatory vaccination goes against reason and morality, it is entirely morally permissible not to get a vaccine. It’s true that a person’s decision not to get the vaccine may have indirect effects on other people. But the key word here is indirect. The more people in a community who opt not to get the vaccine, the higher the prevalence of the virus in that community, so an individual person’s decision not to get the vaccine does contribute infinitesimally to raising the risk of infection for everyone in the community. But think about how directly a person is affected by being forced to make the choice between submitting to an unwanted medical procedure and being confined to one’s house for the rest of one’s life. People have the right to make their own decisions about which, if any, medical procedures to undergo. People also have the right to freedom of movement, meaning the ability to leave their house as frequently as they wish and to go wherever they wish to go. Therefore, people have the right to both of these things, and it violates people’s rights to force them to choose one or the other.

For those who argue that vaccination’s impact on other people justifies taking away the individual’s right to choose, it’s important to ask yourself: what is more of an invasion, to be around people who have not gotten a vaccine, or to be forced to get an unwanted vaccine in order to avoid a life sentence of house arrest? People have a right to control their own bodies, but they do not have a right to control the disease risk that is present in the environment around them, especially when doing so requires invading the bodies of others. If you are so concerned about catching the virus that you do not feel safe going outside unless you know that everyone else outside has been vaccinated, it is your responsibility to stay home. It is not other people’s responsibility to stay home in order to make you safer.

I would also add that Keane’s proposal is, in my opinion, more intrusive than the stay-at-home orders that shut down states’ entire economies. Requiring a medical procedure in order to do something is in some ways more invasive than banning the thing altogether. And stay-at-home orders, although they closed businesses deemed non-essential, did not completely ban people from leaving their homes as Keane’s vaccine mandate would do; people were still allowed to at least walk around outside and go to supermarkets and essential businesses. Plus, even if a vaccine mandate was less invasive than a stay-at-home order, that would not make it acceptable. Both violate people’s rights, and therefore neither ought to be enacted. Proving that your preferred policy is less oppressive than another policy does not prove that it is okay.

So in conclusion, people who opt not to receive the Covid-19 vaccine are making a choice that is perfectly morally acceptable. It is cruel and unusual to suggest that someone who makes this choice should receive a life sentence of house arrest.