Smells Like Team Spirit

Trying to cut through the political noise about vaccinations

What’s up with this vaccination thing?

These days, my strongest political belief is that the politicization of things -- by which I mean: the tendency for issues in public conversation to devolve into picking ‘sides’ -- is an enormous and frustrating drain on society. The antidote is simple and is one of the most important ways each of us can contribute to the positive functioning of society: just do your best to think through issues and consider arguments one at a time, rather than taking shortcuts based on who wears what ideological jersey. (Note: the goal isn’t to avoid landing on one side of the fence or the other; it’s to get there as independently as you can.)

Given that the COVID vaccination issue -- namely, the debate around whether people should or shouldn’t be required to be vaccinated -- is as big of a political shitshow as we have today, I wanted to try to break it down for myself. Join me.

So, what’s all the fuss about?

Well, the question of whether or not people should be expected to get vaccinated seems to have turned into a referendum on people’s right to choose. Employers and business owners are stressing over what their stance should be (vis a vis staff/patrons) and hoping like hell that the government takes the decision off their hands, not because they’re unclear on what they want to have happen -- they just don’t want any political blood on their hands.

What are the two teams arguing?

Let’s accept for simplicity’s sake that there are two opposing camps on this issue (as much as I don’t think it’s helpful to view people in terms of the groups they belong to).

Team Science is arguing in favour of vaccine efficacy and the public-health benefits of widespread vaccination. Simple enough.

Team Freedom is half-heartedly challenging the scientific merits of the COVID vaccines, but I feel like that’s more rationalizing than it is an actual rationale, i.e. I doubt that many people are genuinely skeptical of the science itself. I think that’s just a convenient thing to latch onto in service of the thing the people on this team really care about, which is not being told what to do. In this view, individual liberty is the greatest good worth protecting.

There’s of course also the matter of who’s telling these folks what to do, and -- back to the fact that this issue has been supercharged with partisan politics -- I suspect that a big part of the emotion comes from the fact that it’s their perceived enemies barking orders at them. But let’s set that complication aside for a second and assume that folks on Team Freedom are sincere about their concern for the right to choose.

So, public health vs personal freedom -- that seems to be roughly the debate.  At first glance, those are both good things, worth defending. Fair enough.

The crux of the issue would seem to lie in how we can reconcile the two ideals in a situation where they seem to be mutually exclusive.

What are some different ways we can look at it?

For starters, one thing that jumps out is that by the nature of it, a personal choice here doesn’t just affect the person making it. This is a personal choice in the same way that smoking or drunk driving are a personal choice -- it might be valid (however ill advised) for someone to put themselves at risk, but by doing so they’re also imposing on others in important ways. (TLDR: health risks, yes, but also health-infrastructure impacts, economic impacts and probably more.) So if we’re going to score freedom points for giving people the ‘right to choose’, we should probably offset those to some extent against these drawbacks.

Speaking of smoking, what can we learn by extending the analogy? If you smoke, you’re welcome to continue to do so -- you just also have to accept the consequences of that choice, e.g. not being allowed in public places. By the same token, maybe a person should be welcome to not get vaccinated, but should just simply have to accept that that choice comes with less ability to move freely through public places. Could that work?

On the flip side, admittedly, there are some key difference between this case and the smoking example. One is that asking somebody to stop doing something (i.e. return to default state) is different than compelling someone to do something (i.e. depart from default state). Another is that smoking is a two-way door: you can pause long enough to be indoors in public, then resume once you’re back outside. Vaccination doesn’t work like that -- it’s (for all intents and purposes) a one-way door. Hmmm…

Speaking of smoking or drunk driving or -- for that matter -- the fact that certain immunizations have been required for certain international travel since foreverish, another interesting thing is that infringement on people’s ‘right to choose’ in those areas doesn’t seem to be a source of righteous anger like in the case of the COVID vaccines. More fodder for the theory that so much of the apparent indignation here is politically motivated, which is just not a valid basis for argumentation.

Putting it all together…

The arguments in favour of requiring that eligible people be vaccinated seem to be more straightforward and less plagued by contradictions than the arguments against, so it seems like the burden of proof here should be on Team Freedom.

To that end, the strongest argument I see available is not just about the right to choose, but rather about the weirdness of compelling people to take a certain clinical action. Without going down that rabbit hole, seems like that could produce some troubling consequences if you were to follow it to its extreme.

The good news is that’s not what we’re talking about doing. As unusual as it is to compel people to an action like getting vaccinated, it’s also highly unusual that we would have a circumstance where people can really harm each other just by being around one another. So… extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures, in my view.

So that’s my vote. Given all the ways I can think to look at it, and given the miraculous efficacy of the vaccines (which is honestly not worth debating, given the tsunami of evidence available), I would say it makes good sense on an exceptional basis to expect that people get vaccinated in the name of collective wellbeing.

After-the-fact disclaimer: I’m no expert, I’m probably missing info and my reasoning is more than likely imperfect, but -- right or wrong -- I see the exercise of breaking things down for myself as valuable for its own sake. In other words, I’d rather think and be wrong than not think and be convinced I’m right.