I have been examining issues surrounding vaccination resistance. It’s feeling more and more trite to me to label all anti-vaxxers as simply stupid, although it seems like that on a bad day.
In fact, there are many intelligent anti-vaxxers; there are also some who dissent for religious reasons. As a secular humanist, I sometimes view religion as a set of myths and superstitions. However, for all of the problems it causes, I also believe that religious faith makes a contribution to many lives globally: it is a positive force overall and, therefore, religious objectors shouldn’t be dismissed simply as ‘Bible thumpers.’
How do we approach this deep divide beyond simply hurling insults?
A significant barrier to a more balanced, sensible, debate is that a vast majority of the population is deficient in what used to be called civics. Not enough people can list off what their rights and responsibilities are in a liberal democratic society and far less articulate their implications. With regard to the COVID-19 virus, this lack of understanding has produced a teleological view of the evolution and meaning of democracy.
From the beginning, democracy at its best has been built on the twin foundations of preserving individual liberties and promoting the public good. This ethic of rights and responsibilities is embedded in the Roman principle of civitas.
In my reading, civitas is a paradox; community building and consensus must be constantly negotiated within the context of a dynamic tension between them. Individual rights are not immutable but are fixed in time and space. Governments routinely limit, suspend or alter civil liberties in the name of the public good.
For example, I own a legal and properly registered gun and, in my lifetime, I have never committed any crime. If I’m clearly not a threat, why can’t I bring my gun on an airplane? I can’t because there is a law against it. It is a restriction on my rights, but one that grows out of a societal consensus: the public good is more important than my individual liberties. Nobody complains about this. Yet, gun rights advocates cry like colicky babies anticipating that their pacifiers will be taken away by the government when sensible reforms, like a ban on assault weapons, are even suggested.
Neoliberalism is not a political philosophy but an elaborate set of excuses to perpetuate and defend economic inequalities and serve the financial interests of wealthy elites. Its proposition is that individual rights, most notably the unfettered right to accumulate wealth, must be held far above all others.
There are no responsibilities to your community in a neoliberal world. It is also, at both a conceptual and practical level, a frontal assault on the central (national and provincial) state.
Just as the emergence of the Keynesian activist state was a response to the economic collapse that produced the Great Depression, the neoliberal state is a response to the stagflation of the 1970s and a drop in the overall global rate of profit. It began in the U.S. in the early 1980s with events such as the removal of solar panels from the White House roof and state repression of striking air traffic controllers. In Canada, at the same time, the Conservative Mulroney government cannibalized Crown corporations, especially public enterprises that were successful and contributed to the public purse.
Intense focus on individual rights and diminishing/rejecting the notion that the government has a role to play in promoting the public good is molded into a self-fulfilling prophecy by the two-headed snake of deregulation and cutting social programs. In the end, we get state monopoly capitalism with a policy framework that regards social programs as a clear and present danger yet extols corporate welfare as natural and desirable.
This system provides a haven for excess accumulation through maintaining a level of militarization that is out of proportion to the threats the society faces from ‘others.’ To say this is to court simplistic and bitter condemnation that one does not support the troops. News flash: most troops are workers away from their families doing highly dangerous work and carrying with them the sincere belief that they contribute to the public good. When they come home as veterans, they are faced with inadequate programs to address the myriad physical, psychological and financial problems that plague them.
Neoliberals tolerated and supported Donald Trump even when he stood in a graveyard filled with fallen soldiers and called them suckers and losers, because he continued to spout the ill logic that anyone who suggests a proportional level of preparation and response to crises involving military action is an anti-American traitor. Canada’s branch plant economy feeds on the military industrial complex in the U.S. and, thus, perpetuates these types of deeply flawed ideas.
New Brunswick is a special place to live filled with talented, intelligent people who are committed to their communities. It is also an industrial oligarchy ruled by a resource corporation that all but publicly dictates policy to the provincial government. The ruling parties are philosophically indistinguishable and often irrelevant except for the purposes of maintaining a façade of democratic process.
These conditions go a long way toward explaining how Premier Higgs (a career executive in the Irving empire) could refuse to entertain the idea of raising Crown land royalties on wood when the selling price for wood and paper products experienced an unprecedented upswing during the pandemic (over 200 per cent), even though Crown fees are supposed to be tied to the market.
At the same time, the Conservative government cancelled a $25 million gas tax-sharing agreement with Indigenous communities on the justification that it is a needless entitlement that the province could no longer afford.
As long as we submit to industrial oligarchy and government as parody, the province will be held back and demoralized by the stultifying and oppressive giant crap tornado ravaging our sense of community.
We will never be able to break our addiction to fossil fuels or meet climate change abatement targets, never have a sincere effort at meaningful peace and reconciliation with First Nations, never get value out of the Crown forest. We will never adequately fund health care, education and aid programs for the most vulnerable in our province: the low-income elderly, the psychologically challenged homeless, the chemically dependent and the individuals and families who face food insecurity everyday, for example.
Neoliberals, especially those in the private corporate sector, see this as fully acceptable and a sign of progress. The rest of us see it as a cruel embarrassment.
The anti-vaxx movement
Placed in this context, the anti-vaxx movement is a cultural manifestation of neoliberalism. It is fueled by the communications technology revolution. The internet can be a wonderful and powerful tool; it has served a valuable role in ameliorating the loneliness people experienced during the pandemic. Simultaneously, it has been a septic tank of resentment, disinformation and conspiracy theories perpetrated by neoliberals and right-wing extremist groups.
The internet has produced a levelling effect both in the rejection of the notion of expertise and in the view that all opinions, political or otherwise, are equally valid.
The anti-vaxx people that I know tell me they have done a ‘deep dive’ on the internet to know issues concerning COVID-19 inside and out. My response is to tell them that I consider a deep dive to be writing a PhD dissertation and/or spending decades researching and teaching about these issues. I know my limitations and rely on well-trained people in the medical research community to give me guidance.
Anti-vaxxers usually respond by telling me that they are intelligent too. I don’t doubt them but, in this instance, they have allowed themselves to be gaslit by the constant neoliberal propaganda that “government can do nothing right” and that nobody should believe anything emanating from them.
Then, they take their free tickets to the online carnival of disinformation so that they can tour around the fun house of confirmation bias, scream down the echo chamber of neoliberal myths and eat a delicious plate of false equivalencies. What they are arguing for is not so much an important individual liberty, but rather the right to be willfully ignorant. That is a personal choice more than an inalienable right.
What is to be done?
How does our society balance individual rights with the public good in pandemic times? The answer can be summed up in one word: badly.
More than 80 per cent of eligible Canadians have taken the vaccine, an extremely robust consensus by democratic standards. There are roughly 15 per cent of citizens that refuse to participate. They are willing to place themselves, their families and the general public at risk to defend individual liberties that they generally know little or nothing about. Education won’t really move the needle on this particular issue, as most anti-vaxxers believe that they understand the issue and subscribe to a set of ‘alternative facts.’
In the past weeks, I have read a wide range of proposals to essentially force the unvaccinated to conform, some from people who know more about the issues than me. Most proposals seem borne of anger and contain a level of punitive action.
As a society, we need to prepare a lot better than we did this time, because there is the potential for a virus or disease that is much worse.
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people in a world population of just under 2 billion. As of 2020, there are approximately 7.7 billion people on the planet. If we have a pandemic that is anywhere close to 1918’s there will be a death toll of at least a quarter of a billion. That would mean trucks driving around with corpses, sliding them into burning open pits at the dump.
If you look at it from that perspective (we are close to one million deaths in Canada and the U.S.), one of the defining characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic is the enormous compassion and tolerance that a vast portion of the population has exhibited toward the unvaccinated.
However, there is a shift in the zeitgeist of the vaccinated which is reflected in the discourse on cracking down on the unvaccinated. The celebratory atmosphere and incomprehensible nature and intent of the current trucker convoy has been a catalyst in this regard.
Hopefully we are coming to the end of the most devastating pandemic phase and the growing anger might be restricted to rhetoric. However, if we are faced with another pandemic in the next 50 years and if governments do not have a range of admittedly distasteful draconian measures available, chaos will come swiftly and painfully.
An agreement needs to be made between people who believe vaccination is a responsibility to their families and communities and those who see vaccination regulations that are mandatory as a violation of their rights. The vaccinated need to adopt the position of the anti-vaxxers: we don’t really care that much about you.
My suggestion is to revise the emergency measures acts at the appropriate governmental level to allow for a response. When a pandemic breaks out and enough reliable medical data has been accumulated, the government (the vehicle for articulating the public interest), should issue a document to all voting age citizens that, like an income tax form, needs to be filled out and returned.
The form should, in plain language, explain the dangers of the disease and give people a choice as to whether or not they will seek the agreed upon treatment. It would explain clearly that the decision not to seek vaccination or other recommended treatments may have implications should you contract the disease and need hospitalization.
The large majority of people in a community are willing to preserve an individual right to choose that we hold so sacred, even though it presents unnecessary dangers. However, to preserve as many lives as possible, we can no longer treat you on equal footing when you arrive at the hospital.
Such measures would be a dangerous assault on the bio-ethics of hospitalization and should be avoided, but not at all costs. It needs to be made clear to the those who refuse treatment: you’re posing a risk to the general public, we cannot afford to allow you to be a danger to other patients and especially to front-line medical personnel.
Our COVID-19 experience has produced a situation where the unvaccinated have occupied ICU beds in numbers wildly disproportionate to the percentage of vaccination-eligible citizens. This has contributed significantly to the critical shortage of nurses and other medical personnel in every province. Because of this, several times as many Canadians have died (not just from COVID-19) waiting for treatment during the pandemic than did each year during the previous decade.
There is no return to normal at the end. If it happens again, we should honour anti-vaxxers’ individual liberties, but refuse to accept that they include the right to kill others.
Bill Parenteau is a recently retired Professor of History from the University of New Brunswick who researched the political economy and environmental history of Atlantic Canada. He is a frequent public commentator on forest industry issues and a participant in Indigenous treaty and land rights cases.