Guest columnist Michael Alterman: Against vaccine mandates

  • In this May 27, 2021, file photo, National Guard Spc. Noah Vulpi, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to Ira Young Jr. during a vaccination clinic held by the National Guard in Odessa, Texas. Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP, File

Published: 9/16/2021 1:47:01 PM

Liberty is one of the most fundamental principles of any good society. Liberty is not an absolute principle — it does not include the right to harm others. But even if it is not absolute, surely liberty is one of our most precious rights, one that we ought to guard with the utmost care.

At a minimum, liberty must include personal autonomy, the right to make basic decisions about our lives. And surely injecting a substance into someone’s body against their will is a gross violation of this principle, justifiable only in the most dire of emergencies.

Even if such an emergency existed at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it certainly does not today. We now have vaccines that are highly effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, and which are available to anyone over the age of 12. Children under 12 have always been at very low risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.

Is it possible that someone who is unvaccinated could infect someone who is vaccinated, who could then get seriously ill and die? Yes. But it is not very likely. We will never be completely safe from illness, and the only way to prevent us from spreading germs to each other is to lock us all in our homes forever. We can’t know for sure, but it seems there is a good chance that COVID-19 is here to stay, possibly as a seasonal illness like the flu.

And even if we eliminate COVID, we will still have the flu to deal with, and then the next public health threat, and the next, and the next. If we are not ready now to stop organizing our entire society around preventing the spread of illness, when will we be?

Furthermore, while we know that the vaccines we have dramatically lower the risk of serious illness and death, it is less clear how effective they will be at preventing the spread of COVID-19 going forward. A recently published CDC study, based on data collected from April through July, did find that vaccination significantly reduced the risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, this effect decreased over time as the delta variant became more prevalent, a finding “consistent with a potential decline in vaccine protection against confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

Moreover, another recently published CDC study on a July outbreak of COVID-19 on Cape Cod found that vaccination provided little or no protection against becoming infected with or spreading SARS-CoV-2. According to the study, 74% of those infected had been vaccinated, and nasal swabs of vaccinated people revealed just as much virus as those of unvaccinated people. It was this study that led the CDC to resume its recommendation for everyone, including people who have been vaccinated, to wear masks indoors. We don’t know yet whether the Cape Cod outbreak was an outlier or a harbinger of things to come. But it seems hard to justify forcing people to get a vaccine they don’t want when we don’t even know how effective such a policy will be in slowing the spread of the virus.

Liberals always want the government to have more power when they are in the political ascendancy, forgetting how that power may be used against them when the other side takes charge. Today, liberals are on both sides of the argument at once, seemingly unaware of the contradiction. On the one hand, in fighting back against restrictive abortion laws, liberals are defending women’s right to choose what happens to their bodies (a cause which I support). On the other, they favor vaccine mandates that take away the right of millions of Americans to choose what happens to theirs.

Make as many arguments as you want about how these two situations are different, one thing they undeniably have in common is that they are both about the power of government to dictate what happens to our bodies. And once we surrender this kind of power to government, it can be used in service of policies we are opposed to, as well as those we support.

By coercing millions of our fellow citizens into having a vaccine injected into their bodies against their will, what goals are we pursuing, and how much are we willing to sacrifice to achieve them? And once we have given government such power over us and our bodies, what makes us think it will willingly surrender that power?

Michael Alterman holds an M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts University. He lives in Chesterfield.

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