To say that COVID-19 has shifted the Overton window towards authoritarianism is an understatement. Imagine, for instance, if someone had suggested that governments introduce a requirement for customers to show some form of identification or vaccination certificate in order to access restaurants or cafes in 2019. Such a proposal would rightly have been met with near-unanimous ridicule and condemnation.
However, people are weary of the endless restrictions that have blighted our lives for the past year and a half. Sadly, many of us now have a far greater tolerance for whatever imperfect solutions governments can introduce that appear to allow for some sort of return to normality.
To some, having to produce health status certificates as part of a “new normal” is a price worth paying if it means a return to restaurants, bars, concerts, and sporting events. Wider implications and even the logic behind the proposal are simply brushed aside for the sake of convenience.
However, accepting something simply because it seems convenient doesn’t make it right, and vaccine passports fundamentally enforce the idea that governments can tell us where we can and cannot go on an ad hoc basis.
While not infallible, COVID-19 vaccines have been a remarkable success
Scientific evidence has confirmed the various vaccines developed over the past year are successful in immunizing against COVID-19, and this is indeed great news for humanity. While they do fall short of providing complete lasting protection, the success of these vaccines in reducing fatalities, hospitalizations, and severe cases should be celebrated.
Wherever significant portions of the population have been vaccinated, the number of cases has dropped dramatically, eventually reaching a point where the threat posed to society by COVID-19 is no longer major.
For those of us who have been critical of government-imposed restrictions, particularly the extremely questionable cost-benefit analysis associated with lockdowns, the impact of COVID-19 vaccines should help us make an even stronger case for a full reopening of social and economic life.
100% vaccine uptake is not required for society to live with the virus
Assuming the goal of the vaccines is for individuals to get on with their lives while the virus still exists, rather than a zero-covid strategy, the threat posed by COVID-19 to overwhelm the capacity of healthcare systems can be nullified even without close to 100% vaccine uptake.
In Denmark, where the vaccination rate is now upwards of 70 percent, the government decided to remove all remaining lockdown restrictions on September 10, 2021. In doing so, the country’s health ministry stated that COVID-19 no longer presents a critical threat to society. As such, the requirement for vaccine passports to enter most indoor spaces in Denmark has been dropped.
At this stage, there is no place in a free society for devastating lockdown restrictions to continue, and a higher vaccination rate will certainly make the case against these measures even more compelling.
In order to stave off undesirable government restrictions, what matters is that the vast majority of people choose to get vaccinated once the option is available to them, and by all means we should encourage people to make that choice.
Good ideas should be promoted through reason, not force
But just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean that the state should seek to impose it by threatening to prevent people from participating in society. In the case of vaccination, it is important in order to protect ourselves and those around us. However, those who (for whatever reason) choose not to receive a vaccine should not be punished by the state for their choice.
Individual businesses must be free to decide their own vaccine policy, and in some cases, such as with hospitals and care homes, requiring staff to be vaccinated may be a sensible option. However, a dangerous precedent is set when the state effectively creates a two-tier society, whereby governments decide that certain individuals have more rights than others.
Furthermore, when aiming to promote the safety and efficacy of vaccines, using threats and coercion instead of arguments and evidence risks pushing the undecided further towards the realm of conspiracy theories.
Again, the goal is not to convince everyone, but as many people as possible. Studies have shown that vaccine mandates can actually have detrimental effects on compliance with medical advice by encouraging skepticism and provoking anger among those who have doubts.
President Biden is choosing force over reason
In a disturbing turn of events and in defiance of the separation of powers, President Biden has decided to introduce a new federal vaccine mandate that could affect as many as 100 million Americans by requiring empowers with over 100 employees to have their staff inoculated.
Joe Biden had, until recently, consistently opposed the idea of federal vaccine mandates. Furthermore, in July 2021, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that introducing vaccine mandates was “not the role of the federal government.” As such, the Biden administration’s sudden change of policy caught many by surprise.
A federal vaccine mandate will face significant legal challenges
The President’s move was met with widespread condemnation as an attempt to legislate without Congressional oversight. In arguing for the legality of the decree, the Biden administration is relying on the regulatory authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and its relatively obscure emergency powers.
However, the executive branch still does not have the legislative authority to introduce OSHA emergency rules. The Constitution clearly states that “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Besides the constitutional considerations, the legality of Biden’s order would also depend on whether COVID-19 can now be considered to pose a significant threat to worker safety in a way that it had not over the past year and a half.
Those in favor of Biden’s executive order will often point to a 1905 Supreme Court Case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, as a legal precedent for this course of action. However, while superficial parallels can be drawn, there are a number of key differences in this case that would render it ineffective as a defense for Biden’s mandate. Chief among those differences is the fact that the case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts does not present issues relating to the separation of powers.
While many governors are expected to challenge the order, the prospect of threatening millions of Americans with being expelled from their jobs during times of crisis is alarming. There is still a more ethical means to make a strong case for the safety and utility of COVID-19 vaccines. That is, by presenting rational arguments and pushing back against unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
If we want to see more people willing to be vaccinated, we must speak with those around us and challenge vaccine hesitancy, not use the state as a weapon to punish doubters while risking to further diminish trust and push people further down the rabbit hole.
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