It didn’t have to be this way
Contrary to the words of many conservative pundits, there is nothing unprecedented or tyrannical about President Joe Biden’s rules that would require vaccination against COVID-19 for certain groups of Americans. Acting as a sort of mandate, the new rules require all employers with 100 or more employees to fully vaccinate their personnel. Additionally, any and all contractors who do work with the federal government must vaccinate their employees. Healthcare workers at Medicare- and Medicaid-participating hospitals must do the same. All in all, it obligates vaccination for around 100 million Americans, part of a larger effort to combat the contagious delta variant.
On the surface, it seems, if one were to get all of their news and information regarding life-saving vaccines from the likes of Tucker Carlson (who, like all staffers of the Fox Corp., is required to be vaccinated) they would be led to believe that this is an overreach of the federal government. Many on the right are framing what is intended as a last-ditch attempt to protect both public health and the economy from further damage by the virus as a dictatorial needling of the arm by virtue of an unduly angry, misinformed and contrarian populace. This foolish, irrational and rage-laden skepticism toward one of the greatest miracles of modern medicine, which currently helps prevent nearly every serious case and death from COVID-19, has led to this mandate, something the administration likely took no pride in creating. In the president’s own words: “What more is there to wait for? We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.”
The truth is, vaccine mandates are not new. They have been implemented during historical outbreaks of highly contagious and deadly viruses, and they have been met with a similar degree of immoral skepticism and ignominy, similar to the reckless, deluded contrarianism we see today. In 1777, amid the burning fires of the American Revolution, which stood for the very freedom anti-vaxxers today claim to defend, General George Washington ordered members of the Continental Army to be inoculated against smallpox. While the scale of such a scenario differs immensely from that of the predicament President Biden finds himself in, the reasonable, miniscule curtailing of individual liberty for protection of the many has continuously motivated the government and other authority figures to enforce vaccine mandates throughout this country’s history.
In fact, these mandates were upheld in one high profile 1905 Supreme Court case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, where Cambridge pastor Henning Jacobson refused to get vaccinated against smallpox during a particularly bad outbreak in the Boston area. The Supreme Court ruled against Jacobson (whose actual reasons for not getting vaccinated differed immensely from those most prolific today), stating that individual liberty in this case is superseded by the police power of the state. Eerily prescient, such words were interpreted by the subsequent Anti-Vaccination League of 1908 as a submission to “medical tyranny,” in contrast to their likely intention — a morally-motivated protection of public health.
Still, this interpretation of an attempt at protecting the public as a form of oppression and control is deeply unsettling, and instills within me, and likely many others, a disdain for those who prize an idealized distortion of freedom over the health and safety of their neighbors. More depressingly, I am genuinely fearful for how people will react toward any future, and potentially more severe, calamities. COVID-19, while projected to be the worst mass-casualty event in modern American history, has a very low mortality rate. Additionally, vaccines available to nearly all Americans over the age of 12 help prevent the worst of its manifestations. However, what would happen if an equally (if not more) contagious, but significantly more deadly disease such as a strain of Avian influenza or Ebola were to ravage the lives of millions across the globe? How about climate change intensifying to the point where entire swaths of the country are uninhabitable? Would this partisan contrarianism — born of not only a resistance to common sense and genuine concern for others, but an active mockery of them — continue?
Frighteningly, something tells me that it would. People who believe poorly photoshopped infographics on Facebook over the advice of some of the most esteemed medical experts in the world, or those who take dangerous horse dewormer tablets as opposed to a life-saving vaccine, give me little hope for any unity around the mitigation of, and recovery from, any potential catastrophe. If something as simple as wearing a mask — which causes absolutely no harm to any individual and is done solely for the safety of both ourselves and others — has been likened by elected representatives to antisemitic oppression in Nazi Germany, is there any hope for us to tackle deeper, more threatening challenges, when people can become so easily biased against the common good? When conspiracy theories regarding the virus’s very existence proliferate to the point of becoming mainstream talking points for one of the nation’s two biggest political parties, the divide between anti-vaxxers and others in the U.S. grows ever-deeper.
Evidently, the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate is a reflection of an understanding of this terrible, miserable reality. Plagued too long by a misplaced faith in people to protect themselves and their communities because it is the right thing to do, it has resorted, out of likely frustration with the course that the pandemic has taken at this stage, to require them. It is not opting into some despotic attempt at absolute authority, as some might think. Predictably, Republicans have promised to challenge the vaccine mandate in court, but the even further division along these lines of morality didn’t ever have to exist in the first place. It has once again, like every previous stage of the pandemic, become a contest of principles. The carrot has been replaced with a stick.