The Covid vaccine rollout is seen as one of the success stories of the pandemic. Over 60% of the world’s population has now received one dose of the vaccine. This has coincided with a fall in Covid mortality among the elderly, vulnerable, and most at risk from the disease, which is is great news; yet it has also coincided with a shift in the hysteria surrounding lockdowns towards the question of the individual’s moral duty to get vaccinated, and with the introduction of highly discriminatory measures.
As writers from the Left, we are disturbed by this turn of events. We don’t think there is anything progressive about the current move towards compelled — and in places mandatory — Covid vaccinations. These are discriminatory against minority communities, many of whom for historical reasons are suspicious of medicine and the state, and have had lower vaccine take-up rates. They are enormously costly, not only in economic terms, creating huge profits for the pharmaceutical companies rolling them out, with BioNTech, Moderna and Pfizer making between them over US$1,000 per second, but also in human resources terms — with thousands of health workers being pulled out of (already understaffed, in many cases) hospitals to run mass vaccination centres.
As a result, the current requirement for two or more annual vaccines to provide protection is likely to result in much-needed human resources being permanently removed from healthcare systems that have already faced a disproportionate harm from the Covid restriction measures. Moreover, given the deficit hysteria that still dominates the mainstream political discourse, despite everything that the pandemic has taught us about the true mechanics of government spending, it is also likely to result in financial resources being diverted away from other sectors.
The mandates are also clearly leading to vaccine hoarding in rich countries, where doses are being forced on younger people, who are little at risk from Covid, while elderly and vulnerable people in poorer countries have been deprived access to them. The pressure from multinational donors for African countries to reach a 60% vaccination target, meanwhile, has led to disturbing recent reports of forced vaccination in Rwanda, where vaccinees have been handcuffed and beaten to comply. Finally, and equally disturbingly, the compulsion element has led to a huge rise in distrust of the medical establishment, which will have serious future consequences for medical care.
So why have governments pushed towards compulsion, and why have so many supposedly progressive politicians — Jacinda Ardern, Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau to name but three — been among the most vocal supporters of this move? In our view, much of this relates to the perception of the “collective good” that we analysed in relation to lockdowns in our last article for UnHerd. The argument that vaccination is required to protect others is a persuasive one. And yet, one of the ironies of the mainstream Left’s response to Covid is that, as the pandemic has evolved, this definition of the “collective good” and perceptions of risk has been revealed to be entirely ethno- and Western-centric.
Vaccines are a very good example of this. The Left’s approach to personal risk reveals a framing which owes a lot to neoliberal constructs of the individual and society. “Staying safe” involved minimising individual risk, which was never broadly comparable across age, class, gender — or geography.
In a brilliant essay at the outset of the pandemic, the Mozambican sociologist Elísio Macamo analysed risk in African and European societies, and noted how levels and perceptions and approaches were entirely different because of the different levels of socio-economic comfort. Indeed, it is now clear that with its much younger population and greater resilience through exposure to a range of viruses that boost immunity, the risk of Covid to people in Africa is much lower than the risk to older and vulnerable people in richer countries. This means, effectively, that the shared risk from Covid is now being outsourced to Africa through the push for universal vaccination: poor African countries are required to get into debt to procure vaccines, and vaccinate large numbers of people, in order to protect older and wealthier people in rich countries.
In fact, a real sharing of risk and collective approach would acknowledge that it is unacceptable — and certainly unprogressive — to force poor countries to immiserate themselves further with World Bank loans to vaccinate unwilling populations who are already suspicious of medical colonialism, in order to protect richer people with much longer life expectancies. The Western liberal’s comforting canard, that “No one’s safe until everyone’s safe”, is shown really to mean that “Until I feel safe, I will continue to destroy the livelihoods and health outcomes of poor countries”. This is indeed clear, with concerns aired that poor countries will be “variant factories”, revealing that this — and not concern for the health of poor Africans — is one of the real drivers of the global vaccine push.
Once the inequities and medical colonialism implicit in the global drive is recognised, the progressive rhetoric around universal vaccination is revealed as a house of cards. This applies to the West as well. Much of the institutional framing has revolved around people’s “duty” to get vaccinated. People of all ages were told to get the jab — and now their children — to avoiding infecting others, to help reach herd immunity and “eradicate Covid”, and to stop taking up hospital beds. However, none of these arguments holds up to scrutiny.
It is now patently obvious that high levels of vaccination don’t correlate with fewer cases. Indeed, the most vaccinated region in the world, Europe, is also the one experiencing the greatest surge in new cases. While Israel, the first country in the world to administer a fourth dose of the vaccine, at the time of writing also has the highest number of daily new Covid cases per capita.
This simply confirms what countless studies had already demonstrated: that while the Covid vaccines are excellent for the elderly and vulnerable populations in reducing the risk of serious illness, they offer a very limited protection from the possibility of getting infected and infecting others. It also means that the main rationale for vaccine passports — that of creating “Covid-free spaces” and reducing the spread of the virus — is completely unfounded, which is why several countries are now considering scrapping them.
The fact that even the vaccinated can catch and transmit the virus is also the reason why it is simply false to claim that by getting jabbed you are contributing to “eradicating Covid”. As is now being admitted by a growing number of scientists around the world, with the current vaccines we are unlikely to reach herd immunity any time soon. None of this should be surprising, since the idea that herd immunity can only be achieved through vaccination is itself a new one, which appears to have been developed by the WHO in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Princeton University historian of medicine David J. Robertson notes that while mass vaccination has certainly been associated with herd immunity in recent decades, it has never previously been seen as the sole means of achieving this immunity.
As for the notion that people should get vaccinated to avoid taking up hospital beds, it’s an argument that makes little sense, for obvious reasons, if aimed at those who faced little or no risk of ending up in the hospital in the first place. Respected epidemiologists have noted that the chances of an 18-year-old dying of Covid are 1 in 10,000 of those of a 75 year-old. Even for people under 50, the risk is low. While a small number of people in this category might indeed end up in hospital as a result of their choice not to get vaccinated, it’s unclear why they should be held any more responsible than someone who ends up in hospital as a result of, say, unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Moreover, the rhetoric around universal vaccination is leading to negative impacts in poorer countries, where health funding and resources have many competing and more deserving priorities: as the Ghanaian historian of medicine Samuel Adu-Gyamfi wrote in December: “It should be up to African countries to determine their own public health goals, and Covid-19 is far from being the most serious public health concern in Africa today.”
It’s hard to see the collective benefit of vaccinating everyone against a virus that targets only a minority of the population – especially if this achieved through highly discriminatory and segregational policies.
Even from an individual perspective, for younger people who risk little or nothing from Covid, it’s unclear whether there is even an individual benefit from receiving the vaccine. It rather feels like, in the rush to vaccinate every living thing, the elderly have once again been sacrificed. A focused protection approach might have geared all efforts towards reaching the highest possible vaccination coverage in people aged 60+ as quickly as possible — including, as a last resort, age-specific mandates (unnecessary in practice because people in this age group, in general, are more than happy to get vaccinated).
Please stay out of Africa, Tony Blair
Ultimately, it would appear that the prevailing mass vaccination strategy of most countries has benefited neither the less vulnerable nor the most vulnerable.
Fortunately, the narrative does appear to be shifting. Even the WHO is now claiming that, precisely because the current vaccines have a negligible impact on prevention of infection and transmission, “a vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable”. The same concern was voiced by the vaccine strategy chief of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), Marco Cavaleri, who added that administering repeated booster doses could potentially lead to “problems with immune response” — that is, lower the overall protection of societies. “While use of additional boosters can be part of contingency plans, repeated vaccinations within short intervals would not represent a sustainable long-term strategy,” Cavaleri said. He also said boosters “can be done once, or maybe twice, but it’s not something that we can think should be repeated constantly”.
Meanwhile, in the United States, president Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal workers is now being pushed back in the courts. Earlier this month, Alaska and other states prevailed in the US Supreme Court in their efforts to prevent the federal government from implementing a vaccine mandate on private businesses. And now a federal judge in Texas has ordered a halt to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate, in yet another setback to the federal government’s actions.
It may be that the push to universal vaccination will now subside. But there are many pieces of public healthcare that must now be put back together. Trust in the public health profession has weakened, with grave potential future health outcomes. The hold of what Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism” has advanced. The medical systems of poor countries have been appropriated, leaving huge scars in their coverage of existing endemic diseases. Physical segregation — much of it racialised — has been institutionalised in many Western countries.
None of this was ever progressive; a true progressive healthcare system in the future must be based on the WHO’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Most important of all though, it must be driven by what communities need and want, and not what globalised technocrats determine is good for them.