August 31, 2022 - 2:15pm

Early on in the pandemic, a handful of far-sighted critics warned that if Americans were to accept mask mandates, vaccine passports, and other restrictions to deal with the supposedly unprecedented threat of Covid-19, there would be no way for them to resist future efforts to strip them of basic rights in the name of “public health”. 

After all, the justifications offered for Covid mitigation measures — that you have no right to make personal decisions when those decisions can affect others — have no limiting principle. There is no a priori reason why they could not be used to rationalise punitive taxes on citizens who don’t go to the gym (and therefore burden health systems) or quarantines for people exposed to influenza (who might pose a danger to the immunocompromised). As the essayist Helen Andrews wrote last August: 

Once Americans get used to scanning a QR code every time they go into a building, there is no way to arrest that trajectory at the specific point you prefer. We have seen how easily decision-makers are captured by the most deranged Covid hawks. The same forces that just led to an outdoor mask mandate in Oregon, in the face of all scientific evidence, will be brought to bear on any vaccine passport. It will be a never-ending ratchet.
- Helen Andrews

Now, most jurisdictions in the United States have rolled back the vaccine passports they debuted last year, although there is no telling what they might do in the face of a new BA.5 surge later this year. No law prevents a return to passports, the infrastructure is already in place, and the citizenry has shown that it is willing to comply. 

But for evidence of the ratchet in action, we can look to American college campuses, some of which are moving forward with vaccine mandates for influenza that were pioneered last year, when most of the country was paying attention to other things. 

On Monday, the author Jennifer Sey noted on Twitter that for the upcoming school year, the University of California, Berkeley, has an indoor mask requirement for anyone who has not received a flu vaccine. Pursuant to an October, 2021 executive order from the University of California president, Michael Drake, all students, faculty, and staff in the University of California system — some 500,000 people — must either receive a flu vaccine or observe “additional non-pharmaceutical interventions” such as masking and “routine testing”. 

The University of California system is not alone. Johns Hopkins University requires flu vaccines for all students and staff. Cornell and Barnard College required them last year, though, in Cornell’s case, that requirement seems to have been dropped for the coming semester (Cornell broke ground in another way, by mandating flu vaccines for white students only.) At the time, these mandates were enacted because “students with flu symptoms could mistake it for Covid-19 and overwhelm testing sites”. But in a twist that should surprise no-one, today, with transmission low and most students triple- if not quadruple-vaccinated, the mandates are in most cases remaining in place. 

Perhaps it is a good idea to get the flu vaccine, although their efficacy varies greatly by year, with last year’s clocking in at an abysmal 16%. But prior to 2021, no American government, university, or employer — outside extremely narrow settings like the healthcare industry — had ever thought to require universal flu vaccination or force the unvaccinated to wear face coverings. And for good reason: until very recently, such demands would have been considered an intolerable violation of freedom, not to mention a highly symbolic endorsement of fear, neurosis, and conformity. Indeed, experts at the time generally warned that masks were ineffective.

But the past is a different country. Today, in America’s deepest blue enclaves, the only limits on authoritarian experiments in public health are a lack of bureaucratic imagination and the costs of ensuring compliance. Since the former has proven to be no limit at all, the latter will have to increase for the ratchet to ever stop.

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet