by Oliver Bateman
Tuesday, 27
July 2021
Debate
17:04

The only way to survive the vaccine wars

In times like these, the best course is to disengage and stay out of it
by Oliver Bateman
A protestor against masks and vaccines in Atalanta last year. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

In America, the personal is well and truly political — and one of the tools that blends the two together is “nudging“.

Covid-19 safeguards constitute the latest front in this new form of behaviour change, with federal and state governments content to hand off essential public health and police functions to an army of citizen-deputies who work for free. Boldly proclaiming one’s resistance to vaccination or masking when such measures are required, or reporting and shaming those who run afoul of those rules, puts everyday workers — who might politely suggest you put on a mask, or forget to wear one themselves — squarely in a neoliberal no-man’s-land, surrounded on all sides by potential enemies.

There are, of course, debates worth having about the long-term impact of vaccines rooted in technology both old and new, the efficacy of masking, and broader social controls such as seemingly interminable public-school closures. These debates might be expected to play out not only in the media but also in the halls of government, where some rough consensus could be reached and compromises hashed out.

But the US now struggles to operate on this sort of model. Throw incoherent, ever-changing government and private-sector messaging into that combustible mix and watch as civil society becomes a toxic stew of seething, sheltered-at-home souls — any one of whom might serve as a carrier of Covid or the various moral failings for which no vaccine exists.

Consider how this plays out in the Uber ride-share app, which allows both drivers and riders to report each other for failing to wear masks. This is, of course, a private platform, and usage subject to all agreed-upon rules — often via hasty button-clicks assenting to end-user contracts of adhesion — but the fact that both parties can inform on each other creates an atmosphere of unease, doubly so if the driver or rider’s livelihoods depend on being able to access the app. Similar logic applies to a worker at a supermarket attempting to coax an angry mask-resister into masking, or for a worker whose mask falls off while working, only to wind up shamed on social media. Perhaps justice is being served in these instances, but the punishment, such as it is, falls disproportionately on the backs of those workers who can least afford to pay.

The debate over vaccinations covers similar territory. Proposed vaccination passports and other travel restrictions expose another class divide — chiefly between those who travel by air and those who do not ― but in America they’re occurring in a country in which vaccine supply now greatly exceeds demand, meaning that the vaccine is now theoretically within the reach of nearly everyone who wants it. Meanwhile, leading television news commentators market vaccine skepticism over at Fox. The network has developed its own “secure, voluntary way for employees to self-attest their vaccination status.”

There is no easy way out of this morass, but I advise a policy of disengagement. These are trying times, not the end times ― we are not yet being urged to “own nothing, eat the bugs, and move into the pods”.  And Americans are certainly receiving far more deference on the civil-liberties front than citizens of countries like France.  

In my own case, to ensure that I could travel as my employer required it and to honour the wishes of my daughter’s grandparents, I was vaccinated in January. I wear face coverings when required but otherwise don’t. I follow the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines to the best of my abilities, aware that these could change at any moment. And I leave everyone else around me alone, masked or unmasked, vaccinated or unvaccinated, because we are all struggling to make a living amidst this chaos ― and so many people are having a much harder time of it than I am.

Join the discussion


  • Agree with every word you’ve written here, Oliver. If everybody behaved as you yourself have chosen to behave, the world would be a far better place.

  • I can’t return to my home country without paying for and enduring a 10 day hotel quarantine. Eventually my visa will run out and I’ll have no choice but to go home. My wife is a citizen here as well as at ‘home’. Also she’s fervently anti Covid vax. I’m not keen either but might have been persuaded if it hadn’t been for this huge hysterical push towards defacto compulsion. I’m happy to sit it out for now, but the clock is ticking…

  • “we should show some compassion to other people”
    Agreed. I must cure myself of the habit I have developed of laughing at lone masked car drivers. Such people are understandably suffering from anxiety and do not deserve my ridicule.

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