People want to be governed, not farmed
In Britain, vaccine uptake overall is now around 88%, and around 68% in adults under 30. Where it’s widely available but often refused because of vaccine hesitancy – notably in the US – uptake is currently more like 48%.
Just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, a vaccination isn’t really something you can compromise on: you’re either jabbed or you’re not. And like pregnancy, it also has an inescapably social dimension: having kids affects others as well as oneself, and so does declining a medical intervention that reduces the risk of severe illness.
As such, vaccination discourse sits as uneasily as fertility discourse within cultures that especially prize individualism. Predictably, then, the discourse over incentivising vax stragglers has grown louder and stranger.
Like the rollout, vaccine incentives also reflect local conditions. In Romania, getting jabbed gets you a barbecued sausage sandwich; in Moscow you could win a car; in Washington State getting jabbed will score you a free cannabis joint, and the Biden administration is reportedly in talks with McDonalds about discounts for the jabbed. In the Philippines, districts are raffling cows, sacks of rice, new motorcycles and even a house, and in the UK, incentives on offer include discounted taxi rides and pizza, plus – from the end of September – the freedom to go clubbing. In France, citizens are being threatened with effective exclusion from normal life if they demur, triggering a widespread bout of the French national pastime, public rioting.
Meanwhile, the usual voices are lining up to condemn the unvaccinated as idiots and antisocial conspiracy theorists. And to be fair, many of the voices protesting this emerging new politics sound (to put it politely) eccentric. A London protest against vaccine passports triggered a police investigation after one speaker compared medical staff to Nazi war criminals.
Individualism runs deep in the West. Conversely, though, hard pandemic-era lessons on the social coordination (and sometimes authoritarian interventions) that most effectively manage infections have made a practical case for tempering the desire for freedom with a willingness to think socially too.
But even as pandemic politics drives a growing acceptance of more collectivist public health politics, we should reflect on the form taken by the new collective thinking: bodily interventions combined with big data. Where, in that outline, is the human scale, or the scope for individual context and flexibility? I think this is, however inchoately, the question being asked by the rag-tag coalition of protesters.
If we pretend there’s no need for human scale, or scope for individual subjectivity, we may find ourselves signing up to a ‘new normal’ politics that feels more like being farmed than governed.