Americans are about to enter a new phase of the pandemic, in which life-saving vaccines are, at last, a reality. The next several months will be confusing, with light visible at the end of the tunnel but the tunnel darker than ever, amidst thorny ethical questions of who should be prioritized.
But the months after that will be even more confusing, and we need to start preparing to answer those questions now.
By April or May, according to experts, most Americans who want vaccines will have gotten them. The trouble is that, as of last month anyway, 40 percent or so of Americans still need to be persuaded to get one.
For life, and the economy, to return to normal, we need most of these people to take part. So much is at stake: safe hospitals, stores, businesses, mass transit, schools, air travel, and cultural institutions, not to mention the economies that depend on them, our psychological well-being, and our entire way of life.
And yet, even with all the outreach that’s being planned now—to Black communities, rightly suspicious of the government; to conservatives poisoned by Trump’s and Fox News’s denialism; to left-wing anti-vaxxers—getting to “herd immunity” might take months. And in the meantime, a 95% effective vaccine is not good enough if you still have a 1 in 20 chance of catching a lethal disease at the grocery store.
Too much is at stake to wait for people who refuse to get vaccinated. We need a plan to move forward without them.
Let’s dismiss a few options out of hand. No, we won’t be locking anyone up for refusing to get a shot. Even if it would be constitutional, it’s un-American and would provoke massive resistance. In fact, no governmental compulsion to get vaccinated is consonant with our country’s values of liberty and freedom.
But freedom is a two-way street. You may have a right to get drunk and to drive however you like, but I have a right to be on the street and not be killed by you. No freedom is absolute, and your safety is where my freedom ends.
Likewise, just as I may have a right not to wear a mask or get a shot, you have a right to be able to walk down the street without me giving you a lethal disease. Choosing not to get vaccinated isn’t “freedom” any more than driving drunk is. It’s endangering other people. It is profoundly unethical. And it, too, is coercive; the anti-vaxxer is forcing me to swim in their viral discharge, anytime we share space in public.
So, what then? Anti-vaxxers are like drunk drivers, but we can’t force them to get vaccinated. Are we just stuck with a dangerous minority ruining life and endangering health for everyone else?
Ironically, given the politics of COVID-19, conservative American values point the way forward: we need to empower people to make their own decisions about safety. And we do that by empowering free enterprise.
Let’s imagine a world in June 2021, where everyone who wants a vaccination has gotten one, but where the virus is still spreading because of the large number of vaccine refusers. If I own a business, I may find it in my own interests to exclude those refusers. Maybe I want to protect my workers. Maybe I want to have a store, restaurant, bank, laundromat or school where people don’t have to wear masks, and where they can feel safe. And maybe I think that by doing that, I’ll get more customers.
So, just as today, I might put a “masks required” sign on the door, I might put a “vaccine required” sign on my door next June.
The trouble is that, unlike a mask, a vaccine is invisible. And that is why we must take action now.
We need written proof of vaccination that is as difficult to counterfeit or falsify as a hundred-dollar bill. We need it to be standardized and easy to show to others. And we need to start rolling it out in this phase of the pandemic, not the next one. Call them “vaccine passports”; simple, standardized documents, digital or printed, that enable society and the economy to get back to semi-normal without waiting for every anti-vaxxer to see the light.
This is what freedom looks like. Reliable proof of vaccination will enable individuals, businesses, churches, and other organizations to make these decisions for themselves—and for their customers and members to make their decisions as to whether or not to attend. For myself, if given a choice, I won’t set foot in a museum, go to a show, eat at a restaurant, shop in a grocery store, or pray at a synagogue with unvaccinated people either.
And the only ethical way forward is for me to have that choice. If anti-vaxxers can choose not to get vaccinated, I need to be able to choose to avoid them. Otherwise, we’re back to moral asymmetry. They can endanger my life, but I can’t do anything about it.
We’ve seen how this can work in the educational context. Fine, don’t get your kids their shots—but then, keep them out of school where they might endanger others. That way, everyone has freedom, both the anti-vaxxer and the large majority of people who understand the science and want to keep their kids safe.
All this depends on reliable proof of vaccination. Medical records may work for schools, but for every bar, movie theater, and restaurant, we need a simple document, in a standard form, with fraud protection, that will act as a kind of passport to living life in 2021. We need this to be free.
Again, in some totalitarian dystopia, the government could take choice out of the equation by requiring everyone to be vaccinated. But we don’t live in that world. In a free country, people get to choose. But all people get to choose. Both the unvaccinated, and the people who want to live our lives without fear of catching COVID-19.
And as a bonus, I suspect that when enough businesses and other public places go “vaxx-only,” that may incentivize some of the unvaccinated to change their behavior. If they can’t get into a baseball game, a graduation, a diner or a veterinarian’s office, they might find themselves re-examining their opinions about the vaccine.
Which, of course, they should anyway, because there is an objective truth to the novel coronavirus, and the truth is that it exists, it kills people, and it can be eradicated if enough people get a simple and safe vaccination against it. It may be someone’s constitutional right to be ignorant of science and reality, but the rest of us shouldn’t have to postpone our lives because of it.