A friend was lamenting the anti-vaccine movement and those who advocate their freedom from mandates, government or otherwise, to become vaccinated against Covid-19. After commenting on the irony of “pro-life” advocates wanting freedom from life-saving vaccines, my friend said, “What’s up with them?”
Fortunately, about 75 percent of the adult population in the U.S. has been vaccinated at least once. Vaccination coverage, however, varies widely across the country and among different racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic people are less likely than whites to have received vaccines, leaving them at high risk, especially with the Delta variant. As of September, nearly 60 percent of white people had received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with only 10 percent of Black people, 17 percent of Hispanics, 6 percent of Asians, 1 percent of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, and under 1 percent of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.
The low rate of vaccination among Blacks may be explained in part by their history with American health care. From the time of slavery through the Jim Crow era, the Flexner reforms of medical education and medical care that disenfranchised Black citizens, through the syphilis “experiments” and segregation, Black people have been discriminated against, and have good reasons to be skeptical of government and corporate health care. In recent months, however, owing in large part to citizen and community advocacy, vaccinations are reaching larger numbers of Black and Hispanics.
Nevertheless, there are elected officials and activist groups who argue against sensible public health measures such as vaccinations and mask-wearing. Unfortunately, these zealots brook no questions about their assertions and assumptions. Their responses to questions like “Why not?” often is, “You just don’t get it.”
Perhaps one of the major challenges in our country is that we hesitate to engage those with other views. We have conservatives who think in terms of conserving privilege instead of promoting policies for the common good, and liberals whose lifestyles or attitudes at times belie their principles of equality and inclusion.
A former state senator in New Jersey was known for his familiar refrain: “We can disagree without being disagreeable.” I sometimes wish this phrase were posted on every street corner in America.
Those who object to vaccinations not only put themselves in harm’s way, as many have learned, but also put the health of others in jeopardy. They must acknowledge responsibility for illness and death when not following the guidance of science-based public health protocols. How ironic it is that many who argue for the rights of the unborn act against the rights of the living to be protected from disease.
The anti-vaxxers might think they are making a political or perhaps theological choice, but in fact they are making a moral choice. They are asserting a set of values that can harm and kill others. We are taught to love one another, even the meekest among us, but anti-vaxxers often prefer antipathy to empathy.
A defense offered by some is that mandates violate their freedom. Yes, a democracy honors freedom and provides that its citizens are free to question orthodoxy, to express opinions without fear of consequence, within the boundaries of law. Consequently, members of a democracy must exercise freedom with responsibility, not freedom unfettered from concern for others.
Those who refuse to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle may cite their freedom to feel the air flow through their hair, but to do so is to ignore the societal costs incurred when they crash. Society pays for their irresponsible behavior. The same is true for anti-vaxxers.
Freedom isn’t a simple concept. We can be free “from” bondage and free to exercise our will, but as members of a society, whether it be a family, a community or a nation, we are free, with responsibilities. Freedom “with” derives from our founding principle expressed as “We the people.” “We,” not “I.”
To flout this freedom is to fail to understand the different ways of knowing what we think of as truth. Public-health policy depends on truth as established by science, through rigorous experimentation and replication. Those opposed to vaccine mandates cling to a truth based on faith, which cannot be replicated, or a truth based on fear of authority and suspicion of government, which may at times be justified. These forms of truth generally focus on “I” instead of “we.”
As American citizens with equal voices and residents of the world community, we must bear witness to the health and safety of others as well as ourselves. We must engage in boundary-spanning discussions and promote education about public health. We must honor the humanity of our neighbors and fellow citizens if we are to have a viable democracy.
Dr. Robert A. Scott is president emeritus and university professor emeritus of Adelphi University and author of “How University Boards Work” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018; Eric Hoffer Awardee, 2019).