Quick scribble: Vaccines

A sticker slapped onto a sign in the park: ‘Anti-vaxxer: See also, critical thinker’ But someone’s scrubbed that out, now it says, ‘…see also, idiot’.

Several friends have told me, mostly in whispers, that they’re not taking the vaccine – in whispers because they’re the social pariahs of the moment.

When I’ve read some of the nasty stuff written about vaccine sceptics, I’ve made an apparently  unlikely leap to conscientious objectors to warfare. Not because COs are just like vaccine sceptics – they’re not – but because of the way they tend to be treated.

When young people were conscripted to fight in the First World War, they too were cast as a kind of enemy of the people. Unlike the hordes who fell into line, COs were expected to justify themselves to people who already decided they were wrong. It’s this that brings their experience together in my mind with that of vaccine sceptics now.

I’m no anti-vaxxer myself; I’m in the Oxford vaccine trial. But I’m not evangelical about the vaccine. I wrote before and still believe that the real problem is not a virus, which is just nature at work. It’s how our over-urbanised societies and global air travel allow a virus to overrun the world in weeks. It’s also how our under-funded health systems and low-exercise, poor-diet, immunity-depleted populations allow the virus to cause the suffering it does.

But these conditions as they are, I’m more or less convinced by the arguments in favour of the jab as an emergency measure, even as with many others I lament its unjust control by huge corporations and wealthy countries. At any rate, I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that the vaccine is more harmful than helpful.

But again, this isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong about the vaccine. It’s about how society treats its dissenters.

A century ago, almost everybody turned their back on the small community of COs as anti-social cowards. Few people wanted to recognise that the COs had a legal right, but more importantly a moral right, to make their own choice about involvement in the mass killing we call war, and to do so without penalty.

Certainly, any comparison between the COs and today’s vaccine sceptics breaks down pretty quickly when the controlling hand of anti-vax is that of far-right groups who dress up their conspiracy theories as ‘critical thinking’ for a concealed, anti-social agenda. But most of the people who’ve explained their doubts to me have weighed the matter thoughtfully and come to a considered, indeed conscientious, view. They might be wrong, but they haven’t been unreasonable, which is the most that can be said for any of us.

One or two of my friends have said simply that their bodies are telling them not to take the vaccine. Our almost religiously rationalistic society tends to dismiss arguments from intuition, but the alternative is no better. It is to insist that our bodies aren’t worth listening to, which is hardly a prescription for health, either of an individual or a society.

At least, I see no argument here to deny vaccine sceptics their rights to, for example, work or health care, as one commentator proposed recently.

This, too, reminds me of how WWI COs were treated, as they were first made to explain themselves before a hand-picked cabal of local worthies, and then were stripped of their rights as they were conscripted anyway or thrown in jail.

Contrast this with the many thousands of people who fell into line with the war system, none of whom was expected to present their position as any kind of conscientious choice at all. Today, too, those of us taking the vaccine get a free pass on having to explain ourselves, though I wonder how many of us could make a nuanced immunological case for it.

There isn’t really a pragmatic case to make either. The British government didn’t need its COs to fight in Flanders – it was just worried what would happen if their ideas caught on. And not everyone in the world needs to take the vaccine for the population to reach ‘herd immunity’. Today’s vaccine sceptics will no sooner cause a public health calamity than yesterday’s conscientious objectors would scupper their government’s war plans.

Even if we did ‘need everyone’ to take the vaccine, would it be the sceptics’ fault that they remained unconvinced? Why blame them, when the mainstream media is saturated with lies, fostering a climate of mistrust – typically with the purpose of propping up government policies that, unlike the vaccine rollout, deserve to collapse. No wonder so many people doubt the official vaccine messaging. But even were we to live in some kind of ideal democratic conditions, who would expect every person to agree? Who would even want that? I for one would not want to live in that kind of society.

Instead, a morbid fear of dissent – and therefore of the public – means anti-vax messages get censored. Make the case, have the conversation, allow difference – that’s how a true democracy would work. If the sceptics are that wrong, isn’t it enough just to say why? What gets censored next? What kind of thought does the public interest require us not to think next?

I’m happy to make a qualified case for the vaccine, or to have my mind changed about it. Meanwhile, I think again of the COs in front of their tribunals. I think of the people they faced, pretty much every one of them an ‘upstanding citizen’ appointed for their patriotic belief in the government’s war. I wonder whether, had I been one of them, I too would have condemned the objectors standing in front of me. I don’t know. But I hope that even if I’d remained unconvinced by their position, I’d still find room in my world for their thoughtful dissent.

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