Should the unvaccinated be left behind — if their stupidity isn’t their fault?

By Bernard Keane

Thursday August 5, 2021

An anti-vaccination rally in Sydney, Saturday, February 20, 2021.
An anti-vaccination rally in Sydney, Saturday, February 20, 2021. (AAP Image/Steven Saphore)

What are we to make of Australians who don’t want to be vaccinated? Do we leave them behind, reopen our society and watch them grow ill and, in some cases, die, concluding that it’s their fault?

“Absolutely” is probably what many readers are thinking.

Essential Report has been tracking vaccine resistance for some time — its most recent poll, just a fortnight ago, found 11% of respondents saying they’d never get vaccinated — a figure consistent with the numbers from before the rollout commenced. In recent months, the never-vaxxers spiked to around 16%, but the recent lockdowns appear to have scared the hesitant out of that camp.

But what remains is probably a solid core of people who for a variety of reasons are much more likely to refuse to vaccinate than the merely vaccine hesitant — wingnut anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, freedom-loving horse-punchers, religious zealots.

It’s not as bad as the United States, where 25-30% of people say they will not get vaccinated, which is high enough to prevent that country from reaching herd immunity. With a 10% refusal rate here, we should still be able to reach the kind of milestones experts are talking about — 80%, in the case of the Grattan Institute’s latest report. But any further blows to the image of the major vaccines available might endanger that.

Most likely the view of the vaccinated toward the unvaccinated is that if they’re stupid enough to refuse a vaccine, that’s their problem — and certainly that a refusal of 10% of the population to get a jab shouldn’t slow down the reopening of our borders and moving beyond lockdowns.

The result will be what we’re seeing in the United States, where nearly all COVID cases and deaths are among the unvaccinated; the latter still total several hundred a day. In Australia, with herd immunity, the unvaccinated might be able to get a free ride with the virus being suppressed, but there’ll be no lockdown if it breaks out. In that case, it will still place a significant burden on the hospital system, potentially with flow-on impacts on the vaccinated who needs health services for other problems.

Unlike smokers, who fully cover the costs of the extra burden they place on the health system through tobacco excise, the unvaccinated won’t be offsetting the additional costs they’ll impose, despite it being the product of the choice they have made. But there are plenty of other people who impose costs on the health system through their own poor choices, so singling out the unvaccinated is inconsistent.

But if COVID becomes a disease of the unvaccinated here, as it is in the US, it should sharpen our focus on what drives anti-vaccination sentiment, and what our moral stance is toward those who choose not to protect themselves. It’s a separate issue from those who refuse to vaccinate their children — that’s straight child abuse, motivated by crackpot anti-science, conspiracy theories and a bullshit belief that some of the world’s most dangerous diseases are gentle, loving caresses by Mother Nature. Society is justified in undertaking policies to reduce that abuse.

And as we saw in the lockdown protests last weekend, there’s more than simple(-minded) anti-vax sentiment at work here. Opposition to vaccination has become a tribal marker, an ideological invocation of freedom and a product of often-lurid conspiracy theories. Many of those holding such beliefs have been driven there by the kind of stresses and pressures that have created the polarised, populist political environment that exists across the world, though fortunately to a lesser extent here in Australia.

Those pressures are a highly individualist and precarious economic environment that leaves people without the certainties of community support or the comfort of a meaningful economic identity, but the conviction that they’re being exploited by those who benefit from the new globalised economy.

If we adopt the view that the unvaccinated have earned whatever consequence results from their stupidity and society should revert to normal regardless of the risk to them, we’re applying exactly the logic of an individualist and precarious economic system that helped create the problem in the first place — and perhaps adding to the polarisation and sense of tribal grievance of the unvaccinated.

On the other hand, no rational society can allow itself to be held hostage by a small minority of crackpots and paranoiacs willing to defy science.

It’s a grim dilemma, with no answers except a long-term effort to reverse the malignant consequences of neoliberal policymaking and restore a degree of economic certainty and community connection beyond straight tribalism. In the meantime, the unvaccinated will pay a price that many of us think is wholly deserved.

This article is curated from our sister publication Crikey.


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