Freedumb—noun/1. The belief that your personal freedom outweighs others’ personal safety.
Ever get the feeling we’re living in an experiment designed to showcase the worst of humanity? One in which the addition of each new existential crisis reveals a hidden layer of lunatic idiocy? Me, too.
With climate change deniers and their laughable claims of how scientists (tens of thousands, apparently) conspired to invent this issue (to what inexplicable end, none offers); with habitat-loss driving a biodiversity and extinction crisis it’s the fishing-/logging-/cattle-/oil-feeds-my-family crowd who claim their rapacious means as valid excuse to continue humanity’s suicide mission; and with issues of equality or global development all manner of anti-immigrant, white-supremacist, first-world entitlement rise to the fore. That these groups all represent identifiable conservative voting blocs is no secret. It’s likewise no secret that the current pandemic has precipitated similar conservative effrontery at every turn—anti-support, anti-lockdown, anti-science, anti-mask, anti-vax and now, anti-immunization record/certificate/passport. Indeed, each of the crises listed above have been significantly (and sadly for the rest of us) exacerbated by the actions (or inactions) of conservatives.
Though this provides food for thought during an election, it’s not the only point of this column.
Oddly, the usual fringe conservative factions have been joined during the pandemic by a noticeable scatter of science-ignorant, conspiracy-spouting, freedumb-fighting nutjobs of uncertain political affinity. At least on everything but the issue of support (sidenote: shame on all the ungrateful, hypocritical recipients of CERB/CEWS who happily gobble up society’s largesse but refuse to do their part). Which brings us to the unruly, Trumpian mobs that, with help from a complicit mainstream media, have made themselves the story of this election.
Writing in the Toronto Star on how the conservative approach to vaccines will only prolong the pandemic, Supriya Dwivedi noted how Canadians were treated to “a sickening display” of “selfish and scientifically illiterate” anti-vax protestors physically blocking hospitals and accosting patients and healthcare workers. Of course, you can bet your retirement that many of those protesting on the premise of “our bodies, our choice” (which, BTW, no one is arguing) are the same folks who stalk women outside abortion clinics brandishing signs that parse: “how dare you choose what to do with your body if it goes against my personal religious morals.” (To many conservatives, wearing a mask might be a personal choice but women’s healthcare should be controlled by the government—as we saw with the Texas ban on abortions last week.)
People clearly have a legal right to bodily autonomy, but nobody has a legal right to put other people’s health and well-being in jeopardy. While remaining unvaccinated is a personal choice, it’s a path of perpetual reckless endangerment to family, friends and fellow citizens: while none of your rights are infringed upon, you ignore the rights of others to reasonable comfort and safety. Not everything is a right. Travel outside the country, for example, is a privilege defined by basic requirements: a passport and/or visa, as well as, in some cases, numerous vaccinations. As globalization progresses, these requirements have only become more stringent—particularly around disease. The fact that movement within your country might be subject to similar embargos during a massive public health crisis should come as no surprise. In proposing mandatory vaccinations for domestic air and rail travel, the Liberal government, with no need to appease the anti-vax vote like the Conservatives, sent a clear message on public safety that will invariably increase vaccination uptake.
After Ontario declared its own vaccine passport, for instance, bookings on the provincial system doubled, nearly half of which were for a first dose—proof that mandates work. Not lotteries or bribes (Yeah ha! Alberta). Mandates. Period. Why? Because, ironically, there’s no better way to a freedumb fighter’s heart than the spectre of exclusion. The Alberta UCP’s $100 vaccine bribery scheme, on the other hand, is neither carrot nor stick—just another slap in the face to the already vaccinated. Eyeing a seething mass of protesters outside a Calgary hospital, one can’t help think how Premier Jason Kenney committed $103,350,000 to “incentivize” these unvaccinated clowns, but is also asking nurses inside that hospital to take a five-per-cent wage cut to pay for it. This is the face of conservative desperation and pandering to the lowest of low bases. Indeed, after new provincial restrictions were announced that included 10 p.m. bar closings, a rodeo in Alberta got an exception to keep its beer gardens open until 2 a.m.—the very rural faction whose refusal to mask or be vaccinated under the risible guise of preserving “freedom” largely led to the new impositions.
Human rights lawyers have outlined how vaccine requirements in schools and other institutions not only don’t infringe on anyone’s rights, but actually enable the vulnerable to participate more fully. Dr. Steven Fedder, an emergency room doctor in Richmond, was widely quoted when he expressed waning patience with people whose anti-vax stance has larger societal implications. “I think it’s the ultimate selfishness that individuals choose not to vaccinate themselves.”
An example, albeit from the U.S.: on Sept. 2, the number of COVID-19 cases at Virginia universities lined up like this: Virginia Commonwealth University: 31 students; University of Virginia: 72; Virginia Tech: 35; and Liberty, a small, private Evangelical institution full of the unvaccinated, a whopping 430—a bona fide public health disaster.
If you need a refresher on the longstanding role and success of vaccines, read “Simply put: Vaccination saves lives,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. Scanning the stats, there’s a good chance many of us are alive because of vaccinations received as a child or for travelling. Their positive impacts on mortality rates, longevity, general health and the global economy are far-reaching. Much of human progress in all these areas is owed to 20th-century disease prevention by vaccines.
Let’s be clear: people who choose not to get vaccinated are choosing not to participate in ending the pandemic; they have abdicated social responsibility to become part of the problem. Insisting on vaguely formulated “rights” without acknowledging your responsibilities isn’t freedom, it’s adolescence.
Leslie Anthony is a scientist and author who enjoys connecting the dots to reverse political and media spin.