If we’re going to achieve herd immunity against Covid-19 in all its variants, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ll need to impose vaccine mandates. But the details matter. I argue we should use existing systems that already mandate other vaccines, rather than trying to create new ones.
In a few weeks I’ll be required to go back to the office at least part time, and to be honest, I’m mostly thrilled. I’m dreading the commute, but I get to sit on the 11th floor of a short tower (12 stories), in a nice space where I can host undergraduates, overlooking the Mississippi. I miss my students. And Covid rates in Minnesota aren’t bad. We’re over 70% vaccinated in the Twin Cities, on the other hand, the Delta Variant looks like it’s beginning to push up the numbers.
At my university the president has repeatedly refused to mandate vaccination for staff, faculty, and students in the Fall. Moreover, I am also forbidden from requiring masking in my office, even though I won’t be able to know if someone is vaccinated. I know one faculty member who has already shifted back to online teaching in order to protect their young, unvaccinated, children. I know one staff member who also has young children, but isn’t allowed to work 100% remote. As always, the pandemic takes pre-existing inequities (small scale like academic work hierarchies, large scale like the massive intersecting oppressive forces of race, class, gender, and disability) and wrenches those fissures even further apart.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I am deeply skeptical of “vaccine passports” that permit private businesses to determine whether the people entering their stores are vaccinated or not. The civil liberties and privacy implications trouble me, but I also don’t think we have to do that. Employers already have systems to verify private health information, so employers can mandate vaccines. Schools at all levels, including higher ed, have vaccine requirements already on the books, and adding Covid-19 vaccines can take advantage of those existing systems. They should be deployed at once.
There’s good data that mandates are part of the equation for raising vaccine rates. The Kaiser Family Foundation has been tracking sentiment about vaccines for months, and recently published a collection of findings. They found that among those hesitant about the vaccine, seeing family and friends get vaccinated safely made a difference (yes, we have a billion doses or so with data, but people make decisions by anecdote), but also, “One of the most common responses among the more vaccine resistant group who have received a vaccine were about getting vaccinated in order to travel or being required to due to a job.” In other words, people who are resistant are persuaded not only by personal contact, but being told they have to take the jab if they want to do the thing!
This is fine. I’m a big believer in bodily autonomy as a core principle for the left, and wrote one of my favorite essays of my career on the topic for The Nation back in 2017, arguing, “I’ve been seeking ways to link my core issues [like disability rights] to those of other groups — people who prioritize reproductive justice, racial justice, decriminalization of narcotics, queer rights, antipoverty measures, and so much more. Each of us exists at specific intersections of needs and concerns. To win, we must find ways to unite our struggles without erasing our differences. One place they connect: the need to defend bodily autonomy.”
So how does that work in conjunction with my desire to see vaccine mandates? I argue that the government cannot forcibly inject medicine into your body, but that you don’t have the right to carry a disease into a public space when easy and ample opportunity to protect the bodies of others exist. As I tweeted the other day, the state may say that if you choose to be unvaccinated (without medical exemption — those are the folks who herd immunity shields), you are also choosing to stay home. You don’t get to both refuse the vaccine and demand to go to in-person school, college, work, church. The right to stay unvaccinated does not trump the right of others to keep your potentially covid carrying body out of their classroom.
Over the course of the last year, I’ ve been optimistic about both endorsements and bribes. Neither has done the job in the face of the disinformation and fear campaign launched against the vaccine from the American right. So that brings us to mandates.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past 18 months (seriously, it was pretty obvious from the start), it’s that hoping this virus will go away on it’s own is magical thinking. When cases start to go up, they keep going up until we change something. Lockdowns worked last year, but only after so many lives were lost that might have been saved, so many people acquired Long Covid, so much suffering. In April, surging vaccinations worked in my state to quash a nascent wave. But now the Delta variant, or whatever comes next, is surging.
We can see it coming. We could take proactive steps. Maybe this time …
A few notes:
Vaccine mandates will get legally easier when the FDA approves the vaccines (As opposed to the current emergency approval). But a federal judge also just upheld Indiana University’s vaccine mandate, so it feels like we could move faster.