Let’s talk about vaccination. I’ll try to be first in line to get my COVID shot whenever my cohort is called. Most anti-vaxxers idiotically parrot disproved claims. But anti-vaxxers should have freedom to speak, even on social media; what they should not have is the freedom to endanger others.
Free speech is essential to democracy; no one can be trusted to be the censor. Freedom of action, however, is not guaranteed. We must pay our taxes; we used to have to do military service; we aren’t allowed to drink and drive. Our freedom comes from our right to elect the people who make the laws, not from universal license to do whatever the hell we please.
Some reluctance to allow debate comes from the fear that individuals will make the “wrong” decision. That fear goes away if, after public debate and legislation, certain actions are mandated. The only reason we need to fear a minority being “wrong” is if the minority is free to act on its own misconception and that action puts others at risk. We don’t need to be unanimous in order to enact a mandate. If we don’t need unanimity, then we don’t have to take police-state like actions to suppress dissent.
It is reasonable to be skeptical about whether corners were cut in the ultrafast development of the new vaccines. Certainly some red tape was eliminated; did some needed oversight also get cut? That skepticism has apparently led to a very careful (although very quick) process. As the vaccines are rolled out, we don’t want to stop looking for both possible side effects and ways to make them safer and more effective. We may find that there are some large groups of people who shouldn’t take them. Someone who sounds like a quack may actually find a problem. Debate must continue.
The pandemic and its consequences for both health and the economy must be stopped. Right now, with vaccines in short supply, the argument is who should get them first; obviously a good question with no simple answer. But, once we have had more experience with the vaccines and sufficient doses are available, the argument will switch to should vaccination be compulsory (with a medical exception) as many vaccines have been in the past. The answer depends on the course of the pandemic but may well be “yes”.
The sooner the infection rate goes down, the faster the economy can open back up. Under what circumstances should vaccination be required? Should vaccination be required for entry into the US? Almost certainly “yes”; it will be for other countries as well. Should vaccination be required for air travel? Should vaccination be required for school as many vaccinations were when I was young? What about just for going to a restaurant? Should hotels and resorts be allowed to require vaccination certificates and advertise that requirement as a way of luring customers back? What about those who would not be able to tolerate the vaccination (it is for their protection that we need enough other takers for herd immunity).
These are all questions we must debate – without censorship. It will not damage our democracy to have laws passed which require vaccination for some or all activities. It will be damaging, however, if these requirements come from executive proclamations (which are appropriate only in emergencies); legislators both at the state level and nationally must get off their butts to protect democracy by actually going on record for what needs to be done. It will be near fatal to democracy and bad for science if we ban or even try to suppress discussion (even discussion we think is misinformation), especially when mandatory measures are being considered.
We cannot be afraid of either open debate or mandates if we want to live in a healthy democracy.
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