Not Getting Vaccinated Isn’t Freedom

By rejecting vaccination, you choose to make millions less free.
By rejecting vaccination, you choose to make millions less free. Photo by Daniel Paquet via Flickr
When discussing things with the vaccine-hesitant, there are several different tracks that the conversation can take. One is where it devolves into a conversation about freedom, sometimes even appropriating the language of the pro-choice movement with “my body, my choice.”

This is very frustrating because willfully choosing to not get vaccinated is actively oppressing other people. It’s a personal choice to literally make others have less freedom.

The problem has always been that this discussion is put in terms of individualism. People see this as the government or other entities making them do something they don’t want to do. On a very narrow spectrum, it’s a black and white example of liberty versus tyranny.

Except, plague is not something that can be contained within individual choice by its very nature. Pandemics do not respect personal beliefs, choices, boundaries, or ideology. It is the ultimate egalitarian, and nothing can ever be strong enough to make COVID a matter of individualism. It happens to us through participation in society, and the behavior of other people is always a factor.

In the 1960s, rubella was a public health crisis because its unchecked spread led to huge numbers of miscarriages and birth defects. People questioned the vaccine then, as well, and in doing so they often made the choice whether their neighbor's pregnancy would be a blessing or a tragedy. "My body my choice" just doesn't apply to communicable disease unless you take yourself into the wilderness to live like a hermit. 

In any population, there will be people who either cannot get vaccinated because of a history of severe medical reactions or for whom the vaccine is less or ineffective. This happens even in healthy people, but the more common group is those who are immunocompromised. People on immunosuppressors, those going through chemotherapy, and HIV/AIDS patients are just a few of the kinds of people who remain in grave danger from COVID.

They rely on herd immunity to both survive and participate in society. The estimates vary, but most experts believe that we need to get to roughly 80 percent of the population vaccinated in order to achieve that goal. Doing so forms a bulwark where the disease has so few places to go that it never gets the chance to mutate and change form. Because of the mutability and contagious nature of COVID, that wall must be high and strong and with as few holes as possible. Part of the reason that the fight against the plague continues even with vaccines on the market is because variants are being spawned in sub-populations. Those then spread, and the current vaccines’ effectiveness against them is always a crapshoot. That’s why we have to get a new flu shot every year.

It’s easy to look at our current vaccination rate (34.4 percent) and think “well, that’s pretty good. They don’t need me, and I have a choice!” Unfortunately, that’s just not true. We need to at least double that number. Otherwise, we are condemning millions of Americans to less freedom.

Should immunocompromised people have to live in lockdown forever, never to go bowling or out to dinner or to the movies? Should those getting chemotherapy make their fight even harder by living as shut-ins? Do HIV/AIDS patients deserve even more marginalization than they already get?

These aren’t sick people at death’s door. They’re your teachers and nurses and food service workers and all the other heroes we were honking for. They’re Americans who deserve to see a normal life again, not some new paradigm where we just live with death around the corner at all times. That’s not freedom. That’s hostile occupation.

And I know the rebuttal argument will be, “so I should trade my freedom for theirs,” but it’s not that simplistic. One is the freedom to not endure a minute amount of pain and maybe have to call in sick the next day as you deal with symptoms. The other is the tyranny of isolation, house arrest, and possibly poverty if employers don’t require vaccinations among their staff. A world that does not reach herd immunity is condemning vulnerable people to a modicum of the American promise of liberty.

Freedom is not something you prove by doing (or in this case not doing) things just because you can. That’s a child’s reasoning, and it’s not in and of itself a justification for any action. A responsible patriot would look at the “free world” and judge what the relative level of liberty in that world is. Refusing vaccination is a transactional choice that actively builds prison walls around fellow Americans at the expense of… what? The heady rush of self-determination that comes from not listening to government scientists? Would you get the same star-spangled jolly feeling from ignoring the weatherman when the next hurricane comes through the Gulf?

Living in a society will always require us to do things we’d rather not do, whether it’s going to jail for crimes or properly disposing of old engine oil. Power generators in Texas didn’t feel they should be made to spend their money winterizing the grid, and in doing so made an awful lot of choices about our freedoms this past February. Liberty is not an automatic Ace of Spades. Right now the choice is between the freedom of people deciding to not get vaccinated, in some cases just because they don’t like being told what to do, and the freedom of millions to just exist without threat of extinction. Either way, someone is losing a freedom. I dearly hope that good people can decide which is truly empowering the world and which is putting it in bondage for selfish reasons.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner