Vaccination and rights

If we take into account that lack of vaccination reduces the possibility of achieving herd immunity, while the virus is reproducing and mutating, the right not to be vaccinated is irrational.

By Nikos Mouzelis*

In the social sciences, as regards knowledge, there is no universality. No theory that ignores the social framework is persuasive. Every generalisation that ignores that framework is commonplace.
I will try to clarify this position using vaccination as an example. Thinking citizens everywhere consider the pandemic am “invisible enemy” that endangers everyone’s health. Often, the COVID-19 virus leads to death.

In other words, it is an emergency situation comparable to war, a condition in which certain rights are limited or abolished. For example, when a country is destroyed or subjugated, the reaction is a general mobilisation in which all individuals who are eligible to serve are drafted by the army to go to war.

In Greece, a large segment of the population believe they have the right not to be vaccinated, some due to excessive fear of the possible side-effects of the vaccines, some due to obscurantism, some because they detest learning, and others because they are victims of conspiracy theories.

The New Democracy government chose a strategy of persuasion. It tolerated even doctors and healthcare workers not getting the SARS-Co-V-2 vaccine. An “authoritarian” compulsory vaccination was viewed as a violation of every citizen’s right to refuse it.

As Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, “I cannot grab anyone by the neck to make vaccination compulsory (Kathimerini, 4 July). This stance led to an increase in COVID-19 cases and more deaths.

After months of delaying, the government decided to impose mandatory vaccination for doctors and healthcare workers and employees at old age homes.

That measure was decided belatedly and it is insufficient.

Naturally, the same issue has preoccupied most countries in the Western world. Some countries – such as Italy and then France initially – took similar initiatives earlier.

Some maintained that compulsory vaccination is unconstitutional. Others disagreed. Fortunately, the Council of State ruled recently that for reasons of public interest, for certain categories of workers (healthcare workers, employees at schools and mass transit and so forth) vaccination should be mandatory.

The European Court of Human Rights in a sweeping decision ruled that compulsory vaccination of the population does not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Despite all that, for the time being a radical policy of vaccinating everyone is not under serious discussion. That demonstrates the degree to which the right not to be vaccinated is still considered inviolable.

That stance, however, strips a vaccinated citizen of the right to protect his or her health from unvaccinated people who are indifferent to the serious consequences of their behaviour. It overlooks the fact that, as Kant said, a person’s liberty ends where the border of another individual’s begins.

Moreover, if we take into account that lack of vaccination reduces the possibility of achieving herd immunity, while the virus is reproducing and mutating, the right not to be vaccinated is irrational.

In other words, in this case there is no right, but rather the duty/obligation of a citizen to be vaccinated.

Therefore, the absence of compulsory, universal vaccination is either the result of the political cost that governments do not want to shoulder (in Greece and in other countries of the Western world) or it derives from an established view that rights in modern societies are unconditional – or both.

Undoubtedly, issues of conscience are complex. However, as I suggested in the beginning, no social act can be understood outside the framework in which it takes place.

The current pandemic is an emergency situation in which the liberty of scepticists or of vaccine deniers is an act against the life of all others.

That cannot be tolerated.

*Nikos Mouzelis is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at LSE

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