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Democracy’s weakness in the face of Covid-19

Wednesday, 01 September 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Credit: Belga

The current situation in advanced democracies in the world is absurd. While less than 2% of the population in low income countries has received at least one dose, in most rich countries vaccination rates have stunted, with 20–40% of the population still hesitant or clearly refusing to get the shot.

Vaccine hesitancy or rejection is repeatedly explained by more or less preposterous ideas, all of which have in common the fact that they disavow scientific evidence. Even if vaccines do not offer 100% protection against the virus, they significantly reduce the chances of getting it. The fact the pandemic is not over in advanced liberal democracies is mainly explained by the reluctance of this 20–40% of the population to vaccinate.

As the new COVID variants cause cases to spike again, with a few exceptions like France, democratic governments continue their light handed efforts to convince the skeptics to get the shot. But the effectiveness of persuasion, as the statistics show, has reached a ceiling and even the most ambitious incentive programs to encourage vaccination have failed.

For those who argue against mandating vaccination because it violates personal freedom, the core counter argument is simple. One person’s freedom ends where another’s begins. Not vaccinating is a choice that transgresses other people’s freedom. The less people are vaccinated, the more the virus circulates. The more the virus circulates, the more people get infected. As a result, the unvaccinated not only put themselves at risk, but everyone else too. Not vaccinating is thus equivalent to driving drunk.

The data in the US is evidence of this. Of the 10 states currently having more cases per 100,000 inhabitants, 9 have less than 50% of the population fully vaccinated. Not mandating or enacting coercive measures to oblige citizens to vaccinate equals not prohibiting drunk driving, while asking those driving sober to do it more carefully (i.e. wear masks, keep social distance, not gather in large groups…) or to avoid doing it at all (i.e. confinement).

If a mandate seems excessive for democratic leaders, the French government’s blueprint* of coercive measures is a good starting point. Requiring a sanitary pass to access most indoor public venues and charging for PCR testing will make life extremely difficult, and costly, for those who refuse to take the shot. However, the results of the French experiment are still to be seen and there are already counterfeit sanitary passes in offer.

In the face of democratic governments’ inaction, businesses are having to step in and enforce vaccination themselves. In the United States, companies like Google, Disney, Walmart and Chevron have already mandates in place. Similarly, autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Russia have rolled mandatory vaccination. It should not come as a surprise that other authoritarian regimes follow suit. If liberal democracy wants to halt the steep decline it has undergone in the last 10 years, it needs to be more pragmatic and resolute when the circumstances require it.

*The result of the French government’s measures can not be judged today as several of its mandates have not been enforced yet.