As we approach the nearly two year mark since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am shocked by my fellow citizen’s zeal in pouring cruelty, contempt, and derision on others. Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked. Cruelty after all is the merging of joy and anger and its expression gives a deep sense of satisfaction to so many, especially when there is political hay to make.
The Covid vaccines are amazing. People should get them. The evidence shows overwhelmingly that they prevent serious illness and death, especially among the vulnerable. What the evidence also shows is that the vaccines are not particularly effective at preventing transmission. After a relatively short period of time, measured in months after full vaccination, waning immunity allows for substantial transmission even though the vaccines remain highly effective at preventing serious illness. In short, the vaccines work amazingly well on the most important dimension.
The logic behind vaccine mandates rests on the idea of spillover effects. For vaccines that interrupt transmission, known as sterilizing, your vaccinated neighbours confer protection on you. Vaccines with a sterilizing property create what economists call an externality – the problem that gains based on private decision making alone do not capture the full benefit to society. In such circumstances there is a compelling argument for some level of state coercion to force people to adjust their behaviour. It’s ugly but sometimes necessary. For me to be on board, I have to see that violence or the threat of violence is absolutely necessary to achieve actual consequences which pass a cost benefit test with flying colours. Solzhenitsyn warned us that unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.
Across Canada people who choose not to get vaccinated stand in front of the pointy end of the state’s monopoly on violence. Some are losing their livelihoods, and all are restricted from full participation in society. Perhaps that level of violence could easily be justified if the vaccines were sufficiently sterilizing, but we know they are not. The vast majority of the benefit from receiving the vaccine accrues to the person who receives it. It’s hard to make the case for coercion in these circumstances.
Whatever one might think of the vaccine hesitant or resistant, these people have the courage of their convictions. I think they are mistaken, but they are clearly not cowards, they are not hypocrites or virtue signallers. Is there any principle in your own life that you believe in so strongly that you would be willing to sacrifice your livelihood, your career, and your social standing? If I’m honest with myself, I don’t know if I’m that brave. Few are.
Even if you come down on the side of vaccine mandates, that despite the small and diminishing spillover effect that the vaccines confer, you still believe that coercion is worth it, we should all show more compassion and understanding with the vaccine hesitant and resistant. We should use our monopoly on violence with great reluctance, with great sadness, and with as much empathy as we can give. I don’t see compassion in my fellow citizen or in the approach used by our politicians and leaders. I see contempt and cruelty applied with alacrity to those who won’t get vaccinated. It makes me sad to see how ugly we are. I guess Solzhenitsyn was right, evil really does pass through every human heart.
Update: January 1, 2022
Contempt and cruelty applied with alacrity.