Vetter: The case for a national vaccine mandate

Milo Vetter, Staff Writer

As Omicron surges and we all retreat to our dorm rooms once again, I imagine that most of us are feeling apathetic, exhausted or even bitter about the pandemic. This situation has now dragged on for two years, all the while interfering with our ability to live normally. Part of what makes COVID-19 so infuriating is that a great deal of the death and suffering it has caused was completely unnecessary. We can attribute much of the disease’s spread to those who chose not to get vaccinated. Even though the vaccines do not currently seem to be preventing infections very well, the unvaccinated are still far more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. Ever since the supply of vaccines outstripped the demand, there has been a lingering question of enacting a vaccine mandate on the grounds that the implementation of one would be extremely effective at reducing cases of COVID-19 and deaths.

However, this proposition has been met with staunch opposition, and not just by anti-vaxxers. In fact, many liberals and conservatives alike are both pro-vaccine and anti-mandate at the same time. The main argument they share is rooted in the uniquely American emphasis on personal freedom; the freedom to choose whether or not to get vaccinated is valuable to many. I strongly disagree with this argument, but I need to discuss the motivations for legislation of action to show you why.

In a non-authoritarian free society, governments generally follow a simple rule when telling people what they can and can’t do. That rule is that an action that causes harm to others is wrong. Here’s an example: hitting yourself in the head with a hammer on purpose would be extremely dangerous and stupid, yet not illegal. But as soon as you do it to a different person, you could easily have charges pressed against you. This rule is pretty good at understanding the types of laws that a government might pass that reduce freedoms. After all, passing a law making it illegal to assault someone takes away your freedom to assault people.

Now, there are exceptions to this general rule, such as laws requiring drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts. In this case, the line between personal harm and harm to others is blurred. If everyone stopped wearing seatbelts, the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to car crashes would immediately skyrocket. Because of this, seatbelts have become normalized due to their low cost and convenience of use.

And now, we can suddenly see a parallel. Vaccines are analogous to seatbelts in that they cost little, are convenient and cause massive social harm if they aren’t adopted widely. A significant portion of our population remains unvaccinated, causing demonstrable social damage. They are facilitating the spread of COVID-19 and also causing unnecessary stress on our medical system. This stress also manifests in multiple ways, ranging from the raw cost of treating so many people, the mental cost from overworking of medical staff and the cost of precious time as other hospital services, such as emergency services and cancer treatments, are delayed. In the face of this level of social harm, a vaccine mandate would certainly fit the general rule of legislation previously laid out.

Some may object to the analogy of vaccines to seatbelts because vaccines are much more complicated and involve more complex decision-making. This is because anti-vaxxers have tried (successfully, in part) to reframe the decision to get vaccinated as a difficult one over the past two years. Many feel as if they must carefully weigh the pros and cons of vaccination. However, there are no cons to vaccination except for a brief and usually mild immune response, a minuscule chance of an allergic reaction and some very rare health problems. There is no rational reason not to get vaccinated if one doesn’t have these rare conditions.

We already mandate other vaccines, since public schools do not allow admission if a child is not up to date on their immunizations. And yet there’s rarely a discussion over whether those vaccinations should be mandatory. It seems that the only reason we object to COVID-19 vaccinations is that they’re new and scary.

Finally, there is a major argument against vaccine mandates that I have not yet addressed. Supposedly, a vaccine mandate sets a dangerous precedent that could be abused in the future. If a bad actor has the precedent to mandate a vaccine, they could use it to mandate things like sterilization or a massive increase in government surveillance. The people who make this argument have their heart in the right place. However, while valued by leaders who truly care about their people, precedent would be irrelevant to a leader so corrupt that they would consider something like mass sterilization. Consider the horrible actions of, say, Joseph Stalin. If you asked him why he was taking completely unprecedented action to affect the citizens of the Soviet Union, he’d probably laugh in your face (before sending you to a gulag). Regardless, while there could be a harmful precedent set, the benefits of a vaccine mandate would outweigh the risks (which, as I’ve pointed out, aren’t nearly as relevant as most would assume).

Considering that 98% of the students at Case Western Reserve University are fully vaccinated, I’m willing to bet that most of the readers of this article are at least a little bit frustrated with the unvaccinated population. A vaccine mandate is our chance to channel that frustration into serious, tangible social good. Our collective fight against COVID-19 is an extremely difficult one, and vaccines are the closest thing to a silver bullet we’re going to get; so why must we continue to handicap ourselves in that fight by refusing to take drastic but reasonable action to protect our collective health?